A Sleight Change of Plans
I always wanted to be a magician, but my father, a tax lawyer, never considered magic a "viable career path." My mother, on the other hand, always told me I could do whatever I wanted with my life, but as I grew older, I realized that she and my father were playing Good Cop/Bad Cop and that when she said that I could do whatever I wanted with my life, she meant I could practice whatever kind of law I wanted.
My uncle is a lawyer, and so are my Michigan cousins, my Chicago cousins, and my New York cousins. If I had any siblings, they'd be lawyers, too. My father's father, though, was not a lawyer. He slaughtered cows for a living.1 Now, I couldeasily write half a dozen lawyer jokes comparing slaughterhouses and courtrooms--they practically write themselves--but I'm not going to do that because I refuse to disrespect the meatpacking industry--see?
All of my friends and ex-girlfriends are lawyers, law students, or soon-to-be law students currently denying their inevitable legal futures. The only exceptions to this rule are (1) my childhood buddy Steve,2 who works as his dad's law clerk, and (2) my neighbor Stacy, a paralegal. I come from an affluent suburb of Detroit where the only excuse for not practicing law is practicing medicine. But even medicine, many of my dad's partners feel, is a pretty sketchy excuse.
My father and his partners saw my interest in magic the way an evangelical Christian father might view his son's homosexuality. As a phase.
"He'll grow out of it," they told my dad.
I imagine one of them took my dad aside and said, "I've never told this to anyone before, but when I was Rick's age, I went through a magic phase, too. My bunkmate showed me my first card trick at summer camp when I was fourteen ... ."
In middle school, my dad bought me 8.5" × 14" yellow legal pads on which to take notes, the way the evangelical father buys his gay son a baseball glove. But just as the gay son uses the baseball glove as a prop in his school's Damn Yankees production, I used the legal pads to sketch blueprints for grand stage illusions. Every time my birthday rolled around,I asked for marked cards and gimmicked coins and linking rings--and received dress shirts, neckties, and dictation recorders. So I sewed secret pockets into the dress shirts, used the neckties for escape demonstrations, and recorded psychic predictions on the dictation recorders (e.g., "Your card was the three of clubs").
I didn't just perform escapes and psychic demonstrations; I performed billiard ball manipulations, rope tricks, and dove illusions.3 My specialty, though, was performing elaborate, multi-phase card tricks that most professionals wouldn't dare take on, like those of British magician GuyHollingworth. Hollingworth created one of my favorite card tricks, Reformation, in which a signed playing card is torn into four and then restored, piece by piece. It sounds simple, but it isn't; the trick's explanation goes on for thirty-six pages and contains instructions like this:
The front edge of the left hand's card should be in contact with the front of the right's, so that when the cards are directly aligned with each other, that front edge can slide in between the right fingers and the other cards, sothat the right hand holds it in place; meanwhile the left thumb is still holding the other side of the folded V-shaped card, and immediately moves upwards, unfolding the card; at the same time the left fingers move to the side, so that the card is seen as it is being opened.4
As a teenager, I fantasized about creating illusions so elaborate they'd make Guy Hollingworth's Reformation look like Dan Harlan's Card-Toon(!),5 so you can imagine how betrayed I felt when, at the age of twenty-four, Hollingworth left the field of magic to study law.
Hollingworth's career change got me thinking: maybe practicing law isn't all that different from performing magic. The most powerful weapon in both lawyers' and magicians' arsenals is misdirection; just as Slydini misdirected an audience's attention away from the billiard ball's true location (Slydini's right hand) by looking at his left hand, Johnnie Cochran misdirected jurors' attention away from the DNA evidence by focusing on the pair of ill-fitting Isotoners.
The main difference between magicians and lawyers is that lawyers have no use for sleight of hand. This difference is as personally disappointing as it is obvious--for every hour my dad spent pacing around the kitchen, saying things like "bargained-for consideration" and "promissory estoppel" into his dictation recorder, I'd spent three in front of the bathroom mirror practicing rope sleights.
"Judges," my father once told me, "aren't impressed by lawyers who can tie four varieties of slipknots; the only knots judges like are the ones that go around lawyers' necks."
My father wasn't referring to a noose--my father doesn't make lawyer jokes--he was referring to neckties, and the reason he was referring to neckties was that I couldn't tie one. I'd always figured that if I never learned how to tie a necktie, nobody could rationally expect me to hold down a desk job. Unfortunately, I overestimated society's rationality, because everybody expected me to hold down a desk job. Specifically, society expected me to become a lawyer--this much was made clear to me while I was sitting shivah for my grandfather.
"Have you thought about law school? I bet that'd make your dad real happy."
"I'd love to take you out for lunch so we could talk about law school--your dad told me you're thinking of going."
He did? I am?
"I heard your big news!"
"What a smart decision."
Uh ... thanks ... .
"Your grandfather would be so proud. I didn't want to tell you this until you made a final decision, but your grandfather always wanted you to become a lawyer like your father."
No pressure or anything.
Before my grandfather's funeral, my father sat me down at the kitchen table and said, "It's time for you to learn how to tie a tie." My father had offered to teach me how to tie a tie before every wedding, bar mitzvah, and funeral, and I'd always declined--that was the ritual. Only this time, my father wasn't joking around. "It's time for you to learn. Really." Maybe my grandfather's death had gotten my father thinking about how he wouldn't always be around to teach me how to do it. But when I declined again, my father did the same thing he had done my entire life: he tied my tie on himself, slipped it off his neck, and placed it around mine.
