Sunday, May 30, 2010

Query Letter

One of the first steps to finding an agent and getting a book published is submitting a query letter. I've drafted the one below and am getting ready to send it out. Any thoughts?

To: Agent

Subject: Query: Tales of a Law School Dropout

Dear Agent,

What would you do if you found yourself pursuing a disastrous career path? Stick it out? Suffer for the rest of your life? Or do what I did—quit!

In Tales of a Law School Dropout, a 62,000 word memoir, I share what I wished I had known before going to law school. This book appeals to two audiences: people who are entertaining the idea of pursuing a legal career, and those who are just looking for a good read.

Law school has a way of multiplying your greatest weaknesses tenfold. After four months of studying gobbledygook at the Boyd School of Law in Las Vegas, I feel lucky to have anything left with which to tell my tale. My desire to make legal language understandable to everyone drew me to law school, but I discovered there were better ways to accomplish that goal.

Similar books on this topic like Scott Turow’s One L and Deborah Schneider and Gary Belsky’s Should You Really Be a Lawyer? touch on the tortures of law school but don’t delve into detail about the dropout’s perspective. Retention is a real issue in any academic program—so far nobody has been brave enough to discuss law school retention in a personal, candid way.

I am a master’s student in Higher Educational Administration and hold a BA in English-Composition and Music from the University of Nevada, Reno. I work as a Registrar. My passion for education drives me to share my knowledge with those who need the truth about law school. Five years of Toastmasters has taught me storytelling techniques that appeal to broad audiences, and has given me the confidence to speak up about an otherwise taboo subject.

Thank you for your help, and I look forward to talking to you.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Chapter 1: Cultivating the Dream

One seemingly ordinary day during my junior year of college, I was sitting in my Literature and Law class when suddenly, I knew—I could be an attorney.

The law school admissions process challenges applicants to submit a short narrative detailing why they want to attend law school, what makes them qualified, and what drives them toward graduation. I opened my personal statement for admissions committees with the sentence above, but reality paints another picture.

It began the fall semester of my junior year when I signed up for a class vaguely titled “Topics in Literature,” a course deceptively about law.

We were analyzing a judicial opinion. I usually made it a point to review the last few assignments before class, but when I pulled the one-page photocopy out of my notebook’s overstuffed pocket, I discovered I had not read the homework. I skimmed it quickly, found the language confusing, and decided to wait until the discussion to hear how my classmates hashed through it. Reading legalese induced instant amnesia. I would read a sentence, and it wouldn’t register in my brain.

The judicial opinion sparked a lively debate amongst my classmates. They scrutinized the sentences like dissecting lines of poetry. We searched for story structure, characterization, and voice. One of the older ladies in the class commented on the lofty language the judge used to emphasize Americanism. It was beginning to make sense. For the first time I realized that analyzing legal language was like examining literature, something I had been doing all along in my other English classes—something I was good at.

I could do this, I thought. I could be a lawyer.

As soon as the thought materialized, I discarded it like a used Kleenex. I had studied classical piano, and double majored in writing. I had no business thinking I could be a lawyer. Maybe I could make something of myself. Maybe if I became an attorney, I wouldn’t be so timid.

My thoughts shot back and forth like a madwoman’s metronome. Can-can’t, can-can’t, can-can’t.

Despite my interest in the law from class, I pursued something much closer to my safety zone—English with law intermixed. I later found out my Lit and Law instructor, Anne Hartman, specialized in plain English, a movement to make complex language understandable to everyone. I discovered a cause to fight for, and most importantly, a thesis topic: plain English and the law.

I emphasized my achievements in my personal statement, so I penned this:

"One seemingly ordinary day during my junior year of college, I was sitting in my Literature and Law class when suddenly, I knew—I could be an attorney. I was so steadfastly focused on completing my double major in English and music that I had not considered the idea before. Our class was analyzing the language of a judicial opinion, and although the words seemed opaque at first, I was fascinated by the way our class slowly unraveled the meaning of the judge’s words."

Inspired, I decided to write my honors thesis on the plain English movement. I wanted to explore ways of making legal language understandable to diverse audiences. As my research progressed, I realized I wanted to use the skills I had learned from studying plain English to translate legal language for clients.

In short, I embarked on a plain English crusade. I wrote numerous papers in my English classes criticizing the language of the law. I crafted a persuasive research paper arguing that Merrill Lynch needed to translate the legal hodgepodge in its prospectuses into plain English so ordinary people could invest intelligently. Nearly everyone in my English classes agreed legalese should be abolished and replaced with straightforward, unadulterated language the everyday reader could understand. I criticized law schools and law firms for adhering to antiquated legal boilerplate. Ideally, I believed most people want to understand the law they interacted with daily. Even the most complicated of legal concepts could be explained clearly.

