if justice is blind... Sua Sponte
My law school odyssey: three years, three time zones and beyond.


and the circle is complete

you may call me Squire.

Thank you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Thank you.

thus spake /jca @ 5:35 PM...


Tomorrow my clerkship begins, which means that today is truly the last day of my law school odyssey. I will go to sleep an adventurer and wake up an ordinary working stiff, and this whole saga -- melodramatic and exhausting and ungodly long -- will be concluded. Full stop.

There were so few of us at the beginning: JuBu, Jeremy, WT, me, Mellow-Drama at blogspot, and Omer's original weblog. (I think those are the only survivors. Did I forget anyone?) A few advanced souls started at the same time as we did, but we were the first 1L class to blog. By the time we were 2Ls, the act of keeping a law school journal in public had caught on, and by 3L year everyone and their brother was doing it. But we were there in 2002 -- the first crew of 1Ls to conclude that the full catalogue of our law school experiences, from prelaw through the bar exam, were worth sharing with the Internets(tm).

I think we'd all agree that it was worth it. If you're considering keeping a weblog during law school, do. This may be the last time in your professional career that you can blog about same with impunity. And a blog can introduce you to some of the most priceless people you'll ever need to know in law school. Without Sua Sponte, I never would have met some of my greatest mentors and advisors. I wouldn't have written on to law review. I almost certainly would have failed in my quest to transfer schools. And at times when everyone and everything in my life felt alienating, without Sua Sponte I would have been a lot lonelier.

I'll leave the archives up, in case there's anything to be learned from them (aside from St. Daniel's Pennoyer v. Neff catechism). If you're wondering about anything here, you can always email me. If you took a bar exam this summer, I'll be sending waves that you passed. And if you've ever given me advice, alcohol, or any other form of support, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Parting thoughts:

Goodbye is never final; people invariably meet up again, where you least expect it.
There's always someplace where you can eat well.
Only if it'll still be worth it ten years from now.
Anything is possible with work and luck enough.
A good decision feels like one.
Try again. There's probably a way.
The prize is in your head.
No regrets.
Be happy.
Be happy.
Be happy.

thus spake /jca @ 10:43 AM...


final thoughts on: work and vacation

It is starting to dawn on me that I'm going back to work this week. Not just a summer job, an externship, or any other short-term engagement that will conclude upon my return to school. This is real, honest-to-pete full-time employment. The kind of work you do when there's no more school to return to.

I think I'm ready.

This month has been the first vacation I've had in years. Imagine it: an entire August with absolutely nothing left on my worry-dar, nothing demanding any of my mental bandwidth, nothing whatsoever to do except whatever the hell I felt like doing. I could take a week and gad about eastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey with my relatives if I wanted to. I could spend hours on end brain-dumping massive blocks of text onto my weblog. I could drink an entire bottle of wine in one evening while watching Hayao Miyazaki movies with my husband -- all with impunity.

It's been blissful. I think this is the definition I was aiming for, back last summer when Sua Sponte played host to the old vacation debate. Vacation, I'd submit, is not just being in control of your time or your labors. It's that plus an additional degree of freedom: having both the right and the opportunity to control whether you need to do something. On vacation you can either pick up the to-do list or walk away and forget about it. But there's nothing hanging over your head, nothing that has to get done without your consent.

This psychological liberty is key. This was the reason why I found myself unable to treat school as a vacation: there was always something needing done, every little thing mattered, and the whole experience was a one-shot deal. I went out of my way to seek out as many second chances as I could find -- transferring schools, writing on to law review, getting into my clinic off of a waitlist. Even so, taken as a whole, law school was my one and only chance to have the law school experience I wanted. If I screwed this one up, I'd be stuck with the fruits of my screwup. But if I got it right, the benefits would keep for the rest of my life.

Work has never been like that for me. I can't say that I've never gotten in over my head; it's entirely too easy for a personality like mine to get invested in my job. Of course there have been times when I failed to wipe my feet. (Once I even sleepwalked due to work stress. No kidding.) But no matter how much I found myself growing attached to my outcomes, there was never an exclusivity problem. You weren't banned from gainful employment if something went wrong. There was always another job, another way to succeed professionally if this turned out to be the wrong path. There was always more than one chance to do something right.