In terms of employability, political science degrees make English degrees look like business degrees. Politics isn't a science, and therefore there's no such thing as a political scientist, and therefore poli-sci students generally need to find other fields to actually enter upon graduation. At the University of Michigan, my poli-sci classmates swore they'd never go into teaching political science, but fraternity pledges say the same thing about abolishing hazing once they becomeupperclassmen. And yet, year after year, the ridiculous, pointless rituals continue, as does fraternity hazing.
After graduation I moved back in with my parents, where the closest thing I had to a job was watching The Price Is Right, in that I had to make it to the living room couch at the same time every day. A master of the art of reverse psychology, my mother enthused about having me back: "I feel so fortunate to spend all this time with you."
I found her lies insultingly transparent.
Unemployment isn't as easy as you'd think. As an unem-ployee, you often struggle with the desire to do something, and fighting that desire off requires fortitude and focus. On the plus side, you have plenty of time to surf the Internet, watch decades-old Magic of David Copperfield VHS tapes, go to Dunkin' Donuts with your high school buddies, and date the same girls you dated in high school, the main difference being that these girls are now less likely to go to second base with you because they fail to appreciate the fortitude and focus required to not do anything. Dating new girls isn't really an option, either (e.g., "Want to come back to my place ... and meet my parents?").
I didn't just live with my parents. I watched their televisions, drove their cars, and wore their clothes when mine were dirty and I was too lazy to wash them and too lazy to ask my mom to wash them for me.
I didn't appreciate how dependent I'd become until the night my father flew to Washington for a business meeting and I needed him to tie my tie. At that time, I was playing cowbell for my friend Rob's rock band Tally Hall in theirsong "Banana Man."6 Tally Hall always wore neckties when performing, and as their cowbellist, I was expected to wear one, too. Only I couldn't because I didn't know how to tie one and wouldn't admit that to the guys in the band. So I took to the stage with my dress shirt unbuttoned and untucked. Two-thirds of the way through the song, I missed one of my cues. I was preoccupied by the following thought: I'm twenty-two years old, not retarded, and I still need my daddy to dress me.
I realized that my full-time immaturity shtick would one day inevitably turn from cute and charming to sad and creepy. I realized that I couldn't live with my parents forever, that I needed a place of my own, and that magic wouldn't pay the bills--the ones I'd presumably have if I had a place of my own. I realized that I had to go to law school ... because it's not like I was going to get a job or anything.
The Law School Admission Test is a five-hour multiple-choice exam administered to provide a "standard measure of acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills that law schools can use as one of several factors in assessing applicants," and to crush the aspirations of twentysomethings who grew upwatching Law & Order thinking, That looks cool. I can do that. These twentysomethings are largely wrong--they can't do that. To make that point perfectly clear, the Law School Admission Committee designed the LSAT so that the average test taker (one who scores at the fiftieth percentile) can't even complete the exam in the given time. Of course, half of all LSAT takers receive below average scores,7 and for that half the chances of admission are not good. But not to worry, Law & Order fans, according to one undergraduate school's Web site:
There are at least two accredited law schools in the nation that will take almost anyone, offering them the chance at law school, but nothing more. These schools tend to flunk out 75% of their students after the first year, taking their tuition and sending them off. But if you can hack it, you can stay.
Students with low LSAT scores can also enroll in nonaccredited law schools, but I don't know why they'd want to; most states--California being the most notable exception--won't even allow graduates of nonaccredited law schools to take the bar exam. According to The Princeton Review, law schools not accredited by the American Bar Association have other problems:
Some critics argue that schools not accredited by the ABA are oriented less towards instilling students with a thorough knowledge of the law, and more towards teaching them how to pass the bar exam, supplying part-time professors and Spartan facilities. Two years ago, approximately eighty percent of students who attended ABA-approved schools in California passed the bar exam, versus approximately thirty percent for students who attended [California Bar Association]-approved schools, and about fifteen percent for those who went the non-accredited route.
The Princeton Review also says: "Many people feel that they have to score at least a 160 to get into a 'good' law school. That's pure myth." When translated from motivational test-prep puffery to prospective law studentese, that means: "If you don't score at least a 160, you are a failure--not just as a prospective law student, but as a human being. Nobody could ever love an idiot like you." Unlike the SAT, if you get a bad LSAT score, you can't take the test a second time without consequence. Law schools are given access to your complete record, not just your highest score.
My father doesn't remember his LSAT score--allegedly--but it was high enough to earn him a seat at the University of Michigan Law School. The University of Michigan doesn't just have the best law school in Michigan; it has one of the best in the country. The law school shows up on the U.S. News & World Report top-ten ranking every year.8 The median starting salary of 2007 graduates was $125,000.
If I did well on the LSAT, I'd earn a seat at the University of Michigan Law School, my ticket to the six-figure job, gas-guzzling SUV, and ungrateful trophy wife of my dreams. If I did poorly, I'd have to blow my (parents') hard-earned money at a California diploma mill for the tiny chance that I might pass the bar and find a job defending indigent baby rapists.
