Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

The Compleat Guide to how not to Choose a Career

I put this together back in May, but couldn't make it fit in the LJ space. Let's see if I can edit better now, as this is the great Icelandic saga of how I became a lawyer.

In 1981, I had just finished my degree in physics with a minor in English. I was perhaps the least capable science and math person ever to gain a degree in physics. I did not do much interviewing before I graduated, but I remember a Levis jeans factory in Oklahoma which asked me, inappropriately, if I believed in labor unions...when I failed to say "no", I was "dinged" from consideration. The general economy was horrendous, and I lived in Arkansas, which is rarely a robust economy in the best of times. At least in Arkansas, we say we never have depression, because the Great Depression never ended.

My father had been a country doctor, which I had been "raised" to be, but my GPA was 3.02 when medical school required a 3.7 and a high admissions board test result. I had taken courses in English because I realized that I was so hopeless at geology, my original choice for a minor, and quite good at literature.

I finished after 7 semesters, which was a semester early. I had no job prospects, no real educational strength, and a real uncertainty on what I wished to do. I had taken the law school admission test, largely on a whim, and done well on it, but I considered law "politically incorrect", too tied up in the things about the way things worked that I did not like. I moved to my parents' home, jobless, directionless, and entirely certain I was without skills.

I sent out resumes, and obtained some interviews. I got an offer to be a newspaper reporter, but the job paid unskilled wages. I just missed a job as a safety engineer--the interviewer asked me did I like to read, and I said I liked science fiction and Doris Lessing....he told the recruiter who had sent me for the interview that I was "too technical", which caused my mother and I to break up in hysterical see, I had never been technical enough to achieve any of the things I had been raised to believe were worth being.

I spent my spare time writing poetry, masses of poetry. I had done some writing before, but now I wished to write and write. I got interviews with other companies, but nothing really gelled. Some of my poems were submitted to magazines, and amidst dozens upon dozens of rejections came a few kind rejection notes, and a few actual acceptances for publication. Still, I was jobless, dependent on my parents and totally unsure of what to do.

Finally, my father told me that he thought I should go to law school, but that I had missed the application deadline. Enraged, I told him that I still had time, if I wanted to go. I applied to two law schools in my rural state, and got in both. I also got in a technical writing program at Boston University. That tech writing program was very prestigious, but very expensive. My parents had helped me with school--I could not impose. Finally, I moved to the town where the more likely of the two law schools was located. I was to go to law school, but the decision did not sit well with me. Through a temp agency, I took a job shovelling coal flyash at a power plant. Flyash is what is left when everything is burned away...that was me...burned away. I was a mask and goggles and a shovel and endless weariness.

I quit that job after oversleeping one day. It was an ungracious way to quit...I still remember writing the apology note to the temp agency after the manager there humiliated me when I brought back my helmet.

I took two summer school in Shakespeare, one in Cobol computer programming language. I had an A in the Shakespeare course...I made an F in the computer class. Cobol is a moronically simple business computer language. I had built a computer in my bachelor's program. I simply lacked the attention and discipline to pass the course...the fatal error was not dropping the course when I had lifted my grade sufficiently to drop without penalty.

I was at rock bottom. I felt like an idiot. I lacked the math skills to get into "real" physics. Case Western called me to ask me to apply to do a master's there. They were desperate for native speakers of English, since only foreign students did grad work in physics then, and they wanted more fluent lab instructors. But I had barely gotten through my Calculus III course, and could not imagine advanced thermodynamics.

I did not cry often as a young adult, but I remember being on the telephone with my mom, crying away about how badly I felt. I was going to law school, but I could not even pass simple cobol. I was good at English, but an English master's might well mean no job.

Still and all, I wanted to think of a change. I got in my car, and drove hundreds of miles from Arkansas across the State of Texas, trying to see if I could get an assistantship to study English. I would be a technical writer if I got the degree. A school in east Texas offered me one outright. One in Dallas said probably, and one in north Texas said probably, though the prof said he'd rather go to law school.

Now I had choices in hand--law, which would be tough but career oriented....English, which was my strength but might not be very vocational. I told my parents that I would make the decision on Monday, but I did not wish to talk about it the entire weekend.

My father is a country doctor who grew up in a rural area and whose Arkansas accent is thick and pleasant. He has always been one of those men whose concerns for his children makes him over-protective, anxious, and yet almost sardonic in his expressions of belief that his children will go astray. By Saturday night, he was unable to contain himself.

"Bob", he said, pulling a Dutch Masters cigar from his mouth, "I know you said I'm not supposed to ask you about whether you're going to choose law or English, and I'm not goin' to ask you that, but can I ask you which way you're LEANING?".

Putting on my best self-righteous voice, I said "Yes, Dad, you aren't supposed to ask me, because I said I'd decide on Monday. But since you ask, I'll tell you I'm leaning towards grad work in English".

My father clapped his hands with glee. "Told ya!" he said to my mother, "You owe me fifty dollars!". Then the ugly truth came out. My parents had wagered on the outcome of my decision. My father had bet that his son would disappoint him by choosing English. My mother had bet on law.
This made my life much easier. My choice was now clear. My father must lose his bet.

I decided to go to law school in Little Rock, Arkansas. I resolved that it would take as much as I had intellectually. I recognized that I would be lucky to pass. But unwise and unready as I felt, that would be my choice.

When I got to law school, it was something I loved. I worked so hard, because the other kids were all much brighter than I was. They all had 4.0s from the local colleges. I had done fine in the liberal arts, but any course with any challenge had proven me mediocre.

I had a 3.02 with a recent F in a sophomore level computer course. I took assiduous notes. I prepared my case outlines in advance. I typed my notes at night. I put all my focus on my courses.

I did not care if I was top or great or wonderful. I merely wanted to make my Cs and get my degree. I wanted just to survive.

When the first law exam was over that December, I was exhausted. I told my parents that if I had not passed that one (a Contracts final), I did not belong in school. I knew that I had given it all that I had. By the fourth exam, a Civil Procedure exam, I was exhausted. I had a minor fender bender when I ran in front of a car in my car.

Weeks later, the grades were posted. I had all As and one B+, a 3.96 out of 4 average. I had been awarded prizes for top papers in two classes. I was placed on the school's law journal after one semester, a rare event. It's not that I had IQ tests only about 125. It's not that I had a clear direction in life...I literally had gone to law school so that dad would lose a bet. I graduated in the top few percentile of my class, and my law journal article got a few nice reprints. Yet my "genius" had caused me to stumble into law school almost by accident.

I see so many articles and radio spots and career counselor things in which someone says "It's easy" or "you know exactly how it happens" or "there's one true way to do it", or, somewhat insidiously, "do what you want and it always comes out okay", but my own experience is that whimsy, hard work, and merely playing one's hand as well as one can is a large part of surviving in this odd career world, too.
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