It'll be a relief to return to that universe. I may have never had a moment's peace in law school, but now, perhaps because of that peacelessness, I'll never be in such a position again. It's sort of like rock bottom for the stress-addicted: once you realize that things can't get any worse without impacting your health, you never want to get back on that treadmill. The alternative is just so rich -- to be able to work without worry, to enjoy free time untaxed by all the stuff you should be spending it doing. No matter how many hours it may take, or how tired you may get, you win if you can still go home and relax at the end of the workday. The pile of things on the to-do list doesn't need to weigh on your mood if you don't let it.

I've always been told that I take things too seriously: work, school, relationships, myself even. This is probably true. But telling someone like me to quit taking things so seriously is about as effective as swearing at traffic. Realizations like this, on the other hand, can be as edifying as being in the traffic accident yourself. Do your work, and then stop worrying about it when you're done. It's that simple. Holy crap, it's that simple.

Now to never worry about my to-do list again.

thus spake /jca @ 11:36 AM...


final thoughts on: law school and relationships

I wonder what law school would have been like, had I been single.

I've been married since 1999. It's the first time I've ever had to try sharing my personal space: I grew up with divorced parents, no siblings, and a relatively small extended family scattered to the four winds. If I didn't like this guy an awful lot, there's no way in hell I'd put up with some of the more invasive aspects of marriage -- throwing his sweaty gym clothes into my laundry basket, for example, or "needing" the entire living room to sprawl across while he pursues a release deadline. But I do like him. An awful lot.

Still, I guess I started law school with the preconceived notion that marriage itself was hard enough. But then my husband surprised me: he turned out to be a tailor-made 1L companion. Unlike me, he never spent much time in college -- not a moment, in fact -- pondering his navel or trying to Find Himself. Instead, he worked himself to the point of physical illness. The illness thing was a drag, of course, but it paid off: there aren't too many people who, in the space of four years, can graduate MIT with a perfect GPA in two majors and a master's degree. He knew from brain-jam. I knew nothing, and was extraordinarily glad he was there to be my guide.

I didn't need much motivation. I knew I wanted to transfer law schools, so an insane workload was basically a foregone conclusion. What I didn't know was how to work smarter rather than harder. He did, though. "You're doing a lot of briefing," he'd remark, seeing the green database screen reflected in my eyeglasses. "You should be focusing more on exams." When I protested that I didn't know enough law yet to face down a practice exam without wetting myself in a panic, he proposed a solution anyway. "You should at least be taking what you know, or taking each new thing as you learn it, and asking yourself: now, how will this turn up on an exam? If I were writing exam questions, how would I test someone on this?"

He was right. He has always been right when it comes to matters academic. I spent too much time briefing and outlining, and not enough internalizing actual exam mechanisms -- and I tanked on half my first-semester exams. It was horrific, watching my dearest dream shatter into shrapnel before my eyes. For a period of about two weeks, I had trouble even speaking. But my husband, once again, proved his incredible worth. He didn't coddle me or indulge my rampaging depression. Instead, at the end of those two weeks, he sat me down and gave me the drill-sergeant treatment. "This is unworkable!" he shouted as I gaped at him, unable even to summon tears. "You can't live like this! So alright, you can't transfer. This is where you're stuck. That means you need to be at the fucking top of your class. And you'll never get there like this. You need to snap out of it!"

Again, as usual, he was right. So I did snap out of it.

Despite his faith in me, the top of the class was basically out of the question; to get there, I'd need far more intuition and legal talent than I possessed. But would it really be so bad, being stuck in-state? California was a perfectly nice place to live. My husband had a great job. If I cleaned up my act enough, I could probably find someone who'd hire me as well. We might even be able to buy a house. I decided to shelve my globetrotting dreams and invest my energies into going native.

Then, as if some giant fairy somewhere had checked off a box indicating that I'd learned my lesson, suddenly everything shifted with a great big jolt. Moot court not only worked out for me, but turned out to be a sparkling beautiful thing. My spring-semester grades put my fall ones to shame. And I did manage, after the dust settled, to transfer schools. My globetrotting dreams revived instantly. "We can go back to California next summer if you want," I giggled excitedly to my husband, "or even...to Boston."

He loved his startup, the reason why we'd moved to California in the first place. He'd been there since the beginning, one of the founders, and delighted in watching the company grow so large he no longer recognized people's faces. But he'd never forgotten the Ph.D. he started so long ago, before going on leave to try the Startup Thing. (Nor had I. The day after our wedding in New York, he was on a train back to Boston; the following day he began his first round of preliminary written exams. We still haven't taken an official honeymoon.)

