Forgoing the Law and Finding Freedom
by Adina Giannelli
When I enrolled in law school, against my better judgment and the advice of wise and thoughtful guides, I had no idea what I was in for. Or maybe I did.
A year before, as I gathered references from my favorite teachers, all writers, memoirists, and literature professors, they blanched.
You should apply to MFA programs, Adina, my erstwhile mentor Maddy counseled over her reading glasses. I see what you’re doing. I don’t think this is the thing.
We chatted about the utility of an MFA and whether I had it in me to handle the particulars of a writing life, the cycle of rejection and defeat, the challenges, economic and otherwise.
Another mentor, an ebullient vildechaye, was more direct in her admonishment.
This is a MAJOR mistake! I’ll write you a reference, I can’t NOT, but you really shouldn’t do it.
When I reminded her that she, too, had gone to law school, she shook her head.
I went to law school because I had writer’s block, Adina! I had to go to therapy. Every. Single. Day! You should study litature, she said, her pronunciation a throwback to a midcentury Jewish American vernacular.
I never studied literature—I mean, except for your classes, I conceded. The truth, which I couldn’t access at the time, was simple. I was afraid.
You are meant to be in a PhD program in litature, Adina—my G-d! she said, melodramatically clutching at the chai around her neck, holding onto that small goatlike Hebrew letter for life.
A person with more self-awareness and a stronger backbone and less fear than I had at 19 or 23 or 25 would have not gone to law school at all. A slightly less witless person might have done with my friend Samantha did, which was enroll, show up, and quit on day one. But law school was respectable, and it was something to do, and I thought I could fight my better judgment and shrug off whatever shred of self-knowledge I harbored. I always did what I’d always been told, in educational contexts, until I couldn’t, and this was very much a square peg/round hole situation, but I labored through.
In my last year of law school, though, against all reason, I fell inexplicably pregnant, and organized myself accordingly. I was scheduled to finish my studies in May; the baby was due in June; I’d take the bar in July.
Maybe you should think about rescheduling the bar exam, my midwife urged.
The bar will be there next year, my adored law school professor Lauren promised.
After some measure of reflection I decided that they were right.
The bar exam would be there the following year—of course.
The baby, however, would not.
Talya was born inexplicably small, precipitously tiny, her size a mystery and a riddle and an augury. Before I knew that, before I knew that this girl would be born at four pounds and chronically unsettled, I knew I could not leave a newborn to sit for a two-day examination I never really cared about. So with the clarity and wisdom and berth of a woman nearly nine months pregnant—and pathologically ambivalent about the practice of law, besides—I decided to postpone the test. We would all carry on as scheduled, I with the baby, and the Massachusetts Board of Bar Examiners might miss my $815, but the bar would go on.
True to expectation, the bar exam rolled along as scheduled. But the day my law school colleagues sat for the bar exam was the day my firstborn child died.
I was never the sort of person who relied on signs but if ever there was a message from the universe, this was a sure one: I should not be a lawyer.
And so for years I carried on accordingly. I coped, or didn’t. I tried, and didn’t. In some respects, I thrived, and in most measures, I functioned, but I was more than a little unmoored. Through it all, the loss resounded. I felt many things and I felt almost nothing, but mostly I felt like a strange sort of mourning beach, the grief washing back and forth over me like a tide.
On the professional front, the lawyering front, I hedged. I learned, through various internships and clerkships in and after law school, that I was highly effective at executing the responsibilities associated with legal work, but not temperamentally suited to the practice of law. I thrive under pressure, and love it when the stakes are high.
A close friend and amateur astrologer once told me that I was well suited to four and only four occupational categories: teacher, writer, therapist, and deputy. You are strongest when second in command, she promised. You give excellent advice, but always think that more information is coming, and don’t want to be the one charged with the final decision. I put little stock in astrology, but clung to this comment as a dictate. Even at the bottom of an organizational hierarchy, a lawyer is never second-in-command. The idea of being responsible for someone’s legal outcomes left me sleepless and stressed out beyond measure.
I recognized late what I hadn’t ever been brave enough to name: I was curious about the law, I loved studying the law and excelled at research and administration and teaching undergraduate students about the law, but I hadn’t ever wanted to be a lawyer. I went to law school because it was something to do, because my mind had intellectual questions that could not be answered in a seminar or a laboratory or a workshop, and I thought I wasn’t made for those places, either. I went to law school because after my mentors said don’t I earned a full scholarship and before that a long line of people who didn’t really know me or lawyering told me I should be a lawyer. After all, I was good at reading and good at reasoning and good at arguing, the imagined big three of a lawyer’s life. But it wasn’t what I wanted. It was someone else’s dream, and I was good, too, at other people’s dreams.
Still, even at the point of peak engagement in the legal world, I never intended to practice, and so completing the bar was not a test of my legal knowledge or an opportunity to prove my acumen. You worked so hard, my grandmother chided me, each time the bar exam came up. How hard I worked is an open question, but the fact is, I already earned the degree. I didn’t need to take the bar to validate the many hours of effort and time that went into law school.
Eventually, though, I realized: I did need to take the bar. But for me, the exam was a different sort of trial. The process was unceremonious; the failure, practically preordained.
Now, I wouldn’t have minded if I passed, however unlikely that outcome. It was clear to me that passage was nearly impossible, given that I’d been out of law school for six years and had barely cracked open my study materials. I’m not proud of that, either, but it’s real. I lacked inclination; I lacked time. In the months leading up to the bar exam, I was running an organization; single parenting a small child; teaching three undergraduate courses; pretending to be a full-time graduate student, and dealing with the residual trauma of the recent and horrific murder of my partner’s ex. So I was a little preoccupied. Some say that because of the symbolic and material significance of the date, the exam itself would traumatize. Probably all true. But I’m not sure I would have passed even if circumstances were different—if I’d done the requisite two months of solitary 10-12 hour days—no job, no child, no graduate school, no trauma. And I’m not sure I would have cared.
If I passed, I won, but if I failed I was equally victorious. True to my mentors’ protestations, I never fully belonged in the legal world. And the trauma of my daughter’s death compounded that feeling, heightened my sense of disjuncture and cemented the belief that I should not practice law. And so taking the bar was never about passing the bar, and it was never about validating my self-concept or measuring my sense of worth.
The bar was about being stuck someplace for five and a half years, clawing and scratching and scrounging up the wherewithal to move out and through and beyond it. And I did.
So when I looked around the room at the end of the final day, and saw people, anxious in their anticipation and fear of an adverse outcome, I was outside once more. For me, it was another experience entirely.
When I walked through that auditorium door at the close of the examination, what I felt was not fear or pride, anticipation or longing, or, even, to my great surprise, grief at the death of my long-gone daughter. The bar for me was not the start of a chapter but the closing of a book. I left that exam feeling lighter than I’d felt in a very long time. I had made it through, as surely as I’d been stuck. The victory was quiet, my roar also inaudible. There were no accolades, no job offers, no awards for leaving the law behind. And a literary path was sure to be pocked with different kinds of challenges. But I had crossed a threshold. And what I felt on the other side was an inexorable freedom.
Adina Giannelli is a writer and teacher whose essays have appeared in publications including Role Reboot, Salon, and The Washington Post. You can find her online at her www.adinagiannelli.com, and you can call her Adi.
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