Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Around this time of year, I usually end up telling my 1L students something about my experience in law school. I inadvertently chose what, in retrospect, seemed like the best way to become an attorney: After working as a paralegal for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world of law), getting married and living in Japan for a couple of years (to get a taste of the world in general), I thought that Georgetown's evening program looked really appealing, because it would allow me to work and earn money during the day and not drag my wife with me into the penurious life of a student. I wasn't wrong about that, but that did not turn out to be the greatest benefit to the evening program, or even in the top three.
What hadn't occurred to me before I arrived in D.C. was what the rest of the evening program class would be like. Georgetown can support a substantial evening program because Washington is full of people who have done well in government, the military, business, or the arts and now want to take the next step in their career. If the informal reckoning of our evening cohort of 125 students was correct, there was only one of us who came directly from college. The day program, four times larger, had a more traditional proportion of recent undergraduates. Going to school with classmates who had essentially all achieved some measure of success already meant that our program felt different in three momentous ways:
1) Less stress and competition. Not that we were stress-free; this was, after all, law school. Most of my evening classmates had full-time jobs, like I did, and some were in demanding positions that took up more than 40 hours per week. Our law school commitments were lessened in the part-time evening program (so it took us all 4 years to graduate), but still, it could be a pretty heavy load. Nevertheless, there was almost no undercurrent of shared anxiety, and the kind of ruthless competition that I had expected in law school never materialized. (In my 2L year, when I became a Fellow in the legal writing program and worked directly with the school librarians, they told me how much they enjoyed working with the evening students because they never pilfered reserve books or sabotaged assigned reading the way that the day students did.) One of my classmates had a theory about this. He suggested that it was easier for us evening students not to stake our whole sense of self-worth on some grade on an exam, because most of us had proven ourselves in other arenas. This made sense to me; it meant it was easier for us to see grades as measures of our personal progress, rather than as a way of sorting us by value.
2) More organization and efficiency. I know that I was roughly one hundred times a better student, practically, in law school than when I was in college. Part of it was simply forced by necessity: If you work from 9 to 5, then attend classes from 5:45 to 9 or 10 each weeknight, you really don't have a lot of room in your schedule for futzing around. But some of it was the shared culture of the evening program, in which not only did we all face the same issue, but also nearly all of us had developed methods of calendaring and prioritizing in the workplace. Some of us had spouses or even children that had to be fit into our schedules. Knowing that it all could be done, because we had had to do much of it before in our jobs, made it more manageable in law school. Furthermore, we all understood how valuable each other's time was, so the time we spent together in study groups, on joint projects, or in student organizations was also spent efficiently (but also quite pleasantly -- see "less competition", above).
3) More collegiality. By which I do not mean "friendliness"; the day students that I met then, like the students I work with now, were at least as amiable and as good company as my evening companions. But time away from school, in many cases working with more seasoned co-workers on a first-name basis or even with equal status, had bestowed upon most evening students the realization that everyone in the law school -- classmates, professors, administrators, employees -- could be seen as colleagues: people with whom you are striving towards a common goal. Thus, evening students were often less reluctant, and more comfortable, than day students in seeking help or offering suggestions.
The reason I bring up my experience with my 1L class is to point out to them that you don't need to be an evening student to enjoy these beneficial distinctions. They might have come more naturally to those in my program -- certainly to the program as a whole -- because of our previous life experiences, but that doesn't mean that these benefits are only available to those of a certain age or background. What matters are attitude, awareness, and mindset. A student who is in touch with her previous accomplishments, and can ground her sense of self-worth on them, will find it easier to see grades as personal touchstones rather than signifiers of inherent worth. A student who accepts both that his available time is limited (which is merely a matter of thoughtful perception) and that he has the capacity to get done what needs to be done in that limited time (which is perhaps a bit more of a leap of faith) will find the ways he needs to be efficient. And by recognizing that they are attending a professional school whose common goals include each student's successful education, students can position themselves to take full advantage of all the human resources around them. Experience is a good teacher, but sometimes learning from other people's experience is even better.