Even so, he followed me to my ultimate law school without much enthusiasm. The startup, which thankfully appreciated all of my husband's late nights and foregone vacations, agreed to let him telecommute until I graduated. I thought this would be a terrific setup, since the guy would gladly live in his pajamas if he could. But while the pajamas thing was a fair success, being more or less housebound and working late into the night on Pacific time left him frustrated, stressed, and pacing like a caged lion. "We shouldn't be here. You should be at Stanford!" he'd yell, or "Harvard!" as his own dreams tugged him first toward one coast, then the other.

But he understood why we were there. And no matter how many times I offered to undertake a long-distance relationship so that he could return to his job in person, he refused. After a wake-the-neighbors row that probably had a lot to do with my diminished winter-quarter 2L grades, my husband and I finally made a deal: he would have the run of the apartment whenever he needed it during the term, but if I had an exam week coming up, he would arrange to be in California. This worked as long as it needed to; about two quarters, as it turned out. Ironically, the following quarter, when he timed his trip to coincide with my citecheck rather than exams, my grades came back just fine. Not that they particularly mattered any more. We'd already found a way back to Boston.

And here we are. And that's how we got here.

In retrospect the thing that wound up being most important in our relationship, especially through law school, was our respect for each other's personal space. My husband grew up an only child, just like I did; between that and his super-perceptive understanding of my required study schedule, he knew exactly how much I needed to be left alone to do my thing. I gave him the same courtesy, which made for some lonely late nights, but was the least I could do. When we can help each other, we do. But when we can't, the next best thing is to get the hell out of the way.

If law school is going to screw with a relationship, this is probably the reason why. You just can't be demanding of a person who's seriously committed to a course of action. People seriously committed to a course of action will understand what I mean: there's a certain amount of effort below which you may not dip without compromising your master plans, plans which ideally include your significant other as well. They'll benefit as much as you from your success. Wise significant others will understand this. Priceless ones will take an active part in helping you succeed. But if you're coupled with someone who demands your time when you can least afford it (or vice versa), yeah, that could be a problem.

At the end of the day, it's your call. Law school is an enormous weight on your time and your relationships. Even the most ideal match -- someone who shares your values and understands why you need to be in a certain place -- can still devolve into viciousness when either party feels slighted. And of course, it's just as easy to sacrifice your law school efforts for the relationship as it is to do the reverse. Only you can say which of the two will be more valuable for you to preserve in the long term. Just be sure that that's where you're focused: on the long term.

Because that's where the love should take you.

thus spake /jca @ 7:35 AM...


final thoughts on: pursuing your dreams

Opportunism gets a bad rap. It's all too easy for the uninformed observer to assume that the act of wanting something other than what you've got is due to greed, or elitism, or problems with your self-esteem. From childhood we're taught not to want. Learn to be satisfied with what you have, the received wisdom goes; that's how you'll be happy. Be thankful for what you have, even. Think of all the poor people who don't have what you do. In the grand scheme of Haves and Have-Nots, there is no reputable place for the Want-Mores.

But there's so much to be said in praise of ambition. Wanting to be something other than what you already are, even if the comparative greatness is only in your own eyes, is something that ought to be worthy of encouragement. Why should you accept less than you think you're worth? Why should you settle for a trivial salary when you know that you can earn more? Why should you pursue a career path that doesn't inspire your enthusiasm when you could be doing something you'd love? Why should you be discouraged by the failure rate of other people aspiring to the same goal? When someone's telling you, however implicitly, that you deserve no better than your current situation, the problem is hardly with your self-esteem.

Sure, there are basic needs you'll need to cover. You don't want to be in your thirties and still hitting up your folks for rent money. But there's no reason to invest your finest energies in the pursuit of paying bills. My husband and I have not stuck by each other through move after vertiginous move just to establish ourselves as small-town tradespeople (even though we may wind up doing just that, if that's what we want, at the end of our adventures). We both dream of how it must feel to stand shoulder to shoulder with the truly incredible people in our respective professions, which is why he supported my transferring law schools halfway across the country, and why I support him finishing his Ph.D., even though it means losing out on the income that supported our fancy restaurant and B&B habits.

It's hard to walk away from apparent success when what you really want is something different. The naysayers will reliably gasp in wide-eyed chagrin and howl that you're making a mistake, that you were doing great and there was no reason to want anything different. And those naysayers may even be in your own head. "I should be providing for us," my husband worries. "No," I tell him, "now is the time for you to be chasing your dream!" We have enough of a financial cushion that neither of us will have to be a Wal-Mart greeter this year to make ends meet. My clerkship pays more than I earned in my last full-time job, and my husband earns a stipend as a teaching assistant. I'm already thirty; he'll be there too come March. We can afford this now in a way we may never again.