Getting into the University of Michigan's undergraduate program was tough--I'd needed to transfer in. Getting into their law school, I recognized, would be almost impossible. The Supreme Court made that much clear in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger. The case's opinion9 begins: "The [University of Michigan] Law School ranks among the Nation's top law schools. It receives more than 3,500 applications each year for a class of around 350 students." In Grutter, the Supreme Court held that state universities have a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from adiverse student body, and that this interest justifies the use of race as a factor in admissions. But even without affirmative action, plaintiff Barbara Grutter, who had a 3.8 GPA and 161 LSAT score, probably couldn't get into the University of Michigan Law School today. In recent years, the average incoming University of Michigan Law School student has had a 3.7 GPA and 168 LSAT score.
Coming out of college, I didn't have a 3.7 GPA. The As I earned in Choir I, Choir II, Acting I, Acting II, Experimental Composition, and Creative Writing barely pulled my GPA above a 3.4. I would need a sky-high LSAT score to guarantee myself a seat at my father's law school.
According to the American Bar Association, when my father began his legal education in 1968, there were just 3,554 women enrolled in ABA-accredited schools; in 2005, there were 66,613. In 1971, just 5,568 minority students attended ABA-accredited law schools; in 2005, 29,768 did.10 There's a good chance my father couldn't get into the University of Michigan Law School today with his old scores. But that's the kind of sound-minded evaluation that can only be done in retrospect; before I took the LSAT, all I knew was that I had to score at least a 170 so I could get into my father's law school, or else, like scientist George Darwin, I'd be forever doomed to work in my father's professional shadow.
The biggest obstacle standing in the way of my getting a spectacular LSAT score was my mediocre test-taking ability, as evidenced by my mediocre GPA. The best thing I hadgoing for me was all the free time I had to attend LSAT prep classes like Kaplan, which boasted a "unique combination of the highest quality study materials, realistic testing experiences, and dynamic teachers and tutors"; The Princeton Review, which promised to help me "master LSAT content, build skills with practice tests, and learn proven test-taking strategies"; and PowerScore, which claimed to provide me with "the maximum exposure to the concepts that appear on the LSAT, access to the best possible instructors and classroom material, and the best support system to augment [my] studies." I could easily fit all three into my schedule and still have time to not get a job.
In Barrel Fever, David Sedaris wrote: "The truly crazy are labeled so on the grounds that they see nothing wrong with their behavior."11 Similarly, truly bad test takers don't grasp how bad they are at taking tests until they get their grades back. If they knew how poorly they were going to do, they would study harder. That's the best way I can explain my decision not to take any LSAT review courses.
I might justify my decision by saying (1) I did well on the SAT, (2) the LSAT is just one letter away, (3) my ex-workout buddy, who got into a prestigious California law school--a prestigious ABA-accredited California law school--told me that the LSAT and SAT are "pretty much the same test," and (4) I believed him.
Unfortunately, in making my decision I failed to consider that (1) my parents forced me to take a Princeton Review course before the SAT, (2) the course greatly improved my SAT score, and (3) the reason I stopped working out with my ex-workout buddy was that I couldn't tolerate his habitual lying.
A few weeks after the LSAT review course sign-up dates had passed, my daily Internet surfing session brought me to lsac.org, which offered the complete October 1996 LSAT. I downloaded and printed the test, found my mom's old egg timer in the drawer under the stove, set it for thirty-five minutes, began the first section, and quickly cursed my ex-workout buddy for the liar he was.
Here are two sample SAT--not LSAT--questions taken from the College Board's Official SAT Study Guide. The College Board gives test takers roughly sixty seconds to answer each question, so start your timers and BEGIN NOW:
He displayed a nearly pathological ____________, insisting on knowing every detail of his friends' lives.
Efforts are finally being made to ____________ the traffic congestion that plagues the downtown area.
STOP. Put down your pencil. The answer to the first question is C, and the answer to the second question is B, and if you're smart enough to read this book, you knew that already.
Now, try your hand at two questions taken from the October 1996 LSAT. Test takers get about ninety seconds to answer each question, so, once again, start your timers and BEGIN NOW:
No one in the French department to which Professor Alban belongs is allowed to teach more than one introductory level class in any one term. Moreover, the only language classes being taught next term are advanced ones. So it is untrue that both of the French classes Professor Alban will be teaching next term will be introductory level classes.
The pattern of reasoning displayed in the argument above is most closely paralleled by that in which one of the following arguments?
(A) The Morrison Building will be fully occupied by May and since if a building is occupied by May the newtax rates apply to it, the Morrison Building will be taxed according to the new rates.
(B) The revised tax code does not apply at all to buildings built before 1900, and only the first section of the revised code applies to buildings built between 1900 and 1920, so the revised code does not apply to the Norton Building, since it was built in 1873.
(C) All property on Overton Road will be reassessed for tax purposes by the end of the year and the Elnor Company headquarters is on Overton Road, so Elnor's property taxes will be higher next year.
(D) New buildings that include public space are exempt from city taxes for two years and all new buildings in the city's Alton district are exempt for five years, so the building with the large public space that was recently completed in Alton will not be subject to city taxes next year.
(E) Since according to recent statute, a building that is exempt from property taxes is charged for city water at a special rate, and hospitals are exempt from property taxes, Founder's Hospital will be charged for city water at the special rate.
