Thursday, February 22, 2007

public interest

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The day of the public interest job fair, the temperature hovered at five degrees. I had to be downtown at 7:30 a.m. to sign up for an extra interview slot and register. The wind razored its way through the legs of my suit pants. I was grumpy because my day to sleep in was taken from me. I wore a down jacket over my suit jacket. GF drove me down, bless her heart, and dropped me off at the pretentious gothic gates of Secondmost Elite City Law School.

Secondmost had waitlisted me the first year I applied, but my LSAT scores were too low, and they cut me loose. They had been my first choice early admission school. They make you interview. I spoke with a very nice woman who had gone to law school elsewhere and was now working for them. Not a good sign about satisfaction in the profession, I remember thinking. She asked me about teaching, then grilled me about whether or not I really wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to ask her the same question, but I couldn't.

The next year I spoke with an impatient young woman who grew irritated when we both realized my most recent freelance job was not on my resume. I had been bouncing around by then, and was trying not to look unemployed, but my piecemeal writing gig was not what I thought of as a real job, and I had forgotten it. She didn't like that. My LSATs were slightly higher, and I applied early decision again, even though everyone told me the school was a corporate lawyer mill. What law school isn't, though? They didn't bother to waitlist me this time. No corpora te lawyer mill for me.

Now I had a whole day to wander their halls, stuck without a car until after my one scheduled interview at 4:15. Thier cavernous stone entryway reminded me of similarly uninviting halls down at Most Elite University. Impressive but not at all friendly or warm. Interesting that this was the site of the public interest fair, given how many other law schools are in the city. I sat down on a hard wooden bench and tried to keep warm.

At 9 a.m. we were herded into a big parliamentary classroom with high-backed pews that faced each other, descending down to the middle of the room like old-fashioned medical classrooms sometimes have. Medieval-looking crests sat on either side of the stage and podium at the front of the hall. Impressive, but hardly friendly, this room strained to convey an impression of striving, reminding one of nothing so much as the ermine-trimmed patrons in Renaissance altarpieces kneeling with their families on either side of the Annunciation. Rich enough to pay for the painting and even be in it, but not good enough to come inside the house and hang out with the Virgin.

The lottery commenced, and I signed up for an open interview slot with a policy group. I thought they might be interesting because they worked on affordable housing, public housing, and educational policy.

After this we were free to wander among tables where different representatives from city and state government services and public interest organizations sat ready to answer questions, hand out forms, and take resumes. I spoke with people at legal aid clinics, child services, and the public defender's office--all lovely, friendly, skeptical people who loved their work. After that lunch, then the wait to interview. The interviewer at the policy place was not a decision maker, but was there as a kind of intake person. I gave her my resume and tried to be enthusiastic. She was slick, wooden, heavily made up, and under 30. I think her hair was made of polystyrene. I think also she didn't like me so very much.

Finally the whole reason for my being there all day approached. My one interview. I climbed the steps of the library, up into the stacks, looking for the room where I was supposed to be.

The stairs of the law library rose before me, up through the center of the library itself, modern stairs with see-through steps. As I climbed, I looked out at magnificent panoramic views of the frozen lake glittering brightly beyond the huge floor-to-ceiling glass expanse of the far wall. Students sat quietly at tables, reading, oblivious. This treat was only for them, but none of them even raised their eyes to it. I wondered if they noticed it anymore.

The room at the top of the third floor stairs on the right was small, flourescent, and windowless. A little man with white hair that stood out in wispy strands around his face shook my hand. His baggy sweater hung on his shoulders. He asked me why I was in law school. I fed him some line about opportunity he only half-listened to. He cocked his head and looked intently at me. "Do you know what we do?" he asked.

I confessed that I didn't. I hadn't been able to find a web page, or a google reference of any kind, and they weren't listed in the big books that had been in the law theater that morning.

He nodded his head, satisfied. "We do post-conviction habeus petitions for people on death row."

"Fabulous!" I breathed. I couldn't help it. It just came out.

He went on to emphasize that this was no Innocence Project. "These are the guilty!" he announced, happily. Then he told me some of the petitioners were mentally handicapped. Others had been victims of spousal abuse. One woman was on death row for attempting to kill her husband, though no one was hurt.

He asked me what it was like to be back in school at my age, and told me his wife had gone to law school in her fifties. he told me he was 69. He spoke contemptuously of young law students, who he warned me would sit at work and tell me about their boyfriends and their girlfriends. "You're lucky if you can get six hours of work out of 'em!' he cackled.