Aspirations are a double-edged sword, of course. They can stalk you and drive you to madness. If you dream of something beyond your means, it can become a nasty fairy that taunts you repeatedly. And if in the pursuit of your dearest desires you yourself are found wanting, that can be more of a heartbreaker than anyone's initial suggestion that you didn't deserve the good thing to begin with. It is hard as hell not to shatter to pieces when faced with the reality that you simply can't achieve the object of your dreams. Disappointment can be crippling, if you let it.

But don't let that stop you. As important as dreams are, they're also fungible. My mother did not spend her entire career as a software engineer dreaming of running a horse farm, and yet, as soon as the opportunity presented itself, it became exactly what she wanted to do with her life. Most aspiring stand-up comics don't succeed, so the odds are against my cousin; but even if he doesn't wind up being the next Seinfeld, he'll still have won a bunch of competitions and made hundreds of people laugh, and at the end of the day he'll still be happily married and gainfully employed in his favorite city. My husband may decide to quit the Ph.D., and I may go back to California with him, and things may turn out as though we'd never taken any extraordinary measures to pursue our dreams at all.

Except they won't, because we did. We went to Chicago. We went to Boston. We were both devoted practitioners of the art of extreme education. Even if that doesn't catapult us to the nosebleed heights of our chosen careers, we will still have taken our chances at doing so. Because it's not just the fulfillment of the dream that matters; it's crediting the dream itself. Don't just tread water somewhere because it's passable, workable, good enough. Respect your own aspirations. Let no one convince you that you don't have a right to wish for something else. Chase any butterfly you choose, because that's the only way to catch one.

Ten years ago, in a cute movie you've probably never seen, Al Pacino played a dying grandfather during the Great Depression. He had a quarter. His grandson needed one. Al Pacino told the grandson that the quarter would be his after he, Al Pacino, died. The grandson eventually felt guilty that he lusted after that quarter (and therefore his grandfather's death) so badly, but with grandpa Pacino's dying breath, he gave the grandson one word of advice:


thus spake /jca @ 9:46 PM...


final thoughts on: the three years of law school

Recently noise has been made debating the (f)utility of a third year of law school. (See also wide-ranging discussion at Volokh and a non-starry-eyed perspective at Sapere Aude.)

I loved my third year. Like the corporate lawyer cited in the MSNBC article, I can happily say that 3L was perhaps the best year of my life. Even though I spent much more of it on journal and clinic stuff than on beer and softball. Even though I wound up doing far more work than was really necessary. Even though I didn't blow it off, 3L was the time of my life.

Whenever anyone challenges the purpose of a third year of law school, my first response is always selfish. If law school hadn't been three years long, I never would have gotten to have the fun that I did in my second year at my degree-granting institution. If law school weren't three years long, no one would even be able to transfer. We'd basically be MBAs. And while it's debatable whether we already are just a different breed of MBA, I'd rather believe that we're not.

At the very least, for a proposal to eliminate 3L to be reasonable, 1L has to be made a lot more humane. I understand that not everyone's first year was as nightmarish as mine, and the principal reasons why mine sucked so royally were my own fault. But, just as with bar review, some aspects of the present first-year model are just so inherently rotten that they'll weigh on the experience of even the most satisfied and optimistic 1L. Getting rid of these would unload a lot of the nastiness of law school, which, at least in my view, would obviate the need for subsequent niceness to balance it out. There you'd have it: two years of not-unpleasant education, culminating in a trade credential. If you're going to dumb down law school until it becomes business school, then make it be business school.

Having said that: don't make it be business school. As tough as 1L is even for the people who love it (and, obviously, for the people whom it eats alive), it's a feature of the profession whose value is seldom disputed by actual practitioners (much though it may be vilified by its current and recent victims). It's what makes us lawyers. And even if becoming a lawyer isn't the only reason to go to law school, it remains the best one.

My second year of law school, my first at the school that gave me my J.D., was a peculiar blessing. Starting afresh with a blank transcript meant that I'd been given the much-desired chance to do 1L over again -- only this time with a clue. I could redeem everything from my Torts grade to the depressing return on my first round of law school applications. I could reinvent myself as a successful law student instead of just a lucky one. I needed that year, to wrestle my demons to the mat once and for all. After such an effort, my third year was a gift.

