I’m kicking myself out of law school, in my first year, a few weeks before those trepidatious first exams.
My health has deteriorated to a state that is potentially life threatening, my relationships with the people who matter most in life are getting strained, and I have no energy to be a good father to my son. But before I get into the meat of that story, I would like to highlight the truly excellent things about my law school experience. Because I imagine a few prospective law students may read this.
First off, I genuinely felt like I enjoyed every day of class. I loved being a part of a group all of whom were engaged in a common struggle. My classmates were nothing like you read about in the horror stories; in fact, every one of them with whom I interacted impressed me to no end with their wit and good spirit. I also started saying “whom” a lot, which I could tell impressed them back. Personally, I felt great as I found myself gaining skill with reading cases, writing like a lawyer, and extra-curricular activities. I felt my brain getting more limber and growing every day, and I liked the educational aspect of it far more than any other experience of that sort I’ve ever had in my life.
There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was capable of finishing law school with a strong network of great friends, good class rank and ample opportunities. Until about a month before finals.
Students all “freak out” about final exams. Throughout the semester, there are no breaks, such as for homework or exams where you can gauge how you are doing. Your entire grade in a typical 1L (1st year law) class rests on one single exam. That’s quite a lot of pressure, but I had overcome such pressure in the past. I graduated magna cum laude from my undergrad university. I also overcame the anxiety to score quite well on the LSAT and gain a generous scholarship to a well respected school.
When I had the typical 1L freak out, I got all my outlines caught up, started reading and writing from sample exams and model answers I found online, consulting with professors and faculty to improve my exam taking skills, and meeting other students for study and reflection. I was, as usual, a diligent, disciplined, competent student. But there was still a ticking time bomb.
Three weeks before finals, I guess I “relaxed” enough to tune in to what my body had been trying to tell me for some time. I was sleeping 12 hours a night and still wanting more. I was often prone to dizzy spells. At first, I blamed the home environment which involved a two-year-old who refused to stay asleep at night and was otherwise quite physically demanding in the (very enjoyable) hour or two I got to spend with him each day. I couldn’t sleep, but I’d gotten through that before. I hadn’t slept well since the little guy was born, in fact. It wasn’t usually an issue.
The real danger was revealed during a trip to the pharmacy. While waiting for a prescription to be filled, I tried out the automatic blood pressure machine. It read something in the ballpark of 173/90, registering just under the “hypertension” red line. I figured I’d had a long day, and it would get better, but a few weeks later at a vaccination appointment I asked my son’s doctor to check my pressure and it was by then well into the danger zone. The look on her face was enough to send me into a bit of a panic. She scheduled me in as quickly as she could, and what followed was a weekend of yoga, meditation, and relaxing.
I got my blood pressure down to a level approaching safe. I tried an hour of working a practice exam, only to find that my pressure had shot up into the danger zone again as a consequence. I knew that I always got excited by the material, but the impact of it on my health was unsettling. I gave up for the weekend and went back to relaxing, in hopes that the doctor could give me drugs that would put the smack down on my system and let me plow through regardless of what my body wanted. I notified the officials at school about what was going on, and friends there who heard about me sent me class notes and were very helpful. Many teachers sent encouraging emails and pod-casts of the classes. Again, this is a great law school I’m talking about.
Monday came around, and a good friend gave me a ride to the doctor’s office. I was put on the EKG which said my heart rate was way out of hand even after the weekend of R&R. My blood pressure was better, though still not good. I was prescribed some drugs, I gave some blood for tests, and went home. The drug got my heart rate down within a half day or so, and prevented it from spiking with every wave of panic I was now feeling off and on. My blood pressure improved a little, but between the pressure of every day of lost study that was hanging over my head and the very realistic terror about the possibility of severe, maybe deadly consequences to my health probably held it back.
By Tuesday night, I felt well enough to consider going to class, and told a few of my classmates so. Shortly thereafter, I started really feeling a serious anxiety which kept me up half the night. My blood pressure went up, though the drug kept my pulse in check. I also had several more “law-mares.” This, on top of some surprisingly unpleasant side-effects of the drugs that will make me want to get off them as soon as possible, was the nail in the coffin of my law career. I simply refuse to live like this if there’s any reasonable alternative.