At an evening concert, a total of six songs--O, P, T, X, Y, and Z--will be performed by three vocalists--George, Helen, and Leslie. The songs will be sung consecutively as solos, and each will be performed exactly once. The following constraints govern the composition of the concert program:
• Y must be performed earlier than T and earlier than O.
• P must be performed earlier than Z and later than O.
• George can perform only X, Y, and Z.
• Helen can perform only T, P, and X.
• Leslie can perform only O, P, and X.
• The vocalist who performs first must be different from the vocalist who performs last.
• If Y is performed first, the songs performed second, third, and fourth, respectively, could be--
a. T, X, and O
b. T, Z, and O
c. X, O, and P
d. X, P, and Z
e. X, T, and O
STOP. Put your pencils down.
The only thing those LSAT questions have in common with the SAT questions earlier is the number of answer choices. The best thing I can say about my overall performance on the October 1996 LSAT is that I didn't cry. And while I didn't score a 170, my score did have a 1 and a 7 in it.
California, here I come.
Though it was too late to take the Kaplan or Princeton Review prep courses, it wasn't too late to go through their respective study guides. The local Barnes & Noble had an entireshelf of LSAT prep books (e.g., the Arco 30 Days to the LSAT: Teacher-Tested Strategies and Techniques for Scoring High, the PowerScore LSAT Logic Games Bible, 10 Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests, 10 More Actual, Official LSAT PrepTests), and I bought four of them. I schlepped the books to the store's café, plopped the pile on the table, and began at the beginning.
The maddeningly upbeat Barron's LSAT book kicked things off with a keyed-up "Good Luck!!!" I'd need every one of those three motivational exclamation points to get me through the study guide's seven hundred pages of tips, tricks, and sample exams. Barron's LSAT classified LSAT problems into categories like "Inferences and Implications" and "Parallel Reasoning or Similarity of Logic." The Princeton Review's Cracking the LSAT problem categories sounded much less scientific (i.e., "Weaken" and "Flaw"), as did the following instruction:
Suppose you wished to support the following conclusion of an argument:
Driving stupidly is permitted.
Given two forms of answer choices--blah blah blah is permitted if versus blah blah blah is permitted only if--it's clear that only the first will do.
If Barron's informal punctuation and Princeton Review's casual tone lulled me into a false sense of confidence, it didn't last long--Kaplan saw to that. Kaplan's LSAT 180 began: "We should warn you up front: This book is not for the faint of heart." Kaplan wasn't messing around. Going through Kaplan's LSAT 180 was like altitude training; theproblems were way harder than any that would be on a real LSAT exam. Here's an example:
There are those, Mr. Hobbes foremost among them, who maintain that before any positive laws were instituted, there could be no distinction between the good and the evil, the just and the unjust. In the state of nature, each had the "right" to lop off the head of any other. This frightening situation prompted those in a state of nature to form a social body and enact positive laws that forbid murder. It was only with the formation of these laws that good and evil were born; and it was only as a result of these laws that murder could be termed evil. This description is inaccurate. If murder was deemed so unfit and unreasonable an act that men entered into contracts to preserve themselves, then murder must have been understood as unfit and unreasonable before such contracts were formed. This being the case, these thinkers' supposition that there is neither "good" nor "evil" antecedent to the institution of law is self-defeating: If the distinction between good and evil is once admitted to exist, then it has always.
The author intends to discredit the view of Mr. Hobbes and similar thinkers by attempting to:
(A) present historical evidence in support of his view
(B) show that their argument contains circular reasoning
(C) show that their account of the origin of morality presupposes a contradiction
(D) point out the unacceptable consequences of their view on mortality
(E) impugn the motives of these thinkers themselves, rather than dealing with their argument.12
All but the last of those answer choices sounded good to me. I felt comfortable making arguments for each of them. But maybe that wasn't such a bad thing; as a lawyer, I'd have to make arguments on behalf of whoever walked through my door. So wasn't it then a testament to my professional capabilities that I felt equally comfortable defending the correct and incorrect answer choices?
I returned to Barnes & Noble day after day to study, and after two weeks, two things happened: (1) some answer choices began to look more correct than others, and (2) I started to feel as though I had a real job.13 When my coworkers (e.g., the Chaldean guy studying for the GRE, the Holocaust survivor who read newspapers and looked like my deceased grandfather [if my deceased grandfather were six inches shorter--and still alive], the girl who always acted as if I were hitting on her, even though I wasn't because I would never hit on anyone reading books from the New Agesection) asked me how I was doing, I'd reply, "Another Monday," or, "Weekend's coming up," which, having spent the summer of my junior year photocopying case files at my father's office, I'd learned, is what having a real job is all about.
Some days I memorized LSAT tips and tricks; others I took timed practice exam sections, which was tough because my coworkers didn't think twice about waltzing into my office (i.e., walking by my table) and striking up a conversation whenever they saw fit.
"Working hard?" they'd ask.
"You're studying for that law school test, right?"
"Well, I'll let you get back to that."
"I'll just be on my way."
"See you around."
"Say, when is the test?"
To properly practice for the LSAT--according to every LSAT prep book ever published, anyway--I would need to get through each timed practice section uninterrupted.
