I don’t feel like I was a typical law student, if there is such a thing. I certainly didn’t feel like one. Most of my class at William Mitchell College of Law had recently graduated from college with an undergraduate degree. A few had worked a year or two after graduation, but even few more, like me, had families and children. I had recently left the Army and had two young kids. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but we made it work.
I chose William Mitchell mostly because it was the only school that offered a true night school path. My classes were generally started between 4-5PM and ended in most cases not later than 8:30 or 9PM. This was doable, but I knew would be very tough for my family. I was able to handle a full-time job and then heading to school, but it was Amy who would be mostly responsible for everything necessary for the kids and home life. Night school meant this was a three-year path to graduation, so we all had a difficult challenge in front of us.
The difficulty really started after my release from the Army in early July. In a very short time I had to find a job, figure out how to pay for law school, find appropriate lodging in Minnesota, and otherwise support my young family in the transition. This was in 1989, so the kids were only 3 and 1.
Amy also had to find employment. The meager job I found as a bailiff law clerk in Ramsey County was hardly enough. It wasn’t much more than minimum wage at the time. Once Amy found a job, we also had to deal with childcare costs. Not only was this a time of huge transition for us, but marked the start of some tough financial times for me and my family. We had no choice but to put ourselves on an extremely small weekly allowance.
As has been a pattern in our lives, we were looking for housing at a bad time. Interest rates were in the high teens, so even modestly priced homes were hard to afford. We were fortunate that my parents offered down payment assistance for our house. The home we found was on St. Paul’s west side. We ignored my father’s plea for a better location, but felt somewhat comfortable with the lower pricing we thought we could afford. We found a home where we could assume the current mortgage (not common in those days) and we jumped! That decision was certainly the best “affordable” one, but also led us away from what could have been more suitable in the long term. We were just happy to find something that got us out of my parent’s basement.
I was not ready for law school in any way. Yes, I was more willing and able to put in the effort than I likely would have if I’d gone straight from college. I found the classroom experience closer to high school than the freedom I had learned to enjoy at the University of Minnesota. First, there was assigned seating for most classes. Second, class sizes were much smaller, so there was no hiding in the audience. Beyond that, I had no forewarning about things such as “briefing cases,” teaching using the “Socratic method,” or grades that were based upon one mid-semester and one final exam. Because of this, and the fact that I’d been out of the education system for over five years, it took me an awfully long time to adjust.
One benefit that I had that others in my class did not was the fact that I was not particularly worried about my class standing. I found law school to be exceptionally competitive. Even though I’ve always been a competitive person, I had no idea that classmates would quickly do just about anything to make you look bad (if it made them look better). It was truly a dog-eat-dog world. There were some exceptions, so I was able to make a few friends. For me, though, I knew that I had a job at the end (assuming I finished and passed the bar exam!). My dad had promised a job to any of me or my siblings who chose to try. Much to his chagrin, I was the only one who took him up on it. Still, knowing I had a job took away a significant amount (much needed) of pressure off of me.
One of my goals in law school was to somehow balance the severe burden I was putting on Amy and the kids. I promised that I would always choose them over school as much as possible, except in very rare occasions. That meant stacking multiple classes as much as I could in order to allow at least one or two lighter days per week, so I could actually be home in the evening those days. I also promised Amy and myself that weekends were family time, a promise that I think I was able to keep more often than not. After my last class on Friday night until after dinner on Sunday, I completely ignored my studies and tried to be there for my family.
Though I tried to stay away from school when not in class (unlike classmates who seemed to live in the school library), I did meet a few fellow law students. Tom was an on again, off again law student and friend. I studied from time to time with Lisa, Todd, David, and others. My “best friend” in law school, though, was a young lady named Leah. Somehow Leah and I connected through a mutual love of baseball. I think it was during an extended Legal Writing class where we were trying to find the score of a Twins game. If there was anyone as ardent a Twins fan as I am, it was Leah. Those conversations between classes and during late-night studies probably saved my sanity.
