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I have long thought that “going back to school” was a judgment-laden phrase: Why not say you’re going forward to school? But on Aug. 30, 1986, my perception was different. I had spent the first half of my life dedicated to the violin. Graduate conservatory studies, performance in a regional symphony orchestra, a Carnegie Hall debut, a 305-year-old violin from the Amati Cremona workshop, and a conviction that in this life, music was to be it. A few years before, however, my brother and I had had a pivotal conversation. “I look at your bookshelves,” he said. “I don’t see books on Mozart and Brahms. I do see books on government and law. I think you’d make a great lawyer, perhaps in the government.” I told him I wasn’t prepared to leave my life in music, and I added a few choice words. For three years the debate continued. A check for the Kaplan course in LSAT preparation was offered. I didn’t want it. For me, the stakes were high. I loved music. I remember that when I was 20, a music professor commented on the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, “Isn’t this part more important than life itself?” We nodded. Let others be the bourgeois. We were the priesthood of artists. Money, power — what were they compared with the beauty and passion of doing what you loved? But by age 37, I was beginning to question that conclusion. I was as good as I would get. I learned new pieces, but I knew I had little prospect of a secure financial future. And intellectually, I thought my mind had a potential for growth that another new concerto or sonata didn’t hold. I discussed my brother’s advice with friends. “Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day,” said one. “Despite your brother’s coming up with the idea, it could be a good one.” When I told my brother I had signed up for the Kaplan course, he was elated. But he made a motion as if he was zipping his lips. Ultimately I took the LSAT, got into law school, and began my studies. THE SECRET WEAPON What I remember most was feeling lighter, like my back was no longer to the wall with music as my only option. I feared the memorization and competition with 25-year-olds, but I had a secret weapon: my mother. At age 40, she had gone to college. That was in 1954, when only five women at Brooklyn College challenged middle age. I decided to attend Touro Law School in Huntington, N.Y. In 1986, Touro was a sleepy little law school, headed by a diffident administration and provisionally accredited by the American Bar Association. Behind the scenes, a battle was taking place. The school feared that accreditation could be taken away. A law school accreditation expert, Howard Glickstein, was hired to ensure the school’s survival. That meant a graduating class who could pass the demanding New York bar exam at the state average of 60 percent. Glickstein kicked butt, took names, and promised good faculty. Meanwhile, the school needed operating funds, so although it could admit students liberally, it had to trim the class to graduates who were bar-passage material. In fact, of 157 students who started with me, only 75 graduated. The median grade was between C and C-plus. Touro has a sort of Jewish affiliation, having been founded by a rabbinic council. Now it’s quite diverse. But we deliberately began to call the wall where grades were posted the “Wailing Wall.” It was common to see a student find her identifying number, see her grade, and crumple to the ground, dreams crushed. As my grades dribbled in, I recalculated each day. One day it was all over. Another day it appeared I might not be on academic probation. I appeared headed for failure, but my last grade, an A-minus in Legal Writing, meant survival by the skin of my teeth. There was no Wailing Wall for me. The car’s interior heard my sobs of relief. I was still in the game.Second semester our ranks thinned and I renewed my efforts. Damn Patti L. (Her name was right next to Lehrman on the wall.) She had gotten a 98th percentile on the LSATs. Mine were 37th. OK, I said, I’ll just outwork her. What did she spend yesterday on Con Law? One hour? I’ll spend three, and I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Well, there my B beat her C. But again and again she could party, look bored, be bored, and outperform me in class. She was so bored by law school that she x-ed off each day like a prisoner facing the gallows. She was ennui personified. “They just make it all so more difficult than it really is,” she sniffed one day. In a way, Patti symbolized a kind of class warfare we mature students felt. There were about a dozen of us. We had families, had lived lives, and would be damned if youth trounced experience. The older students bonded for strength. Once I overheard a student say: “It’s so unfair. We’ve spent our whole lives in school. These older students have actually done things.” But our view was that they had youth, memory, and the ability to read