Five days before the test, I took an entire practice exam at my father's office. It was the ideal location: it had soundproof conference rooms and an amply stocked kitchen. My father works at a midsized Detroit law firm called Maddin, Hauser. Michael Maddin and Mark Hauser both still practice. Michael Maddin's son Marty works at Maddin, Hauser, and so does Mark Hauser's son Michael.
Starting to see a pattern with this stuff yet?
When I told my dad that I had scored a 169, you could have knocked him over with a feather.
Three days before the LSAT, I took one last practice exam--this one at home. Halfway through the second section, Rob from Tally Hall called me up and asked if I could help the band out for an hour.14
"I've got to take a practice LSAT," I replied. "It's going to take all afternoon."
"We really need your help for this publicity shot. We need you to put this medieval suit of armor on and walk out of a Porta-Potty."
Because I had already dressed up as a gorilla and as a chicken for the band, I couldn't claim to be above playing dress-up,15 so I just said, "Can't do it today. Sorry, buddy."
"Guess we'll find somebody else," Rob said, a little too quickly, as if he were trying to lure me in with that damned reverse psychology.
"Guess so," I replied.16
And so began a new direction in my life--one that prioritized scholarship over bathroom humor.
Two days and counting. I needed a study break, so my parents and I went to see the touring production of Copenhagen, Michael Frayn's play about a meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Each of the play's three acts recounts the same meeting. The play's only stage directions, I presume, are "speak" and "speak while walking in a circle." There are only three actors and no scene changes.
We saw the play at Detroit's historic Fisher Theatre, where a few dozen audience members, my family included, were selected to sit on two rows of wooden rafters framing the stage for the duration of the performance. I think the theater as a whole was intended to represent an atom, the actors being electrons circling the nucleus (hence the circle walking).17Even with the Fisher Theatre's massive spotlights shining right in my father's eyes and even with 2,008 Fisher Theatre patrons staring right at him, my father slept throughout most of the play's second act and all of its third, excluding the nuclear explosion at the end.
After graduating from college, I typically fell asleep around four, only two hours before my father's alarm went off. But as the preceding anecdote should illustrate, my father's sleep schedule was no healthier than mine.18 My dad would come home every night with a heaping pile of files to read, mark up, and leave on the kitchen table for my mother and me to spill red wine on. When he'd finished working, he could fall asleep on any couch, chair, or stool he found himself on.
After Copenhagen, we drove home and my father drank a big glass of ice water to wake himself up and then worked until one on a small business owner's pension plan. My dad fell asleep around two and woke up for work the following morning before six. The point is, though he didn't sleep much--in his bed, at least--I could trust him to wake me up on the day of the test.19
When only two contenders remain in a poker tournament, the organizers dump the contended cash on the table to remind both players what's at stake. In the same way, the LSAC administers the LSAT at the University of Michigan Law School.
The test would begin at 8:30 A.M., which meant that I would need to show up at the school at 8:00 A.M., which meant that I would need to be in Ann Arbor at 7:30 A.M. to guarantee myself a parking spot, which meant that I would need to leave West Bloomfield by 6:45 A.M., which meant that my father would need to wake me up at 5:45 A.M., which, as I've said, was not quite two hours past my bedtime.
The night before the LSAT, I climbed into bed around eleven. At midnight, I climbed out, drank two glasses of red wine, and then got back in. At one, I considered pulling an all-nighter. Getting two or three hours of sleep, I reasoned, might be worse than getting none. By 1:15 A.M., I had decided that an all-nighter was definitely the way to go. By 1:30 A.M., once I had committed myself to not falling asleep, I fell asleep.
My dad woke me up at 5:45 A.M. ("Time to get up"), and then again at 6:00 A.M. ("Okay, I gave you fifteen minutes"), and then again at 6:10 A.M. ("Do you even want to do this, or should I just let you sleep through it?"). Damn reverse psychology. Works every time. I was up. By 8:15 A.M., I had made it to the University of Michigan Law School campus, a few acres of gorgeous Gothic architecture, which I was way too tired to appreciate. I stood in line with a few hundred of my peers to get a seat assignment. I was nervous but also too tired to manifest my nervousness. I couldn't find the energy to pace or even tap my foot.
I recognized many of the test takers, and not just from the University of Michigan poli-sci department, althougheverybody in the poli-sci department was there. Many of my high school classmates, classmates who had never struck me as the legal type, had apparently been harboring Law & Order dreams of their own. Like Becky, who acted like a Valley Girl impersonating a Valley Girl (even though our high school was located over two thousand miles from the San Fernando Valley), and Rod, who was best known for scoring a hat trick of 5s on his AP Chemistry, AP Physics, and AP Calculus BC exams (a feat far more impressive than scoring a 170 on the LSAT) and for pulling his pants down behind the backs of substitute teachers.
Before the exam, representatives of The Princeton Review brought goodie bags to their LSAT prep course graduates. The bags contained inspirational messages, several pieces of candy, and some No. 2 pencils. Finally, I made it to the front of the line, where a proctor showed me to my assigned seat, which was next to that of a girl wearing sorority sweatpants and a Chris Perry football jersey.
"You ready?" I asked.
She nodded and then looked away. She was in no mood to talk; she was in the zone. So I continued the conversation, hoping to throw her off her game, thus bringing down her score, thus increasing the relative worth of mine.
"Did you take a review course?" I asked, even though I already knew she did because I had seen her putting a Princeton Review goodie bag in her backpack.