As luck would have it, in the Summer of 1991, Leah happened to be dating a sports columnist from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A Minnesota Twins fan will recognize that 1991 was the year of the Twins’ second World Series Championship. Leah’s friend was able to score her two excellent tickets for the series. Knowing my love of the team, Leah graciously offered me two tickets to either game 6 or 7. I’m pretty sure she wanted to keep game 7, so I “settled” for game 6. The rest is history. My friend Toran and I saw the best game I’ve even seen. Kirby Puckett gained immortality by first snagging a ball about to ricochet off the center field wall that would have given the Brave’s the lead, and an inning later hitting a game-wining, walk-off homer at the bottom of the inning.
Most of my time in law school is a blur. I didn’t have time for much excitement. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it – or how any working parent can go to school at night! But pretty soon, I was coming near the end. Taking the cue from a few of my classmates, I took summer classes in order to lessen the burden as the classes got harder. But the classes didn’t really get harder. I had a much more difficult time with those first year classes than I did in the upper level courses. Perhaps it was because I was more interested in them. Or I was just more into the school mode and understood how to get along in law school. Either way, loading up on Summer classes enabled me to graduate in December, an entire semester earlier than the normal three-year course.
Like almost all of my colleagues, I took a Bar Exam Review course. The Bar Exam is MUCH different than law school and passing law school really does not in any way prepare someone to pass the Bar Exam! So, we studied. I actually took about a month off in order to study day and night – and was awfully glad that I did since there is no way I’d want to go through that agony again.
The day of my Bar Exam started okay. I felt that I had done my preparation and was relatively confident. Little did I know that it would soon turn into a fiasco that nearly cause me to have a stroke!
I’ve always had what seems to be a small bladder. Multiple cups of coffee does NOT help. The Bar Exam in Minnesota was quite strict about those leaving the exam area, even for the bathroom. I suspect there was a lot of cheating taking place that way. One of the ways they regulated this was to ensure only one person was allowed in the bathroom at a time. During the morning of the second day, I raised my hand to get permission to go. Once permission was granted, I left my seat and went to the bathroom. Imagine my surprise when someone else exited the bathroom as I was walking in! I continued in, did my business, and went back to my seat. Within a few moments, I was called up to the front of the large auditorium and told to bring my test and test booklet.
Not knowing what was going on, I complied. Once to the front of the room, one of the proctors asked me for the test materials and told me my exam was finished. Even though I had permission, I had apparently violated the bathroom rules and was being expelled from the exam. My blood started to boil. Rather than to take my punishment, I immediately objected (probably in a louder than necessary voice!). Everything around me seemed to start crumbling. It was six months till the next exam. Six more months until I could start getting on with my life (at least as a lawyer). The time I saved with Summer classes was wasted. Heck, I was already “old” for a new lawyer and no extra time was going to help.
As I was pleading with the proctor, the head proctor stepped over the find out what the trouble was. He was a sitting District Court Judge, Al Markert. Fortunately for me, I had clerked for Al. He backed me up 100%. He told the other proctor in no uncertain terms that I was his clerk and that he was certain of my integrity. He then grabbed the exam materials from her, handed them back to me, and told me to sit down and finish the exam. Whew! I was relieved. I could hardly focus for the rest of that day, but I somehow did well enough to pass! I am forever grateful to Al Markert for protecting me.
I was recently reminded of the terror of the Bar Exam – and the problems caused by not passing. I understand that the Minnesota State Board of Law Examiners are currently contemplating postponing the Spring Bar Exam this year due to COVID-19. I feel so bad for those law school graduates who were hoping for that Bar exam. The study for a test such as the Bar exam does NOT age well. Like so many others missing big events, this year has made us all take a step back and appreciate what we had.
It probably does go without saying that law school is quite difficult. It certainly was for me. In so many ways, though, it really made me who I am today. I really do not identify myself first as a lawyer. Being a lawyer, though, is certainly a big part of me. One of my favorite sayings is the sign on my office wall that keeps me humble (see below). No, it isn’t becoming a lawyer that affected me the most, it was the struggle, the challenge, determination, failure, confidence-killing, and being able to overcome it all that is more important to me than the actual degree. Lawyer, sure, but I’d rather be known as a decent dad, grandfather, husband, brother, co-worker, and friend. Better yet, I want to be the man my dog thinks I am!