It's the last day of law school orientation, the Friday before classes start. I'm sitting in this auditorium full of creaking seats and starched shirts, the electricity of nerves jumping under fluorescent lights. Chewing gum is annihilated at record speed. Pens click. Feet tap. Men adjust and readjust their ties. Women swipe their hair behind their ears and sniff the air. Everyone checks their phones as if there is service in the building.
I hear an upperclassmen espousing what to expect in the first week of law school. “It's a marathon, not a sprint,” he says. “You have to pace yourself.”
I hear the sentence again during a panel delivered by four law professors, one of whom insists that if you're used to "winging it" you're going to fail. I then read the quote again on a brochure capturing blurbs of advice from alumni. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
That sounds like it means something, doesn't it? It's so matter of fact. It's this, not that. But here's what I'm really thinking:
How many of these smart and savvy analyzers have actually run a marathon?
To say that something is a marathon, for non-runners, usually means the thing is hectic, long, or never-ending, or that it's something prize-worthy. But I object. My motion to insert proper authority here is sustained. I move to summarize my judgment about how those things don't really make something like a marathon. Once you've run one, you understand that. So, in honor of reinventing this saying, I hereby declare, for the runners, by a runner, that the first semester of law school is a marathon, and not a sprint, and here are the real reasons why:
You're Running with a Herd of People Who All Want Something.
When you run a marathon, the guy next to you isn't eating potato chips, checking out your calves, wondering why you're such a GD overachiever. He's sweating his face off, staring at your calves, thinking about whether to pass you now or pass you later. In law school, everybody comes in hungry. It's not like you have the smart students, the bozos, and the folks that got matriculated through because it's too much paperwork to fail somebody. No -- here, every-stinking-body is smart. Everybody's got game. Everybody brings their set of color-coded notes to class, their highlighted casebook, and their feisty counterargument to Judicial Review. Everyone has concealed hornbooks at their hips and rounds and rounds of case briefs in their bags. This is good news. It's what makes marathons and law school both spectacular – and daunting – and fun – and hell all at the same time. Rejoice. The playing field just got interesting.
It's a Closed Context Where Your Training Matters
In law school, you study and study and study. You take notes, you build an outline, you review the outline, and then you do all of that over again, about 48 times for every class you take. You read thousands of pages of case law. You study the Uniform Commercial Code. You pore over the constitution and feel like you just discovered America. All of this, so that right after Thanksgiving, you can sit in a chair for four hours and write one single exam full of tricky hypothetical questions formulated by some Satanic demon who resides inside the professor's brain, and that's your grade. It's thrash or sink.
That's so much like a marathon. You run and run and run and run, so that you can later show that you can run. In a crowd. With a clock ticking. It's all about training, preparation, conditioning, and then performing. (Or if you're me, it's about a magical experience in running shoes, where there just happens to be a time limit.) Neither law school nor marathon running is like a video game. You don't beat levels and eventually beat the game. You can run your heart out for the first 20 miles and still fail. You can study your calves off for 3/4's of the semester and then lose it all at the end (I imagine.) Just in two weeks, I realized that law school is all about consistency. Show up, show up prepared, leave ready to prepare again, rinse, repeat.
You can't Rush at it. You can't be Perfect.
Law school won't retreat if you run at it head first. Neither will a marathon. The damn course will still be there, laughing at you if you exhaust yourself in the first three miles.
Nor can you be perfect. In my first two weeks of law school, I learned that there was absolutely no way to read ahead or knock everything out. I'm a knock-everything-out kind of person. I like to get things done, put them away, and then have space after the getting-done to do-nothing. That's called earning time. But law school is not laundry and it is not dishes. You can't knock it out so you can go do something else. Running isn't that way either -- and it shouldn't be. If you don't love to run or love the idea of being a lawyer, you probably shouldn't have a race bib pinned to your shirt or blue and black pens nailed to your hand in the first place. You kind of have to stay in it, meaning what you need to know for Torts class at 10am needs to be studied the day before, and then again in the hour before. It's not a process of completing tasks. It's a process of immersing yourself in a thinking pattern. In distance running, you can't really fall behind on training and then make up for all the miles at once. You can't cram. You can't get them out of the way. You need a spread-out, constant rhythm of running. That's the only way to get your body used to running a lot, far, all the time.
You Need Carbs.
I played with this. I thought I could run without them. I did run without them for several weeks this summer – but slowly, without much life in my legs, and without much joy in my heart. Law school is similar. Your brain needs brain-food.
My dad used to ask me, “What do you feed a blue elephant?”
I would respond, “Blue elephant food.”
He would nod, and then say, “Ok, what do you feed a pink elephant?
“Pink elephant food?”
“No of course not,” he said. “You hold the elephant's nose until it turns blue, and then you give it the blue elephant food.”
This doesn't really mean anything. My dad was just preparing me for the Socratic Method, which is the way law school is taught: You're always wrong, you're always confused, and the pattern of questions never ends. If you know the right answer, the question is changed. If you answer incorrectly, the breeze caused by other hands flying up to steal your re-bound almost knocks you over. When you leave class, you need to find the nearest chocolate. It's so much like a marathon.
You can hit the wall in the second week of law school, just like you an hit the wall at mile 18 of a marathon. Or mile 42 of an ultramarathon. Or if you're my brother, mile 2 of a 5k. (Love you Jon.) Point is: You gotta fuel if you want to duel. You have to take extremely good care of yourself. You gotta eat, gotta sleep, and gotta spray drama-repellant all around you.
You just don't have time to deal with any negativity. You could -- you could totally deal with it. But there are too many Supreme Court opinions to dissect, too many tort principles to learn, and there is just too much risk that you'll be called on in class to expound on the importance of Hamer v. Sidway, which is a breach of contract case where an uncle promised his nephew $5000 to abstain from drinking, swearing, tobacco, playing cards, and billiards. All you need to know about the case is that $5000 could never be enough to abstain from all of the above, and this is not actually a contracts case but an assault and battery on my intelligence and a wrongful imprisonment of my sense of sanity. Hamer and Sidway were obviously not runners or law students. I digress.
You Learn to Move Forward.
This brings me to the number one most important, primo, major league thing I've learned from running in my lifetime: To move forward. It's also the most important thing I carried to the first two weeks of law school, to my first marathon, and beyond. Always move forward, regardless.
Some things in life will stop for you. If you need to get off the bus, the bus will stop for you. If you need to go grab some pistachio gelato that you forgot, the checkout lady will stop for you. But law school will not stop for you. The marathon will not stop for you. So regardless of what happens – loss of limb, love, or lucidness, the show goes on. This is good: You learn to ride waves. Anything that happens is converted into more reason to work harder, fight harder, fuel better, and duel smarter. I did not mean for that to rhyme, but it sounded pretty good.
What happens, you can handle. Not everything will be "okay" in the sense that you may believe "okay" to mean. Some things won't ever really be okay. As Cheryl Strayed says, "Acceptance is a small, quiet room." But everything, you can handle. Runners know that. Fighters know that. I believe that all humans know that, deep down, even if it's locked away at times. The knowledge is there, and the power to take one more step is infinite.
Where To Catch Me