She squeezed her pencil in frustration. My strategy was working. She said that, yes, she did take a review course, and that all of her sorority sisters had taken courses as well, exceptfor Chesca, her sorority's president, who was only taking the LSAT to give her mother, a state judge, numeric proof of how unlikely it was that Chesca would follow in her footsteps. It's that kind of "who cares?" attitude that quiets the nerves and practically guarantees success. Chesca probably scored a 180.
Halfway through the proctor's introductory comments, I felt the need to relieve myself. The proctor told us to pick up our pencils and begin the first section, so I did, hoping the proctor would give us a break between the first two sections.
The second section was particularly tough, but when you have to urinate as badly as I did, anything except for urinating is tough. When the second section ended, the administrator told us to put our pencils down.
"You may now take a two-minute break," she announced. "You are not permitted to discuss any aspects of the test with each other." I ran out of the room, down the hallway, down the stairs, past the lockers, into the bathroom, and back, in record time, but everyone had already begun the third section by the time I returned.
"Time's up," the proctor announced at the end of the third section. "Put your pencils down. There will be a fifteen-minute break. You are encouraged to use the bathroom during this time."
Like the practice LSAT, I got through the real thing without crying. Everybody did. We were fidgety at the start, but eventually the coughing and throat clearing andpencil tapping stopped and everybody got down to business.
The LSAC Web site told me I'd get my score back in approximately three weeks. My mom suggested I find a project to keep my mind off my LSAT score, which, she pointed out, I could no longer affect. So I got to work obtaining letters of recommendation. The University of Michigan allows students to submit up to four letters of recommendation. Every law school prep book I read said that when it comes to letters of recommendation, "allows" means "requires."
My first letter came from Ralph Williams, my undergraduate Bible in the English Language professor. The people on the University of Michigan Law School admissions committee definitely knew who he was; he had won the Michigan Daily's Best Professor award nine of the last ten years. This professor had (once) adored me, but I was nervous about asking him to write me a letter of recommendation because our last interaction hadn't ended well: I'd interviewed him on behalf of The Michigan Daily and my editor ran the article under the headline "Professor Exposes It All," which made it sound like the guy took his pants off during our interview.
Professor Williams canceled our initial meeting due to a literary emergency: he had to fly to England to help Salman Rushdie work out some last-minute kinks on an upcoming stage adaptation of Midnight's Children. So we met the following week. After reading several of my undergraduate papers and interrogating me as to why I wanted to go into law,Williams agreed to write my first letter of recommendation. He even got Rushdie to edit it.
Not really, but that would have been cool.
For my second letter, I approached my high school drama teacher. A high school drama teacher isn't the most obvious choice for a law school recommendation, but she thought I was an artistic genius, and for recommendations, enthusiasm counts. I found her onstage leading a dozen kids through an improvisational exercise that involved crying, hugging, and apologizing. She noticed me standing in the back of the theater and introduced me as "one of the finest actors to have ever mounted the Andover stage."20 Naturally, she agreed to write my second letter of recommendation.
Once I had my recommendation momentum going, I had no problem securing my third and fourth letters from my Comparative Politics and Creative Writing professors.
Then I received an e-mail from the LSAC. The e-mail.
I got a 163 out of 180--89.9th percentile.
I wouldn't have to buy that one-way California ticket after all. My chances of University of Michigan Law School admission, though, were not good. I'd needed a 170 to guarantee myself a seat, and I'd fallen seven points short. So after I sent in the U-of-M application, I applied elsewhere,which wasn't easy for me; the only school I had ever imagined myself attending was my father's. First I applied to the William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, then the DePaul University College of Law in Chicago, schools that, given my numbers, I would probably get into. I also applied to the University of Chicago Law School, the New York University School of Law, and Columbia Law School--three schools to which I'd only be admitted in the event of a clerical error. But for a couple hundred (of my parents') dollars in application fees that was a chance I was willing (i.e., allowed, per my parents' approval) to take. Still, U-of-M was my number-one choice.
The next week, in a misguided attempt to distract me from the admission results, my father began to tell me law school horror stories. I learned about the Socratic Method of teaching, in which a professor calls upon a random student and asks her to state the facts of a case. The student does so, and then the professor asks a series of increasingly complex questions until (1) the student correctly identifies the main issues of the case and the judge's opinion on those issues, (2) the student tears a page from her book and waves it as a white flag, or (3) the class brownnoser calls out the correct answer, relieving the first student of her impending doom and confirming his position as class brownnoser.
My father went into the garage and pulled out a dusty, gray, thirty-five-year-old law school folder. He showed me one of his marked-up legal writing papers:
"You have negligence and malpractice hopelessly confused."
"Your sentences are often unintelligible and consistently show poor grammar."
"This brief exhibits a shallowness of preparation and a lack of familiarity with the basic approach to legal writing sufficient to make me think you didn't try very hard."
He said it was one of his good papers.
My dad also suggested that I read One L, Scott Turow's 1977 book about his first year at Harvard Law School. Fifty pages in, I understood why my father had waited until after I'd submitted my applications: I've read three Stephen King novels, one book on exorcism, and one on delusional paranoid schizophrenia, and One L was easily scarier than all of them put together.