Then he leaned forward. "I had a guy like you," he said, looking at me steadily. I think he meant an ex-academic going back to school, not an overweight blonde lesbian with a nose ring. He told me that first year students were the best for what he did, because second year students had to take the money of the big firms in the 2L summer, whether they wanted to eventually work at a firm or not. He told me that my writing skills would be perfect for his little storefront office, where he and his wife toiled together to try to save people from being gassed, or electrocuted, or lethally injected for the bad decisions they had made in their fairly awful lives. He gestured to my resume with disgust. "I mean, an English Professor! Of course you can write! How do you like law school? How did you do?"

I confessed I hadn't done so well. He shook his head, as if I had confirmed his worst thoughts. "We'll teach you something that'll be USEFUL to you," he said. "My wife and I, we gotta take care of the older people."

He asked me if I had any questions, and I asked him when he might know about his selections for the summer. His eyes twinkled. "If I offered it to you right now, what would you say?"

I was flabbergasted. "I'd say I'll take it, of course!"

He nodded, satisfied. "Send me an email accepting it," he said. "My wife and I, we'll protect you from the teenyboppers."

I stumbled out of the flourescent room onto the stairs, past the reading students and their panoramic vistas, past night and day and into the stone hallway, out the heavy oak doors and into my gf's waiting car. "I think I just got a summer internship!" I breathed. "He actually PICKED me!" I couldn't believe it. I hadn't imagined that I would actually get something out of the day beyond information and a few applications.

As we drove home past the expensive highrises, past the lake and the big houses near its shores, I thought about people who spend their lives making no money, wearing scuffed shoes and stretched-out cardigans, saving the world in their classrooms and storefront offices and legal aid clinics, day after day. And for the first time, really, since starting law school, I felt happy.

13 comments:

Kate said...

"I think he meant an ex-academic going back to school, not an overweight blonde lesbian with a nose ring."

This bit made me laugh out loud!

BTW I read you for your fabulous prose writing, not b/c I have any interest in the Law. You have a really unique voice - I wish you wrote fiction.

Though the internship sounds interesting...

Sfrajett said...

Thanks K! My secret plan is to gather material and bust out as a lesbian John Grisham. Or something equally bizarre like that. Don't tell!

Elizabeth McClung said...

Holy fudge - as I read along I was already preparing a consolation note about how I hate those "I will judge your worth as a human being in 30 minutes" interviews when suddenly - Congrats! It sounds like a perfect fit, personality and ideals - what a wonderful day and a summer to look forward to. Really, congrats, congrats, and I guess that cold morning was worth it.

Hilaire said...

That's so wonderful. What great work to be doing - fantastic. (Someone's on death row for trying to kill her husband even though he wasn't hurt???? The mind boggles.)

Also, must agree with Kate abut your prose skills. It is an absolute pleasure to read you, always. As I read this one, I was thinking, wow, this is like reading a short story...and yet there's someone great out there living it. How lucky we are to have you(r blog.)

Anonymous said...

Very inspiring!
Best of luck down that yellow brick road.

What Now? said...

Well huzzah and hot damn! I am *so glad* you got this summer internship, which sounds really interesting in and of itself and has given you this moment of feeling really good about the whole law thing. I mean, for God's sake, you'll actually be helping to SAVE people this summer!!

Is this summer internship in your home city so that you and GF can be together this summer?

Stephanie said...

WOW!! Best story ever. Although I have a weird vibe about it, as though if it had been narrated by someone else, it would have read like Harry Potter.

"Only ILesbian seemed to be able to see the staircase and the gray-haired man at the top; the other students seemed to walk right by."

Female Law School Grad '79 said...

People who spend their lives making no money, wearing scuffed shoes and stretched-out cardigans, saving the world in their classrooms and storefront offices and legal aid clinics, day after day... recognize each other immediately. I can't imagine a more appropriate and compelling internship for you. Fabulous indeed!

(And I read your blog for the excellent prose and the notional integrity, too.)

Anonymous said...

This is just wonderful! I'm so happy for you. CD

Meredith said...

Ditto what everyone else said! A treat to read, and with a prize at the end, no less ... So, so happy for you -- in fact, think this calls for a drink in your honor! Must have some bourbon around here somewhere ... ;)

MaggieMay said...

Late again to the party, as usual, but please let me offer my congratulations nonetheless! It sounds like an amazing opportunity... and as usual, your way of telling the story was just delightful.

Yay for you!

Tenured Radical said...

THis is a great post. You know, after the Unfortunate Evens I took hte LSAT on a whim, without studying (which woulod have been too awful for words), and didn't do badly. I really considered it. And then the money involved really freaked me out so I abandoned the idea. But sometimes I still think about it.

cero said...

What a great story. And yes, you should write fiction. I've toyed, at times quite seriously, with going to law school for years.