Saturday, January 30, 2010


Even though PDR is based in the dark, godforsaken Inland Northwest (sorry--January and February are a little rough up here; summer is lovely), I'm from Texas, and attended both undergrad and law school at the University of Texas at Austin. As much as I loved Austin, I haven't been back since I set out for Seattle in a U-Haul 17 years ago. So when K. Moran (hereinafter, "Little Crazy") discovered that NACDL was holding a conference in Austin this year, we said we'd try to go. 

At the same time that Little Crazy was planning the Austin trip, we started this blog, and the combination of a few reader emails and my thinking about Austin led to a profound bout of nostalgia. I don't give a damn about football, the color orange or any of that crap, but I would sell my soul for a night at Antone's or pool at the Hole in the Wall (is it still there and is the jukebox still free?) and a plate of migas in the morning.

The best part of my college experience was working at The Daily Texan, UT's student newspaper. In the small-world category, I worked there with Scott Henson, of Grits for Breakfast, who was a scary-smart iconoclast, even then, but also funny and kind--and I now know he is a super-human writer, not only as a one-man criminal-justice revolution, but also due to the quality work he posts.  Little Crazy and I are like:  How does he write so well and so fast? Maybe I will make him a certificate.

I hope it's not too self-indulgent (or is a blog by definition an act of self-indulgence?), but a few comments by readers reminded me of an essay I wrote for The Texan back in law school after returning from a summer internship at a large corporation.  I remember that when I was writing my weekly column for The Texan, I was certain that I was expressing my uniqueness and individuality, and then readers would come and tell me, "I like your columns because you are just like me."

Now, a little less impressed with my own uniqueness, the similaries between my fellow PDs and myself are a comfort. Alana, a reader and law student wrote:
"For a while during 2L year I wondered if I should pursue a career at a big law firm like most of my classmates planned to do. I did try a big firm during my 2L summer and the experience only strengthened my passion for the PD. ... When I decided I definitely wanted to be a PD I felt a huge wave of relief and calmness and I finally FINALLY felt proud about my decision to become a lawyer."
Thanks to online archives, I was able to find that column I wrote for The Texan after my summer internship.  I've reprinted it here, at the bottom of this post with a jump, because after I read Alana's email, I thought, I know what you mean--you are just like me!  

To Alana:  Keep trusting your instincts and stay away from jobs that make you give up parts of yourself.  This public-defender thing isn't easy, and will chew you up some, but it will deepen your compassion and make you into a tough, frayed knot.

To 24-year-old me who wrote the column:  I think you will find what you are looking for--and don't sell the suits.

Daffodils, Career Interests Wither



About 2 years ago, after my first mind-numbing law school class, I wandered to the cafeteria and wrote a list of things that I could be other than a lawyer.

"Grower of organic asparagus. Baker. Palm reader. Pool hustler. Waitperson," I desperately scribbled. As I tried to decide whether "vegetarian cowgirl" was too unrealistic to add to my list, I overheard two music students at the next table loudly discussing their future plans.

"I don't know about you," one of them said, "but my life would be complete, I would simply reach a state of absolute fulfillment, if I could sing that one particular aria perfectly, just once."

Quickly, I added "opera singer." Reviewing my list, though, I remembered that I can't bake, read palms, play pool, ride a horse or sing, and that all my plants die. Waiting tables wouldn't work either, because I am clumsy and forget things. On the way to my next class, I threw my career list into the trash. Two years later, still confused by law school but lacking any other viable alternative, I found myself with a summer internship in the legal department of a major corporation in Denver.

On the first day of my job, I tried to concentrate on my work, I really did. I sat at my big, clean desk with a fresh mug of bad coffee and tried to read a paragraph of a case about the environmental ramifications of the nitrates in cow manure. When I woke up, it was time to go home.

By the end of the week, my schedule was set. In the morning, when I first arrived, I would brew a pot of fresh bad coffee and then sit at my desk for a few minutes. Then I would go back to the kitchenette and eat half my sandwich and all the pretzels. Back in my office, I would notice that my coffee had grown cold, necessitating a return to the kitchenette to brew more bad coffee while I ate another quarter of my sandwich and my fruit. If I planned carefully, I could burn up most of the morning with the coffee-sandwich maneuver.

After my breakfast snack, I would go "shopping" in the supply office. There I would choose a pen for the day and sneak post-it note pads and any other office gadgets I found amusing into my jacket pockets. I became especially fond of those little rubber things that you put on your fingers to turn pages—finger cots, I think they're called—because my office mate thought they were somehow obscene. If I was feeling especially mischievous, I would put a finger cot on each of my fingers and wave my hands suggestively in her face.

One day, during a staff meeting about fiscal projections for the next quarter, I read an article in a nature magazine, hidden, of course, inside my notepad, about a guy in the South American rain forest who lived in a tree house at the top of this one particular tree. He had spent 15 years studying this one particular bird that nested only in this one particular tree, fascinated by both. "It's funny," he said, "because this tree is just right for the bird and the bird is just right for the tree. And both of them are just right for me."

After lunch I would usually become so bored with my own procrastination tactics that I was forced to actually work. Diligently, I would draft an endless series of interrogatories: "Please estimate the amount, in pounds, of manure that your cattle produce per year. When you artificially inseminate your cattle, do you purchase sperm or use your own? Please state the names and addresses of all those in you employ who a) engage in the disposal of cattle waste, and b) artificially inseminate cattle," etc. Sometimes, I wondered if a finger cot would fit over my head.

On my last weekend in Denver, I watched a PBS gardening show, hoping to glean enough plant lore in 30 minutes to start my own farm. The show featured an elegant older woman who had a particular fondness for violets. She grew an impressive array of flowers, but admitted that her true passion was for violets. She said she could easily give up the daisies, the roses, the daffodils--but never her violets. "You see," she said, elegantly, "I just wouldn't want to live in a world without my violets."

A week later, back in Austin, I sold all my suits in a yard sale and told the "major corporation" that I was going to the rain forest to live in a tree. My parents made frantic daily calls, perplexed by such a crazy daughter who would turn down a good salary and medical insurance. They were neither comforted nor convinced by my vague mutterings about birds, violets and arias. But it's simply too tempting, I told them, to live in a world without interrogatories, finger cots and bad coffee.

XXXXXXX is a third-year law student.

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