How Can I Go On?

by Chris Markham. 0 Comments

A few weeks ago (or it could have been a few months ago, given how lazily I update this thing – sorry, Brenda!) I saw something that made me shake my head in disgust, dismay and any other “dis” word you can think of.
Apparently, Columbia University School of Law was allowing students to apply for postponements to take their final exams, due to the situations that played out in Staten Island and Ferguson. The students that demanded such a waiver were finding it difficult to apply the law in hypothetical situations, when, to them, the law – the sacred institution that most of them believe it is, even in the vacuum that is law school – was being so flagrantly abused throughout the country by the people and institutions sworn to uphold it.
I remember my first semester in law school. Everything they say about that first year is true (read Scott Turow’s “One-L” or watch the Paper Chase – I couldn’t even look at these two things until years after I passed the bar – too many flashbacks) – it’s a stressful and difficult time. If you didn’t know, most classes end with a final exam that’s worth 100% of your grade. Usually, there are no papers, mid-terms or any other materials that are counted toward your final grade in the class. Fifteen weeks of lectures end with one exam in which you pass or fail.
There was one class, a legal research and writing class that had three assignments, and the last assignment – the “final” if you will – counted for seventy percent of our grade. We all had to turn in the assignment by a date certain. On that date, there was a horrible snowstorm, and about fifteen people from the class couldn’t make it to school (they lived about forty to seventy miles away and were snowed in). The very next day, these students attempted to hand their papers in to the professor, and the professor refused to accept them. He stated something to the effect that the courts don’t care about the weather. The courts only care about the amount of time allotted by the rules of civil or criminal procedure. If you’re late on a filing, the court might accept it, but the opposing party will object.
The fifteen failed the class. Even though it was early in their law school career, that failing grade pretty much ensured they wouldn’t graduate. Within a semester or two, all of them gave up the ghost, and dropped out.
This was not a unique situation. I started off with around one hundred in my class. We graduated with twenty. Some flunked out; others dropped out because they realized they didn’t want to be attorneys; yet others couldn’t afford it; and still others could not keep up with the deadlines, the pressures and the stresses that being law students entail. These pressures, in reality, are pretty small compared to the stress and pressures of actually practicing law.
When you practice law, you’re handling peoples’ lives. Now, this may sound overly dramatic, but, in some cases, i.e., criminal law, you may have a defendant’s life or death in your hands. In family law, your decisions, strategies and tactics could have children’s’ futures at stake. In civil law, it’s not life or death (literally), but contracts, litigation and other documents can have thousands, tens of thousands or millions of dollars in play. Being an attorney, all the jokes and such notwithstanding, is hard work.
And clients don’t care that you have personal issues. Going through a divorce? Sorry, when is that motion going to be filed? Sick today? Hmmm. When am I going to get paid? Upset about the outcome of the recent elections? Tragic, but am I going to get out of jail soon? The everyday issues that affect us all don’t count (as they don’t in most businesses and occupations) in the legal world. I’ve been a part of hearings where personal issues of the attorneys involved have come into play, and the court has consistently paid little mind to them.
So, I think the august institutions of Harvard, Yale, Columbia and NYU are doing their students, and by extension, their future clients a grave disservice. The law doesn’t care about your personal and emotional states. It cares about clients, work and deadlines. Those students aggrieved would be better off learning that fact now, rather than in their first years of practice.


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