These Boots are Made for Talking

My first job practicing law was at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services.   My clients had legal issues that ranged from incorrect sentencing calculations to horrid jail conditions to injuries sustained from falling off of a bunk.  I liked the variety.

I also liked that my work took me to a variety of prisons and jails.  You learn a lot about a society by visiting their institutions of incarceration — and you learn a lot about yourself.    One day, I drove to a prison in the Sandhills of North Carolina, I parked in the unpaved lot, got out of my white jeep, and headed towards the front gate.  I looked for a visitor center or at least a guard station but didn’t see one.  “What’s your business?” a man yelled at me from the guard tower above.  I yelled back “I’m here for a lawyer visit.”   A bucket was lowered by a rope down to me.  I put my driver’s license and N.C. bar card in the bucket and up it went.  In a few minutes, the bucket came back down with my cards in it, and the gate opened.  I thought “what is this, Cool Hand Luke?” as I walked through the gates in my cowboy boots.

When you are a new lawyer, you think about what persona you want to project.  For some, particularly men, a dark tailored suit is the epitome of success. Men who want to project the image of a small town southern lawyer wear a seersucker suit.  In the 1990s, women lawyers were just coming into their own.   We took the traditional lawyer suit and “feminized” it as a way to project power in our own way.  Some wore blouses with bows tied at the neck.  Some accentuated their sensuality with short skirts.

To the classic skirt suit, I added cowboy boots.  Perhaps the relationship between power, confidence and cowboy boots was imprinted upon me as a child.  Many of my male relatives wore cowboy boots.   Or perhaps the brother of one of my death row clients had it right when he said to me when leaving court in 2005, “I now know why you wear boots in court:  you have a lot of crap to wade through.”

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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.

Setting Off on My Own

Neither of my parents, who divorced when I was five, went to college.  I was a good student and was determined to go.  Rome had two colleges and a junior college, and there were many colleges and universities in the region.   Most of my classmates headed to those or to the big state universities.  I headed to a small private Baptist college in the mountains, Carson Newman College.

I worked three of my four summers in the Tennessee and North Carolina mountains, two dipping ice cream at a Baptist conference center and another working at a glass shop at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tn.  I never would have imagined that I would return to those mountains years later as a lawyer.