Maybe it's different if you stay in one place, particularly if it's not a place that ever inspired you to wax rhapsodic. But it doesn't have to be that different. I've got to imagine that it's possible to spend your 2L year working out all the kinks in your 1L performance even if your grades haven't been zeroed out -- and that once you've done so, a year to sit back and savor what you've learned is still more valuable than immediately rushing out to chase dollars and ambulances. We came here to be lawyers, yes, but let's leave the job of insulting the profession to people who aren't members of it.

That's not to say that 3L couldn't be made a lot more practical. People have proposed an apprenticeship-type model, where you spend more of your third year practicing than in class. My clinic effectively made this happen for me, and based on my experience, I wholeheartedly support such a proposal. Even if I didn't worship the judge who supervised my clinic, even if I'd never actually gotten to stand up after a U.S. Attorney and extemporaneously debunk what he'd just said, the practice of drafting and filing motions alone taught me more about actual federal practice than an entire term of Advanced Trial Advocacy. I can see a judicial externship serving this same purpose, or even a term-time placement as a clerk in a law firm. You'd not only practice, you'd network. And ideally, you'd find work, which is still a concern for 3Ls in most of the law schools in the country.

If another year's worth of tuition is truly an unfair burden for grudging third-year students, firms could offer partial tuition fellowships to the kids they hire through the apprenticeship program, or fund clinic stipends, or something of that ilk. Mitigate the opportunity cost of another year spent learning in a controlled environment, if such learning really creates better eventual lawyers. Let the profession kick in some money to fund the third year if it's truly that valuable to the profession. It would seem like a better investment than funding happy hours, at any rate. Because law students will always be quite happy to fund those themselves, without complaint.

thus spake /jca @ 10:56 AM...


final thoughts on: who we claim to be

Every time my dye job starts to grow out for real, I'm reminded of how gray my hair actually is. They spring up from my scalp like angry little white wires, stiffer and wavier than the hair I grew up with. They appear no happier to be there than I am to see them.

Periodically I ponder letting it grow out and just going natural. Maybe I could be one of those women who wears gray well. Or maybe I'd just look funny. Old before my time. When your hair is brown and razor-straight, there's seldom a way to make short grays poking straight up out of your scalp look like they belong there.

So I dye. And I go to the gym, as though that will bring about anything more than a superficial sheen of health over the same slothful flabby core that has always been me. "Your heart rate should NOT be going over 170!!" my husband snaps in alarm. "It's not doing you any good up there!" And yet, after three years of devotion to the elliptical trainer, conventionally-defined Cardiovascular Fitness(tm) eludes me still. "Of course it is," I snap back at him. "You like to pretend that there's some point to this endeavor other than physical pain, but we both know that that's the whole point." I go hiking in California, as Californians are supposed to, and silently curse my escalating pulse. Doesn't it know what state we're in?

I have passed for Californian, as well as I could. I have passed for French in Paris, happily giving directions to the Quai d'Orsay to the Americans who used a phrasebook to ask me where it was. I have passed for a social conservative, declining to share my views on homosexuality and abortion on the floor of my debating Society. I have passed for a full-fledged liberal, helping to found the most far-left journal at my 1L school, appealing the sentences of convicted criminals in my 3L clinic, and otherwise keeping my head down at opportune moments. If you put me in water long enough, I would find a way to pass for a fish.

It gets tiring, taking a turn at being everyone.

But it's amazing. It's so much more fun than just being me, answering to one name only. Nor does it have to put you in the bad place, if you're in control of what's at stake. Imagine seeing the world from the opposite perspective of your own. Imagine the things you learn about people, the stories you collect, when you drop your barriers and are willing to give someone else's existence a try. Imagine walking so many miles in another man's moccasins that they become as comfortable as your own, and then repeating the process with someone else's, until you can slip on any set of shoes you find and still dance.

I love liberals. I love conservatives. I love Californians. I even love French people. I love fat people who eat dessert without shame, thin people who run circles around me on the ellipticals, miserable law students and jubilant ones and the woman whose kid wouldn't quit squealing last night in the Greek diner while my husband went white-knuckled with annoyance. I love people who have survived tremendous awfulness, and people who will never have to. Because I can imagine being all of these people, and being happy.

And not faking it.

thus spake /jca @ 12:49 PM...

more final thoughts...

sua sponte
transferring law schools
on the moblog
the short list
otherwise of note
recurring themes
fellow travelers
other blawgs