a teacher. ‘LEHRMAN WITH AN L’ One day a student rushed into the cafeteria. “Holy shit,” he said. “Crim Law. Professor Klein just called two people out of the class of 100-plus, summoned them to the lecterns at the front of the auditorium, and forced them to recite and debate the case of the day.” “Aha,” I thought. Performing. This I know something about. I rushed through the halls. There he was. “Professor Klein,” I said. “Yes,” he replied. “I understand you are about to torture two random individuals in Crim Law. Force them to argue the Rabbi case in front of all their colleagues.” “That could be,” he agreed. “I want that job.” “You do?” he said. “And why is that?” “Because that is what I do. I was a musician. We live to get up in front of people.” “I’m sorry,” he replied. “It’s a random selection. I would never agree to pre-select the student. It defeats the purpose.” “Of course,” I agreed. “That’s Lehrman with an L. Right in the middle of the alphabet. Perhaps if you happen to choose an A from the class, how convenient to choose a middle letter, say L, as randomly as possible. Besides, how many other takers have you had masochistically ask you to humiliate themselves in front of 100 classmates today?” “I’m sure the odds of me selecting you are inifinitesimal,” he replied. “You’re right, Professor. That’s Lehrman. With an L.” But, of course, I could see he wouldn’t be compromised. Off to the library I scurried. My life at stake, I read and re-read and memorized that case. I argued it out loud. I had found my Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a case more important than life itself — intense, dramatic, and terrifying. The class began an hour and a half later. In walked Professor Klein. “Class, something new today. Front and center, oh, let’s try an A from the beginning of the alphabet. Pam Armstrong, front and center. And why not the middle of the alphabet? Let’s see. This Lehrman here. A David Lehrman.” Honestly, it was my finest hour. Turned to the class and explicated the case. Constructed the defense for the defendant. After all, I had engineered the situation. Professor Klein was following my dictates. I’d figured he would be curious about what type of person seeks out the pressure. For months afterwards, I’d hear murmurs in the hall: “That’s the guy. Actually constructed an argument on the spot. Boy, better him than me. Scariest thing I ever saw.” For me, it had been a life lesson. Know yourself. My second semester was as hard as the first. I barely made the cut. Again, out in my car, I was a middle-aged man sobbing with relief that I had made it. A year later, I passed a young student on the street of Garden City, Long Island. He had flunked out. He ignored me. We know that half of life is getting up from defeat and trying again. That all of us have known failure and defeat. It’s how you deal with it. But it’s a lesson learned with living. Second year featured Constitutional Law with Professor Shaw. He would insist that the class take a position on a Supreme Court case. Then, singling out one student, for 25 minutes he would use the skills of a lifetime in academic law, painting a student into an academic corner, then pushing him over the intellectual cliff with any flaw in reasoning or viewpoint. Once, I fell for the bait and volunteered to answer for a case. This time, my purpose was to set a fishhook in my brain, make me competitive with the teacher as he humiliated me and outmaneuvered me at every turn. It worked. I started spending all day on law. I would show that Shaw guy. Plus, now we were back in violin-concerto territory. The violin as protagonist, competing against and joining with the orchestra.Valiantly, I tried to keep up with him. Alas, I was outmatched. But one day he announced moot-court competitions. I began to prepare. As all lawyers know, moot-court or law-review membership confers a sense of seriousness on job seekers. Living at home with my elderly parents, I enlisted my mother’s help. She typed. I didn’t. She took my drafts and learned the form for a moot-court brief. I invited her to the argument competition. Professor Shaw was ruthless. I barely got a sentence started before his sarcastic, withering questions rained down on me. Afterward, I was thrilled. I had done what I set out to do. Was I good? I didn’t know. But my mouth had opened and full sentences, authoritative, concise, and the best I could do, had all come out. MOM AND THE PURSE My mother was furious. Later, she said it was all she could do not to vault over the railing at the back of the courtroom, hurl herself at this rude man, and hit him with her purse. “He never even let you get to that second argument. And what about your subpoints? But then I saw how happy you were. I changed my mind.” Later I saw Professor Shaw. “You did well,” he conceded. “Strong arguments.” One summer I had an internship with a chief administrative law judge, taking up all day. I begged Professor Shaw to let me audit