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.


  1. Very well written. Interesting! Well organized!

    I feel being a lawyer is something I perhaps could have pursued since English was my best subject also. I think that if I had pursued Law this would have given my parents something to be profoundly proud of. I am often regretful I didn't pursue becoming a lawyer for this reason. However I was always under the assumption as in your last paragraph: that a lawyer needs to be high powered and persuasive before a courtroom of people. Like a Perry Mason. [Courtroom TV Show from the 1960's and 70's] Imagine my shock and surprise when I had as a female customer [who was a Wills and Estates attorney] on my table in the casino where I work: This young woman was as quiet as a mouse. It was Extremely Tough to get her to talk!! I talked 100 times as much as she did. Boy was I wrong when I thought first; that a person needs to be a big talker to be a lawyer and second that I wasn't already a big talker myself -[especially compared to her]!
    Scanning your upcoming chapters: The Chapter entitled: "Counseling" is the one that pops out to me as One I Most Look Forward To Reading! Is that chapter about Law Counseling OR more like Life and/or Career Counseling that you needed for yourself?! [ha!!] The latter is the subject matter I would most look forward to hearing about /or rather reading!However if that Chapter title does indeed refer to Legal Counseling I am sure that the subject matter [could also] provide entertainment in its own way as well!!

    The following passage from your 1st chapter:

    <<“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.>>
    These passages give an Irresistible hint of what Might be coming up in subsequent chapters. Good tease here. I am not sure what or how this plays into your DropOut status but I'm thinking it plays in somewhere because I doubt from your writing abilities that it is your lack of scholastic skills that cause your 'dropping out'![ha]
    Years ago [during my Skiing and Cycling Years]I took a Paralegal class at the local college.[I wanted a new career besides Dealing in a Casino] The class was comprised of all Legal Secretaries and: One Casino Dealer Me [a Harrahs Casino Dealer and Expert Skiier and Long Distance Cyclist.] The teacher who was an attorney said to me after our midterm, "I was so surprised at how good [well written and thought-out] your mid-term was!!" He was so surprised [I think] because I never spoke up in class. I think the reason I never spoke up made a lot of sense: You see I felt all these legal secretaries who worked in the legal profession Every day Knew Much More about the subject of law than I Could possibly Contribute!! I still think so today. It takes practice like anything else! -What could I possibly say compared to them?? at that point?
    As you Can See your first Chapter has brought up all kinds of Food For Thought from someon who was not Even a Law Student. I Did however Read that one book what was it called it was a small book about First Year Law School. Have you ever heard of it??
    Can't WAIT to read THE REST OF YOUR BOOK!!

  2. Gina,
    Your 1st chapter is awsome!
    You really are a great writer.
    I know for sure that your book will help many people across the board. Those who are contemplating law school and thoes who are
    wanting to explore a new path to reinvent
    themselves to a higher consciousness to make
    this world a better place.
    Very well done,Gina! You make me feel so very proud of all of your many accomplishments.
    This book is a winner.
    With so much love,

  3. Gina,
    That "quiet as a mouse" female lawyer on my table at work that I met: It occurred to me also at the time that perhaps: Unless you are a trial lawyer you do not Need to be a Speaker. There are many lawyers who do research and are at a desk all day. Also I thought maybe in Wills and Estates being quiet could be an advantage because you could often be dealing with the affairs of the deceased. [??] haha

  4. Great feedback, Becky! I appreciate all of your commentary. I think a lot of people look to the law as a potential career path, especially when they have no idea what they want to do with their lives. It is not an answer to prayer, for sure.

    True to the stereotype, I think it is helpful to be talkative if you want to be a lawyer. In my case, being quiet worked against me. Not to say there are not a lot of successful attorneys out there who are quiet. It just helps to be able to articulate your point with confidence and not internalize everything.

    As you already guessed, yes, my Counseling chapter is about how I sought help after law school almost drove me crazy. :)

    You were smart to take a paralegal class. I wish I had done that prior to law school. It might have also helped to work in a law office for an extended period of time to know how people actually interact with legal concepts in real life. My guess, it's not pretty.

    Thanks for reading!