So, what do I mean by a law-mare? It’s something I’ve been having since the first nights after reading tons of cases. It’s a dream that starts out fairly ordinary, and then devolves into legal analysis. For example, I’m driving a car in my dream on a nice day. From that premise, my mind would start branching into exploration of potential horrors. Such as a child running out in front of me before I had time to stop. That’s bad enough, but when the mind skips the usual nightmare scenario of blood and fear and goes straight into an analysis of the potential tort consequences for all possible parties involved, that’s even worse. Something deep within me resists reacting to a tragedy by immediately analyzing who is the best candidate to sue or what the best way to get out of being sued is. I felt really guilty when I would wake up and realize what my mind was doing. And usually sweaty and freaked out.
That’s what much of my law school training was about- when they say they are going to change the way you think, they are not kidding. Instead of thinking “oh my god, what can I do to help?” the dreams had me thinking, “Can I blame this on someone else?” Or, from a plaintiff’s perspective, who has “deep pockets” so we aren’t suing someone who we’ll never get money out of (“judgment proof”). What claims can be pursued with “straight-faced arguments.” What are the counterarguments within the factual scenario that will be pursued by my opponents. What’s the best strategy for filing, since we can’t get more than “one bite of the apple.”
If all was well, I think that I should find these dreams reassuring; my mind was learning what it needed in order to be a good lawyer as it went through the nightly reprocessing of what I picked up during the day.
At a purely intellectual level, these kinds of exercises are invigorating and fun. But instead I wake up in a sweat, mind and heart racing. This, along with the ever increasing blood pressure and heart rate, tells me that I must have taken a wrong turn by going ahead with entering law and law school. Deep down, apparently I really don’t want to think like that. I don’t know. I still think I would be an incredible lawyer if I had been able to get my balance worked out right.
More exercise, or maybe I’d need to take some heavy sedatives to get through it. But it’s over, there’s no easy way back to ordinary blood pressure, a decent quality of life, and peace of mind for me at this point.
So how can this story help a potential law school candidate better prepare?
My school offered an introductory two week course intended to prepare students for the trial to come, which I eagerly pursued and got into. I was told countless times to keep up my exercise, to set aside one day a week for non-law activities, and to eat well. I think that in practice I did alright on all of these suggestions, but I seriously underestimated the need for increasing my own already decent physical fitness level. The best coping method for the unprecedented intellectual stress is (surprise!) unprecedented physical stress from exercise.
But I’m now 36 years old freshly diagnosed with malignant hypertension. Probably not the moment to go hog wild on the treadmill, though I regret not having built up to it last summer. I had no idea what law school would do to me, and neither do you. But if you’re young, smarter than me, or lucky, you probably will get through it without unbearable suffering.
So here’s the advice. If you’re not an “immortal” 20-something when you start law, and you’re prone to being a bit high strung about intellectual activities you probably should get yourself into a medium to high intensity aerobic program that works you into far better shape than you ordinarily need to be before you start, and stick with it.
Also, know yourself. I felt I knew myself pretty well, but there was a sort of time bomb ticking throughout this whole experience. I couldn’t sense it, but maybe if I’d paid closer attention to myself I would have realized my sleep was not normal, or something else wasn’t right. So I realize that that’s not terribly helpful, but I do mean that in many ways- the unexamined life isn’t worth living, and so on.
But don’t fret on my behalf: my story has a happy ending. I have a fully intact and in-demand skill set, and a great career to fall back on. I’m lucky that I figured the blood pressure thing out before it killed me. I’m also lucky this didn’t show up later in law school after I’d spent an even greater sum toward a career of which the pressure could set off a similar catastrophe.
I have my family, and a good life. That’s enough. I wanted to be a superhero, but I realize that I am not going to pull that off. I’m going to be a good dad and husband. I’m going to branch out into new things that hold my interest in my old career so I don’t let myself get stagnated like I was. I’m going to build non-profits that help people, invent new ways to grow good food, give blood more often, play my guitar for old folks in nursing homes. Good stuff like that that helps people and makes me feel like I deserve my spot on this ride.
That said, I’m never going to regret going to law school. It was “one L of a ride” as one author put it. I learned massive amounts about the society I live in along with the ins and outs of entanglements with the legal system. All information I will hopefully never have to use, but if I do get tangled up in the godforsaken machine, I’ll at least have a fighting chance!