his summer-school constitutional law class. “Only with a written brief on your desk each class,” he replied. In other words, there were no exceptions for auditing. That night I turned to Mom once more. “Mom, I need to teach you to brief a case. Procedural history, rationale, dicta, separate opinions — the whole works.” “Where do I start?” she said. Each day, I would come home from the clerkship, pick up Mom’s brief, and rush off to class. Occasionally, she would have a comment for me on the brief. “This case,” she pointed out. “A man had hashhoosh in the trunk of his car. And what did that mean policeman force the man to do? Without probable cause, he made him open the trunk. But Justice Brennan said, �Not so fast. That’s what the Fourth Amendment is meant to do.’ He threw the case out. How dare that policeman violate the Fourth Amendment and try to illegally get that hashhoosh? “Oh David,” she said. “In my day, we women were nurses, teachers, secretaries. But this is no more difficult than my NYU studies in English literature for the Ph.D. We women could have been lawyers in my generation. If only we knew.” “Well, Mom, today you are one.” One day the professor decided to stroll up and down the aisles to inspect our written briefs. He paused before mine. “David, this brief of yours.” “Yes, Professor,” I replied. “Is that your work?” “Sure is, Professor,” I replied. “That’s really some penmanship you have,” he continued. “Well, thank you, sir,” I said. “Is that the Palmer penmanship style?” “Sure is, Professor.” Curved, looped letters. L’s two-thirds of the line. Q’s gently curved down below the line. Every letter connected. “Nice that you notice, Professor Shaw,” I said. “Well that’s the most beautiful penmanship I have ever seen in a brief.” “Can’t thank you enough, Professor,” I said. He paused another instant. (The truth is, I don’t think he was fooled for a moment.) “Well, Mr. Lehrman, keep up the good work.” And thanks to Mom, I did. I think of Professor Shaw every time I write. What a great pedagogical technique to force us to not read a case passively but invest ourselves in it and fight for a view as if our lives depended on it. And what bovine fecal material to force me to write a whole brief while working all day and merely auditing his course. Recently, Touro Law School had a ceremony at the Supreme Court. The new dean told us about the school’s bright future. A new building was being built next to federal courthouses. The school is now Association of American Law Schools-approved. It is still tuition-dependent and poorly endowed, but the school has been saved. For years I had harbored bitterness over the price paid on the backs of students. None of us knew when we started that we were in the fight of our lives. A few were stars. But most of us were scared, humiliated, working harder than we had ever worked for discouragingly low grades, little encouraging feedback, and the real possibility of flunking out. Could the school have done it better? Less cruelly? Less brutally? I’ll let others be the judge. Here it is 20 years later. I went to law school at age 40. Now, well, I’m no longer 40. Within three years of law school I had begun to achieve financial security that 20 years of violin practice five hours a day had failed to achieve. But sometimes I spend a little more time with young law school aspirants because of my experiences. I often now advise students, go to NYU or Yale and enjoy law school. Go to a school where you know the attrition rate. You might learn twice as much. When I was in music school, a comment might be, “What a sensitive interpretation of that Beethoven sonata.” But in law school, I never heard a value put on sensitivity. Toughness, yes. Aggressiveness, yes. Nastiness and even crudity or vulgarity, yes. In fact, law school often failed for me in that regard. It didn’t push your integrity, your character. It pushed you as a legal memorizing machine, regurgitating vast amounts of material mastered for the exam and forgotten the week afterwards. One of my relatives, Gene Wishod, gave me advice. “Be a lawyer of integrity, and the world will beat a path to your door.” The truth is, people have reason to hate lawyers. Overbilling, exaggerated claims, targeting deep pockets because they are deep. And if I live up to Gene Wishod’s dictum to be a lawyer of integrity, perhaps, in some small measure, Touro, flawed and brutal as it was, is part of what has made me the type of person and lawyer I’ve tried to be. You know the clich� about law school: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience you neither want to nor would repeat. So after all this time, I know what I didn’t know: It was worth it. The price was great. And, you know, make me 40 again, and maybe I’d do the whole thing over. Go figure.
David Lehrman is a D.C. attorney currently serving in his second term as Foggy Bottom advisory neighborhood commissioner.

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