Turow, who'd felt overwhelmed and intellectually inadequate throughout his first year, had an LSAT score in the 99th percentile. If law school scared a genius like him, I could only imagine what it would do to an 89th percentilian like me.
Envelope size takes all the drama out of application results. If you get a big, chunky envelope from the school of your choice, congratulations, you're in. If you get a measly #10, you're not. In the movies, schools use #10 envelopes for rejections and acceptances so the characters don't know whether they've been accepted until they ask their best friend (who's secretly in love with them and doesn't wantthem to leave their hometown for the big city but still feigns enthusiasm) to open the envelope because they're just too nervous.21
I received rejections from the University of Chicago, NYU, and Columbia that went something like this:
Dear Rick Lax,
Thank you for applying to The ____________ Law School. Of the thousands who apply each year, we can only select a few hundred, and let's just say, you're not one of them. However, your college transcript, LSAT score, and personal essay gave the Admissions Committee the laugh we needed to lighten the painstaking process of sorting through the real applicants. For that, we thank you.
But you should have seen our faces when we saw your junior year grades. We were like, "Whoa! Whaaa ha ha! Tee hee hee hee! Hee hee hee heeeeee!" Good times.
To return the favor, we considered sending you a plain white postcard with "NO" stamped on it in red capital letters, but decided it would be funnier to send you the rejection letter you're reading now in one of our acceptance envelopes. That way, when you saw it, you'dthink you got in, only to then feel the sudden, crushing disappointment that is the reality of your own feeblemindedness.
We hate you,
The ____________ Law School
As expected, the University of Las Vegas accepted me, and even threw in a $9,000 annual scholarship. DePaul University College of Law in Chicago trumped that with an $18,000-a-year offer, accompanied by a 100 percent cotton XL school T-shirt.
So this is what Kobe Bryant missed out on when he skipped college.
The University of Michigan Law School letter showed up last, and it showed up in a #10 envelope. That envelope contained the best news a #10 envelope could: I had made the waiting list. But so had Barbara Grutter (of Grutter v. Bollinger). Grutter sued the school, which didn't work, so I tried using a connection--a University of Michigan Law School donor who just happened to be my father's friend's sister's friend. I called the woman up and invited her to breakfast. I charmed and flattered her over pancakes before asking her to put in a good word for me with the admissions committee.
"I'd be delighted to," she said. "I think the school would benefit from having more students with your passion and optimism."
Her use of the word "optimism" scared me. Am I optimistic to think our breakfast might actually get me off the waitinglist? Am I optimistic to think I could get into the University of Michigan Law School in the first place?
"I just hope you don't lose your passion and optimism when school begins. Or when you enter the real world."
"This was great," she said at the end of our meal. "I wish all my breakfasts were this fun. I know you'll find success wherever you end up."
If that sounds like a polite reassurance to you, you're not a lawyer. If you were, you'd see it for what it was: a disclaimer.
My parents and I flew to Las Vegas to tour the UNLV law school. It was 113 degrees, and I couldn't even make it from the main lecture hall to the library.22 UNLV might have the best law school in the country, but if I can't walk from a school's lecture hall to its library without catching fire, it's not for me.
Instead of touring the campus, I spent the evening in the Bellagio poker room learning that beating my buddy Steve the law clerk in our weekly heads-up game didn't mean I could beat a group of eighty-year-old retirees who spent nine hours a day supplementing their Social Security checks with the money of (the parents of) Phil Ivey wannabes like me.
Back home, another #10 envelope from the University ofMichigan awaited me in the mailbox. My mom took the rejection harder than I did, so I was put in the odd position of having to console her, wiping away the tears she was shedding on my behalf. This was a brilliant mothering strategy on her part; by forcing me to console her, she distracted me from my own sadness and disappointment. Later in the day the rejection hit me.
My dad wanted me to continue his law school legacy more than anything in the world, but he couldn't really complain about paying $18,000 less per year for DePaul. So we flew to Chicago.
The DePaul University College of Law is located in Chicago's business district, the Loop. The Loop is home to the Sears Tower and the Art Institute of Chicago (see Ferris Bueller's Day Off), the Daley Center (see The Blues Brothers), the Daley Plaza (see The Fugitive), Buckingham Fountain (see Married with Children), and all the other major midwestern landmarks that aren't in New York. (Aside from the St. Louis Gateway Arch and ... did I mention the Arch?)
My mom booked us a hotel right on Michigan Avenue, the street on which the Hancock Building, the Water Tower Place mall, the Magnificent Mile shopping stretch, Millennium Park, and the Art Institute are all located. We fought our way through a stampede of tourists from the hotel to the Lewis Center, the law school's main building. DePaul Law administrators brag that the Lewis Center is located right in the heart of downtown Chicago, which, while true, is reallyjust a polite way of saying, "Watch out for the homeless guy urinating on the sidewalk behind you."23
The Dean of Admissions, a stocky game show host trapped in the life of a midwestern law school administrator, greeted my family and led us to the Lewis Center's sixth floor and through a pair of massive doors, which swung silently open into DePaul's mock courtroom.
The Dean of Admissions hit us with a barrage of DePaul University College of Law facts:
• The current mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, graduated from DePaul, as did two former mayors.
• Over 250 judges graduated from DePaul as well.
• Though DePaul is a Catholic university, it has a faculty exchange program with the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
• DePaul was the first law school in Illinois to admit Jews.