I was out to change things. After two semesters of research and writing, I finished my honors thesis about making the language of the law more understandable to the general public. The Plain English Movement: Clarifying Legal Language for Modern Audiences was my crowning achievement.

The honors director and my thesis advisor, Dr. Anne Hartman, praised my efforts and hailed my work one of the best in the honors department that year. I thought I had found my calling: I wanted to translate legal language to make it accessible. Sadly, no “legal translator” jobs existed, so I opted for the next best option—I applied to law school.

I diligently researched my new career path and diplomatically explained away any uncertainty in my personal statement:

"Eager to explore my newfound interest in the law, I launched myself into an extensive research project on legal careers. I took a year off after graduation to make sure I really wanted to be an attorney…I interviewed attorneys from various fields of law. Most of the attorneys and judges I interviewed did not know what area of law they wanted to practice in before they went to law school. Even so, they helped me glimpse the many possibilities a law degree can offer."

A Juris Doctor (JD) had much to offer, as I found during my yearlong quest for a field of law I would enjoy. I toyed with many options:

"Multiple areas of law intrigue me: appellate law (because of my love of writing and research); contract law (because of my fascination with language); judicial clerkships (because of my respect for the system); child advocacy (because of my work with children); elder law (because of my empathy for my grandparents’ struggles); and environmental law (because of my desire to effect change). Even some of the more technical areas of law interest me, such as bankruptcy law or transactional law because they appeal to my detail-oriented side. By the time I took the LSAT, I knew why I wanted to go to law school. Becoming an attorney will allow me to use my skills to help others: to represent them, to counsel them, and to give them hope."

The thought of helping people intrigued me, but I had no idea how lawyers actually helped people. The brunt of my counseling experience involved listening to my friends’ problems and offering them suggestions. From what I could gather from TV, most lawyers resembled snakes. I joked that I would grow a forked tongue if I became an attorney.

Up until my “ah ha” moment, I had studied something as far away from law as you could get: classical piano. In my personal statement, I had to ever-so-carefully ask the law school committee to “please forgive” that digression:

"The skills that allowed me to master Beethoven sonatas will help me analyze cases in law school. Each piece of music I studied took months of preparation and practice until I could synthesize its multiple subtleties into a cohesive, finished work. Studying music theory allowed me to see how various rules applied to actual music, which often follows logical structures. Learning to perform classical music gave me an unshakable sense of discipline, patience, and focus. Although I do not envision myself becoming a concert pianist or teaching piano as a career, I value the time I have spent learning music. I hope to apply my talents to the law with equal zeal."

My piano teacher at UNR, Dr. Irwin, knew better.

I ignored the quizzical look on Dr. Irwin’s face when I told him I was applying to law school.

“You’re too nice to be a lawyer,” he said.

“There should be more nice lawyers,” I replied. He smiled without showing teeth and shook his head. I knew I wouldn’t be asking him for a letter of recommendation. Why would the admissions committee want to hear from a piano teacher, anyway? I was going to be an attorney. Besides, I didn’t want him mentioning how I had cried during one of my piano lessons the day he had forbidden me to use the word “can’t.” After my tears had subsided, he had joked that the mark of every great piano teacher was the ability to make his students cry.

Fear had stopped me from becoming the concert pianist my high school piano teacher told me I could be. As I progressed, the more terrifying piano performance became. Playing live felt like what I imagined a caveman running from a saber-toothed tiger would feel: pure, adrenaline-laced fear.

Every time I played at one of my “juries” (final exams for music majors were called juries, although they bore little resemblance to the real, legal thing) my cold, clammy hands sweated profusely. My fingers slipped and left dingy smudge-marks of perspiration mixed with dust on the keys. My left foot tapped uncontrollably against the soft pedal, while I tried to hold the other leg steady so I wouldn’t overdo the sustain pedal. I’d mess up in places I never messed up before. In my other classes, I prided myself on my dependability, but piano performances could be unpredictable and infuriating, no matter how much I prepared. Dr. Irwin kindly did not mark me down for my less-than-inspired performances. He told me not to worry—he knew I worked hard all semester.

I couldn’t be a concert pianist, so I opted to teach. I ended up teaching group piano lessons at a local music school the year before law school. Every time a student canceled a lesson because of a soccer practice, baseball game, ballet lesson, or any other activity more fun than piano, I felt foolish for pursuing teaching as a career. A few of my exceptional students made it worth it, but I fought discouragement every time I nagged my other students to practice.

