Finishing School

Beginning law school was a shock to my system.  I cried every day my first two weeks and many times after that.  (My current students should be interested in hearing.) The reading was intense; the pressure in class extreme; but the hardest part was trying to fit in.  Duke Law became my finishing school.

Having grown up poor in a small Southern town, I felt like a fish out of water.  Most of my classmates were from families of means.  Many had undergraduate degrees from Ivey League schools.  They had studied, or at least traveled, abroad – something I had never even dared to dream of doing.   They read the NY Times and the Wall Street Journal.  Really, they did.

I had a steep learning curve, but having a sense of mission gives you focus.  I knew that if I were going to accomplish my goal to help “the arc of the moral universe” bend toward justice, I needed to know how to play the law game.

There were so many firsts.  I attended cocktail parties and had lunches with governors.  I flew to New York for a job interview, rode in a taxi and tasted sushi.  I argued cases in mock trials and worked on group policy projects.  I shook hands with US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and stood with Senator Joe Biden in his Washington office as he talked about getting through the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident.  I helped create a student public interest organization.  I even made my first run for public office, a position on a faculty student committee that dealt with career services.   I won.  And I read the NY Times and listened to NPR.

For my first summer, I was fortunate to clerk for N.C. Court of Appeals Judge Charles Becton.  For my second summer, I interned at Ferguson and Stein, a civil rights law firm in Chapel Hill.  During my third year, I took a very part-time internship with the North Carolina Resource Center, an organization that defended inmates on death row in post-conviction proceedings.   Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was building a network of friends in the right places.

I added a second life theme song: Faith by George Michael

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Getting Into Law School

Pursuing a law degree begins with taking the LSAT, a standardized test that is supposed to measure “acquired reading and verbal reasoning skills.”  Thankfully, I had always done well on standardized tests.  I would have been more concerned had it measured depth of knowledge on a broad range of subjects.   Yes, I had a B.A. and a M.Div., but I had not grown up in an environment conducive to being well-read.

When I opened the envelope containing my test results, I knew my life had just changed.  My scores were high.  In that moment, my options for law school expanded exponentially.  I would not be limited to local public law schools — not that there was anything wrong with those schools.  But staying in Kentucky to go to law school would mean I would probably stay in Kentucky after law school.  Kentucky was not where I imagined settling down.  In fact, I was not ready to settle down.  I had dreams of an education that would expand my horizons.

I sent applications off to some “safe” schools, to a couple of mid-range national schools, and a couple of “stretch” schools.  Much to my surprise, I was accepted by one of my stretch schools – Duke University School of Law.  I could not believe it.

I applied to Duke because 1) it was in North Carolina and I loved North Carolina, having spent two summers in the mountains, 2) it offered a dual degree program, giving me a chance to earn a Masters in Public Policy at the same time as I earned a law degree, and 3) it was a well-respected national school that would most certianly expand my horizons.

There was one huge looming obstacle – the price-tag.  I could attend any of the state schools very cheaply, and I was offered a full-scholarship to one of the mid-range national schools.  Duke, on the other hand, offered me very little scholarship money and was a private school.

My husband, Paul, and I visited the financial aid office on campus.  When shown the estimated cost, Paul almost fell out of his chair.   I would need to get a high paying job at graduation in order to make the loan payments, but the only reason I was going to law school was to better help the poor and marginalized.

I should have known.  Being accepted into Duke was just the Devil’s way of tempting me.   “Take the prestige.  It will be ok.  You have earned it.”  I could hear the imaginary, evil laugh of the little guy with horns and a pitchfork sitting on my shoulder.  “Then you will be indebted to me forever.  Mwahahaha. . . .”

But then I was told of one possibility that could make it work:  the faculty had just approved a loan forgiveness program for graduates who worked in the public interest.  No one could say how much money would be involved, or what the program parameters would be.  Surely, the details would be worked out by the time I graduated, right?   I grasped at the straw and ran.

I entered Duke Law School in the summer of 1988 singing my new theme song:  Got My Mind Set On You by George Harrison.