Suddenly, This All Makes Sense

BY TREVOR AUSTIN

I’ve only just gotten here, but I’ve already got this law school thing figured out.

They told me law school would be hard. They told me that material would be dense, the teaching methods opaque, and the participation mandatory. They told me I’d be struck dumb when called upon to answer even simple questions. They told me I’d have no idea what was going on.

Here in my third week, a lot of the above has been accurate. Not that things have been as bad as you might think. I don’t usually have a very good idea what’s going on in my life in general, so law school was unexceptional in that respect. I was used to being oblivious, so cold-calling was never traumatic. The worst a professor can do is make you look like a fool, and I long ago made peace with my foolishness. By now I’m used to having discussions head off in directions I don’t anticipate and events follow internal logics I can’t fathom. This happens to me slightly more often in foreign countries with different customs and languages I can’t understand, but really not all that much less in America.

So imagine my astonishment when, mere weeks into my tenure, the experience suddenly and miraculously fell into place. I was in the Ames courtroom, dividing my attention between the moot court session I’d come to see and the refreshments table under construction right in front of me. I tore myself away from the promise of crunchy vegetables and creamy cheeses to recognize that damn, that guy from Oregon was really good. At once, enlightenment flashed through my brain. Arcane rituals and senseless incantations had sudden sense and meaning. The shimmering filaments of a grand edifice arced across what had been a dark and murky sky, revealing a grand design breathtaking in its scope and beauty. It was like being struck by a Zen master, but with less bruising. Everything made sense.

Law school is weird because judges are jerks.

How could it not be so? Here was this earnest Oregonian, earnestly defending the sanctity and the compassion of his homeland, and the quintet facing him weren’t polite or even merely skeptical; they were being mean. He could barely make it through a sentence without terse interruption. Counsel, they would stab, doesn’t your argument contradict this lengthy list of cherished precedents? Counsel, aren’t you contradicting yourself to argue as you do? Counsel, we are confused by this train of thought, could it be that you are full of it? Counsel, wouldn’t you agree that you are in fact a moron?

But Bob Atkinson bravely disagreed. He hung in there and stood his ground, and refused to let his argument be derailed. He deftly turned aside every challenge, patiently reasoning his way around and over every pit and trap the judges could lay. He was magnificent. Even a Zorro or D’Artagnan couldn’t have challenged five opponents at once, and no pack of movie villains ever had the determination or coordination of this nefarious judicial panel. I was entranced. It was then that I came to understand.

Clearly if any person was to stand against a judge, they would need preparation. And only the highly developed vagaries of law school could truly prepare one to meet this judicial menace. Cold-calling wouldn’t merely terrify us into doing the required reading, it would sharpen our reflexes and toughen our spirits. Studying casebooks full of unrelated opinions would teach us to improvise, able to get by on the barest rhetorical essentials. The sheer weight of those tomes would lend us endurance and fortitude. Feeding us a steady and unvarying diet of pizza and keeping us stocked with a constant supply of alcohol would give us the hearty spirits to laugh in the face of adversity.

Even the parts of school that appeared to belittle or infantilize us were in fact part of our rigorous regimen. Requiring us to sit in assigned seats would instill an unshakable sense of duty by giving us a post we could not abandon. Making us tote around little name tags like children in the first week of the third grade would teach us humility, so that a judge could never defeat us by exploiting our hubris. One especially wise professor of mine denies us bathroom breaks. I now see that this isn’t just an outrageous encroachment on my autonomy, but that it will teach me discipline, and control of my body and my unconscious. No doubt later in the semester I will gain mastery over my heartbeat, my emotions, and my fears.

This sudden enlightenment has changed my entire perspective, and now I can dedicate myself again to the study of law, but with renewed faith and vigor. Everything that once gave me pause now only strengthens my resolve. In the fullness of time, I will no doubt come to understand the even hidden purpose behind First Year Legal Research and Writing.

Trevor Austin is a 1L. Send him your comments, criticism, and tales of sudden enlightenment at taustin@law.harvard.edu.

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