I was accustomed to achieving more. I had graduated summa cum laude, earning myself the accolade Senior Scholar of the College of Liberal Arts, which was awarded to the graduate with the highest GPA from every college in the university. I had a brilliantly ambitious plan to attend law school, take the tortuous entrance exam—the LSAT—and gain admission to the only law school in Nevada, the William S. Boyd School of Law, in Las Vegas.

After perusing the school’s marketing materials, I listed many reasons why I wanted to go to Boyd in my personal statement:

"Boyd offers multiple opportunities to help me achieve my goals. The community service program will allow me to help unrepresented people and put my plain English skills to the test. The Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic offers ample opportunities to help children through its child welfare and education clinics. Participating in the Nevada Law Journal or the Society of Advocates would sharpen my writing and advocacy skills and prepare me for judicial externships. Boyd is my top choice because I plan to focus my future practice in Nevada. The same determination that drove me to become the Senior Scholar in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Nevada, Reno will propel me to succeed in law school and beyond."

True, my experience teaching piano didn’t qualify me to work on serious legal issues facing children today.

I recall buckling under a six-year-old brat’s argument during one piano lesson:

“C…D…E,” I sang as he plunked the keyboard with sticky fingers.

“Do you have to sing?” he said, looking up with his nose scrunched.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. “How about trying it again with both hands?”

He shot me a look of pure distain: “Lady, who do you think I am? Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to play with both hands?!” he said between asthmatic breaths. “I’m not doing it!” he declared, giving my leg a small kick.

Great. I get beat up by six-year-old piano students. What kind of lawyer am I going to be? On the upside, I’d caught about a cold per month from my piano students, so my immune system would be in tip-top shape by the time I’d be ready to go to law school.

I wanted to go to the closest law school to home. During all four years of college, I lived with my parents. My mom babied me because I was the youngest. I was her little classical pianist. She made my lunches. She drove me to school—dropping me off outside the music building in the morning, and picking me up outside the student union at night. All I had to do was study, which I excelled at, a fact I certainly played up in my personal statement:

"Education has been my wholehearted focus for many years now. When I think of why education means so much to me, I realize how grateful I am to have the opportunity to apply to law school."

Now I had to introduce the one thing that would lead law school committees to believe I would make it past the first year. I needed to demonstrate some captivating reason to persuade them I would finish law school, beyond being a curious, studious, intelligent person with an interest in making the law more understandable to ordinary folk. I had a reason, but I didn’t want to use it. I didn’t want to talk about it, but I did anyway:

"When my dad was young, he was sent to a Japanese internment camp, an experience we rarely discuss. Nevertheless, my father’s experience quietly remained an unmistakable influence on my desire to further my education with excellence. Our family has never let the injustices of the past overrule our faith in the future. No matter what hardships we may have faced in our family history, we can overcome them through education. It is my duty not only to further my education, but to use my knowledge to help others in need."

My belief in education had begun to fail me as graduation approached. If only I had known a liberal arts degree was tough to apply. Out of my double major in music and English, it was easier to find a job in music. English was an incredibly broad subject. I had no idea what to do with it.

The prospect of law school represented hope. Hope that I would make something of myself, hope that I could use my transferable skills of writing and research and become some high powered, high-earning official, even a judge. Hope, perhaps, that I would prove I was smart enough to graduate from law school. Hope that against my intuition, I could transform myself from an overly-sensitive English major and stage-fright pianist into a powerful, confident attorney.

Table of Contents

Ch. 1: Cultivating the Dream

Ch. 2: Getting In

Ch. 3: The Big Move

Ch. 4: Orientation

Ch. 5: Day One

Ch. 6: Classes

Ch. 7: Briefing

Ch. 8: The Socratic Method

Ch. 9 : Competition

Ch. 10: Guardian Angel

Ch. 11: Legal Writing

Ch. 12: Outlining

Ch. 13: The Midterm

Ch. 14: The Fall

Ch. 15: Too Little, Too Late

Ch. 16: Thanksgiving

Ch. 17: Counseling

Ch. 18: Finals- Prep

Ch. 19: The Final Push

Ch. 20: The Decision

Ch. 21: The Fallout

Ch. 22: Too Nice to be a Lawyer

Ch. 23: The Move Back to Reno

Ch. 24: What Next?

Ch. 25: A New Start, A New Dream

A Virtual Critique Group

Hi everyone,

I started this blog so I can create a jury of my peers, of sorts. The goal is to publish my first book, Tales of a Law School Dropout, by the end of this year. But first, I need your help. The book is almost done. Give me your feedback! If you are a pre-law student, lawyer, or anyone who has followed a career path that just wasn't right for you, I want to hear about your experience.

Every two weeks, I submit ten pages (more or less) to my critique group. The process is fun and is a great way to write a book. Now you can be part of my virtual critique group!

Please let me know what you think.