I couldn't help but feel the Dean of Admissions was looking at my parents and me as he spouted off those last two facts.
The one fact the dean didn't mention was the DePaul University College of Law's U.S. News & World Report ranking. The reason the Dean of Admissions didn't mention DePaul's ranking was that DePaul hadn't made the Top100 list; DePaul was a Tier 3 School.24 Nobody at DePaul, I soon learned, talked about the school's ranking. Sore subject.
The dean shook our hands vigorously and passed us off to a student named Alexis, a girl from South Carolina with pink sparkles on her cheeks and purple sparkles around her eyes. Alexis was so excited to show us around the school that it made everybody uncomfortable, except for Alexis herself, who was too excited to notice how uncomfortable the rest of us were. DePaul must have imported this girl from the drama department and given her a script with the following stage direction: "Don't be afraid to take this Law Student Tour Guide character over the top. However big you think this character should be played, play it bigger."
"So how is everybody? Can you believe you're actually here? Actually going to law school? This is so exciting!"
"Well, it looks like you guys--and gals; I see you back there, ladies--have already gone over the basics, so now I'm going to show you around the school and let you in on a few of the building's secrets."25
Alexis walked us to the law library explaining that every week first-year students attend "Thursday Night Bar Review" meetings. Then she pulled me and the other prospective students aside and told us that Thursday Night Bar Review had nothing to do with the bar exam and everythingto do with patronizing new pubs and reviewing them.
My father asked me what Alexis had told us, but I was too embarrassed to say. One of the other prospective students must have snitched, though, because a parent asked, "Just how much drinking goes on here?"
Alexis gave us a look of disappointment. We had breached the sacred tour guide/prospective student code of confidentiality. Then she let the parents in on the Thursday Night Bar Review "joke."
I've never seen so many parents roll their eyes in unison.
We strode through the library's fourth floor.
"This is where you come to get serious work done," Alexis said. "The only trouble with studying here is the no food or drink policy, but," she whispered, "if you're real sneaky, you can probably bring a bottle of water and a small box of raisins in. And if somebody complains, just tell them Alexis said it was okay."
Alexis asked if we had any questions.
"Something is missing," my father said, and I feared he was going to mention a particular volume of a highly specialized tax publication or, worse, a specific issue of the Michigan Law Review.
"Students," he continued. "Didn't the Dean of Admissions tell us that finals are next week?"
"I think a lot of students are studying at home this weekend," Alexis said.
My father didn't buy it, but he wasn't about to embarrass me by pressing the matter further. He wasn't going to breakinto a story about how, when he was in school, he had to wait twenty minutes just to get a seat in the University of Michigan law library reading room.
My dad walked me through the University of Michigan law library when I was ten, and the experience ruined me for all other law libraries. People say that the University of Michigan law library looks like a movie set, but saying that doesn't do the building justice, which is doubly unfortunate, as justice is the very thing about which people go there to learn.
The building's gigantic archways, exquisite stained-glass windows, and imposing chandeliers are said to inspire even the most reluctant students to crack their books. Walking through the reading room, students feel a profound connection to the great Michigan lawyers of the past--they do until somebody's cell phone goes off with its ringer tone set to Jay-Z's "Money, Cash, Hoes."
The Gothic architectural period ended in the sixteenth century, but Thomas Edison didn't invent the first practical lightbulb until 1879, so, in the name of authenticity, the University of Michigan's law library's courtyard was built with no artificial lighting whatsoever, which explains why John Norman "Co-ed Killer" Collins--whom one of my father's friends would go on to defend--hung out there.
Originally, in response to the murders, the University of Michigan installed street lamps. The law students thought the street lamps destroyed the courtyard's aesthetic integrity, so these future lawyers and politicians tore the lamps down with their bare hands.
My father was one of the diggers.
You'd think he would have been more receptive to electric lighting given what happened one night in the fall of 1968. My mother was sitting on the steps that lead from the law library courtyard to the reading room, waiting for him to finish studying, when a man approached and offered to walk her to her car. My mom, who had seen a police sketch artist's rendering of John Norman Collins, noticed a resemblance. She screamed, ran to her car, drove to her apartment, and called the police.
When Collins was arrested in 1969, my mom saw his photograph in the paper. It was the same guy.
I wonder how she felt about my dad tearing down the street lamps.
The DePaul University College of Law library looks comparatively bland and has no checkered romantic past. The only checkered part is the bathroom floor.
Alexis walked us through the computer center, the student lounge, and a few classrooms--all beige. After the tour concluded, my parents and I joined the tourist stampede, following it up Michigan Avenue to the Water Tower Place mall food court. In the evening, we took a taxi to Lincoln Park and attended our family friend Hanna's one-woman show about how the guys she dates are either not Jewish enough or way too Jewish,26 and how her dreams to write for Saturday Night Live haven't yet been realized.
She'll be in law school within four years.
I spent the next two months back in Michigan, where my days as a cowbellist were coming to an end. During my final "Banana Man" performance, I thought about how large the maturity gap between me and the Tally Hall guys was about to grow: the following month, they were driving to New Jersey to sing songs about bananas, rapping robots,27 and the Olsen twins;28 I was driving to Chicago to become a lawyer.
LAWYER BOY. Copyright © 2008 by Rick Lax. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America.