16: Law School at Forty

16: Law School at Forty

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Law School at Forty

Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.

~Eddie Rickenbacker

“May it please the court.” Those words are enough to strike terror into the hearts of most attorneys I know. They are the first words you speak when you address the Wisconsin Supreme Court in an oral argument. The words are ritual, as standardized and formulaic as Kabuki theatre. And I was about to say them myself… if I didn’t faint first.

I have a framed photo on my desk at work. It dates from perhaps a year before I started law school at the age of forty, and only a few months before I would break my back in a horse-jumping accident, spend three painful months in a body cast, and have the world as I knew it divide into “before” and “after.”

In the photo, I’m standing in a winter woods, with my four children gathered around me. They range, in that picture, from about three years old to thirteen. We are surrounded by pristine snow and bare trees, and framed in a pretty fieldstone archway. I am beaming, and my entire universe revolves around keeping them warm and out of harm’s way. If someone had walked up to me then and told me that in a few years I would not only be a criminal prosecutor but find myself arguing cases before the state supreme court, I would have given them the same look as if they’d told me I was really the Queen of England. I might have smiled pleasantly, rolled my eyes… and then called the police.

But fate had other plans. Barely a year after I was lifted off the sandy soil of a riding arena on a backboard and loaded into an ambulance, my youngest son started kindergarten — and I started as one of the first official part-time students enrolled at Marquette University Law School.

Only days later, an oppressive cloud of pessimism and self-doubt descended on me during orientation as I sat, surrounded by dozens of my fellow law students, who were young enough to be my children. What was I thinking? How could I possibly compete with kids who could close the law library every night and then go out for drinks and debate legal theory over pitchers of beer? I had four kids, a dog, two elderly horses, and a marriage that was on the verge of collapse.

But driving home, I reminded myself that I’d already borrowed the money for the first year… and I might as well show up for class the following week. I studied like crazy for four hours at school every Friday morning, ran the kids as usual to tennis and soccer and gymnastics and volleyball, and skipped class to go along on field trips and serve hot dogs at the grade school. And somehow, through it all, I managed to get on the Dean’s List and stay there.

There was one serious barrier for me to conquer, though. All my life I’d suffered from a crippling fear of public speaking. The first time I was called on to “brief” a case in front of a law class, I was terrified. While I knew the subject well, I barely choked out the words in a gasping, trembling voice.

After that first disaster, I made myself confront my demons. In every single class after that, I read ahead and raised my hand, determined to say something on point. Little by little, with every attempt, my heart stopped pounding quite so hard, and my voice quit quavering so much. But it was still very much an uphill climb. When the rest of my classmates wore suits for our first oral arguments, I wore jeans and a T-shirt that read “Best Mom in the Whole World.” It was there to remind me that if I fell flat on my face in school, I still had a life. If I had to do that day over, I’d still wear the same thing.

Three and a half years after I started, I graduated. I soon lucked out, landing a newly created part-time post as a state prosecutor. I truly felt that I had the best of both worlds — I could charge cases and make bail arguments, and still get home in time to drive to soccer practice.

As a former journalist, I naturally gravitated to writing projects — briefs, motions, research, appeals. I was in my element, putting things on paper. And then one day a co-worker turned up at my desk with several pounds of paper for me to review. He had won a TPR (“Termination of Parental Rights”) case at trial before a jury, but the judge had later refused to terminate the parents’ rights based on a technicality. What did I think?

I had been on the job for less than a year. I knew nothing about the Children’s Code. But after reading the statutes and the judge’s decision, I thought that the judge had gotten it wrong. My boss gave me the green light to file an appeal.

A few months later, the decision came down from the Court of Appeals. We lost. Once more, I was asked what I thought. We’d now lost the case twice in a row… but I still thought we were right. I got another green light, this time to go knocking on the door of the state supreme court. The court said, “Come on down.” And I was absolutely terrified.

The stakes were high. On one level, the case was about whether a three-year-old child who had been placed in foster care for very good reasons could be freed up for adoption by a family who wanted him. On a deeper level, the court would decide just when the courts should stop favoring a parent’s right to stay connected and start considering the “best interest of the child.”

The mother tiger in me kicked in with a vengeance, and I spent weekends working on the case. I pulled over to the side of the road to jot down ideas on paper napkins. I sat cross-legged on the cold floor of the courthouse basement, poring over nineteenth-century law books, trying to trace the path in the law from when children were considered property to the realities of the present day.

And finally the day came to argue before the high court. I had brought my older son with me for company and moral support. I took him to lunch beforehand at an Italian restaurant. He offered to share his breadsticks, but I had some more Pepto-Bismol instead.

It was my turn to go first, as the person who had asked the high court to hear the case. As I began to speak, I could feel my chest tighten and my air supply go dangerously short. My voice shook for a bit, but it passed. I remembered that what was at stake was far more important than what I was afraid of, and my breathing finally returned to normal as the justices started to pepper me with questions about the case and the law.

Gratitude and relief flooded through me when I finally got to sit down and turn the hot seat over to the attorney on the other side. When the court was done with our case, my son, my co-worker and I left the courthouse and stepped out into the sunlight. I looked at the sky and declared, “Thank God I’ll never have to do that again!”

As fate would have it, I was called on to pitch another case to the high court just a month and a half later. And I went on to argue three more after that, winning four out of five. Who knew?

Even now, the thought of saying the words, “May it please the court,” can make my heart race and my stomach lurch. As for that first case… the decision eventually came down months later — unanimously in our favor. I like to say that the good guys won that day.

But win or lose since then, every time I look at that picture from the snowy woods, I remember how far I’ve traveled.

~Mary T. Wagner

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