I had no idea what I was in for.
As I walked into the school on the first day, a man in a none-too-fresh, white three-piece suit, who looked like a mash-up of Boss Hogg and Benjamin Franklin, came barreling down the stairs, arms outstretched, hair flying, yelling, "Good! Evil! Good! Evil!"
WTF have I gotten myself into?
I learned some weeks later that Professor X had been calling to his aptly-named cats, one black, the other white, who had escaped his office. (1)
Law school classes are mostly taught via the Socratic method. The professor does not lecture, but draws out the content by questioning the students who have, presumably, read the textbook. In law school, the textbooks contain primarily decisions of courts interpreting either law enacted by a legislative body or common law set forth by other court decisions, sometimes both. Some textbooks contain other sorts of material such as the Constitution, codified rules of civil or criminal procedure or uniform codes. What they do not contain is explanatory material.
The first thing you learn as a first year law student is how to "brief a case," that is, how to glean the pertinent points from a court's decision so that, if called upon in class, you can accurately recite the information. Oh, and also so you can learn the law. Usually this includes summarizing the facts, identifying the question before the court, describing the court's analysis and stating the precise holding or ruling of the court. Often, the cases excerpted in the textbooks are filled with irrelevant information and the precise "holding" is buried. No spoon-feeding here; you have to work for it. There are study guides and "canned briefs" available for purchase. We were sternly cautioned against them because the drudges employed to create them may not have even passed the bar! They might not even be lawyers! Trust them at your peril!
The second thing you learn as a first year law student is not to come to class unprepared. Law professors are often quite cruel and some seem to delight in humiliating students who are unprepared or simply don't grasp the key points of the cases. (2) These professors are generally known to the students - unless they are new to the school. Previously benign professors might turn vicious if, for example, they are quitting smoking or going through a divorce. (3) In addition, law students are a hyper-competitive, brutal crowd, particularly in the first first year. Being exposed as unprepared or simply clueless before 100 or so of your classmates, even by a gentle professor, is a humbling experience. Best to be prepared.
But being prepared takes time. A lot of time. Time spent in quiet study. An average caseload in law school might be 15 credit hours per semester: 5 3-credit-hour classes. Each class could have more than 30 pages of reading per night. Except it's not only reading, it's reading plus briefing.
And some of us had social lives.
By about 2/3 of the way through my first semester, I was getting a little sloppy. I had an 8 a.m. contracts class that was killing me. I am not a morning person and the aged, misogynistic professor was a rabid basketball fan. So much so that class discussions often veered far afield and having no idea who the players, coaches and teams were, I grew deeply resentful. I really needed more discussion and explanation than I was getting, so I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the cases trying to make sense of it.
My afternoon criminal law class was challenging enough without my professor bleeding me dry, bumming cigarettes from me every day. I was reduced to scrounging beneath the floor mats in my car for change to buy smokes and Professor "I wrote the Ohio Criminal Code and live in a mansion" was trying to quit. Rather than just buy a pack and admit that he was failing, he mooched from me. I was in no position to say "no." It also made me an easy target in class because in the sea of faces, he readily recognized mine. And so with a smile, called upon me. Almost daily.
I had a year-long legal writing course and another mumbo-jumbo legal-ese class I never did get the point of. The professor was rumored to be brilliant, but I was not convinced. Most of our term was spent discussing the Judgment of Solomon. An actual exchange:
(Looks down at his seating chart.)
"No Mr. Danish?"
(Looks down at his seating chart.)
"Well, if we haven't got a Danish, at least we have a Cook."
Nearly laughed himself silly at that one, he did.
The other class I took my first semester was torts. I actually enjoyed it. It was in the late morning, so I was awake and fully caffeinated. The professor was a young woman. I think this was her first teaching assignment. She was very formal and organized. We had had several good exchanges up to that point in the term.
On this particular Wednesday, I was exhausted. Up late the night before, overloaded with a paper due in legal writing and copious contracts reading, I didn't finish my torts. I figured I was safe from being called on since I raised my hand regularly, so she had no reason to think I wouldn't be prepared. I could, of course, approach her before class and tell her I wasn't prepared, but she only allowed one pass per semester and I might need it later. I'd gamble.
Damn if she didn't fly through the material I had already covered and into the unread. Damn if she didn't look down at that seating chart and then look directly at me.
"Ms. Pauken, Mr. Jones just told us the court's ruling in X vs. Y; did they get it right?"
Crap, crap, crappity crap.
Her rule was that if you were unprepared, you were to let her know before class.
50-50 shot. Yes or no question.
I come from a poker-playing family. I know how to bluff. What the hell?
Firmly and with conviction, I said,
"No. They did not."
I hadn't even exhaled when 47 eager gunner-hands shot into the air.
She looked at me, eyebrows raised in disbelief, then down at the seating chart.
"Mr. Collins, why don't you explain to Ms. Pauken why she is wrong?"
I glanced at Matt, who sat next to me. He was grinning and shaking his head.
"You are so fucked," he whispered.
I spent most of the next day preparing for Friday's torts class. It would be a doozy. Among the cases was a legendary lawsuit arising out of freighters that collided with a drawbridge in a canal; the St. Lawrence Seaway, as I recall. There were a series of mistakes: delayed signaling by the captain, a drawbridge watchman asleep at his post, maybe a mechanical failure of some sort. I diagrammed the sequence of events because it was so complicated.
On Friday at 11:00, slightly queasy, I took my seat and prepared to perform.
The professor walked in at the last minute and took her time opening her binder and setting out her seating chart as the anticipation grew. Everyone knew what was coming.
She looked up at me.
"Ms. Pauken, are you prepared today?"
An expectant hum filled the room as my classmates craned around to see the look on my face.
I grinned and nodded.
"I sure am, Professor M."
"Proceed with the first case."
It was the Meg Pauken Show.
Fifty minutes worth.
She asked; I answered. And answered and answered and answered.
When the bell finally rang, I was completely drained. I let out my breath in a big sigh.
Matt gave me a nod and a smile.
I turned to him.
"Is it too early to drink? Do you think the Barking Spider is open?"
"What the hell? It's Friday. Let's go."
(1) Later, I also discovered that he was a regular renter of pornographic movies from the local video store, Vid-Star. I'd see him on many a Friday night emerging from the curtained back room with a stack of tapes and a big bag of popcorn.
(2) See The Paper Chase, a 1970's era series on PBS or One L, Scott Turow.
(3) Personal experience.