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Litigation Journal

Spring 2024 | Joy

How I Became a Lawyer—By Mistake

Kenneth P Nolan


  • Did I really want to teach? Of course not, but what else could you do with a degree in English?
  • I thought law school would solve my problem.
  • It’ll be like college, I reasoned—you do some studying, show up, and you’ll be fine. I was wrong.
How I Became a Lawyer—By Mistake

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I guess there was always something wrong with me. Other guys dreamed of being a doctor, lawyer, actor, rock star. Me, I just wanted to do better than my parents—not live paycheck to paycheck, have a shower instead of a cold cast-iron bathtub, have a clothes dryer instead of hanging underwear on the line in the backyard to dry.

I had no ambition to be anything. So, like everyone else at Brooklyn College, I became a teacher. Doctors made more money, so, at first, I thought I’d give that a go. I took calculus my first semester, a requirement of pre-med. Even though I spent too many hours in the library studying, I understood nothing. I was Irish, I rationalized—a land of poets, priests, and song. Not many theoretical physicists were drinking cold Buds in Farrell’s Bar. I was now an English major.

In my Depression-scarred neighborhood, the goal in life was never happiness or fulfillment, but a job with a good pension. “You like your work?” “Nah, hate it, but it has a good pension.” Everyone became cops, firefighters, teachers—jobs that wouldn’t disappear when the next Depression would throw everyone out of work and force kids to quit high school to get a job like my father did.

Did I really want to teach? Of course not, but what else could you do with a degree in English? I vaguely knew there was a big world out there, so I chose a young, hip professor as my college advisor, hoping he would guide me to a rewarding, profitable career.

“So, what do you want to be?” he asked. “Maybe a teacher,” I meekly responded. “Well, there are too many teachers. Have you thought of something else?” “Not really,” I said, eagerly awaiting his guidance. “What about library science?” he said with pride. “Librarians are always in demand.” I wanted to scream. Wall Street and its millions were only a few miles away, as were Manhattan’s shiny skyscrapers filled with executives living in lavish homes with soft lawns, but in ethnic Brooklyn, Mars was closer. Ironic that my cool, educated Jewish advisor echoed the advice of the dopey Irish and Italian guys counting the days to retirement.

With a minor in education, I was hired at tough John Jay High in Park Slope to teach English to bored, angry teens who, I quickly learned, could barely read. In pre-gentrified Park Slope, John Jay was a horrible school. A police officer roamed the overcrowded, chaotic halls. We had double sessions, starting at 7:40 a.m. and ending at 5 p.m., which certainly didn’t hurt our dropout rate of 30 percent. Even though the population was ethnically and racially diverse—nobody had money—students had one thing in common: They hated school. Shocked at first, I quickly adapted and taught The Pigman and To Kill a Mockingbird, along with basic spelling and composition. I enjoyed the students for their honesty and sincerity, at least those who weren’t smoking or fighting in the bathrooms.

To maintain your license, the Board of Education required you obtain 30 credits above your bachelor’s degree within five years. Now I was like my students—I dreaded attending grad school at night, paying for tedious and irrelevant courses. No education course ever prepared me for my first class, when I ran out of work and one student announced: “He doesn’t have anything else,” and added with a smirk: “Do you even know what you’re doin’?”

At Jay, there were a handful of older teachers who were brilliant and caring. These scholars knew more literature than my college professors and longed to teach the classics—Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Wordsworth—an impossible task given the skill and interest of our students. Their advice to me was simple: Quit. Get out. Don’t waste your life in a frustrating, unproductive system. Schools like Jay will never change, they accurately predicted. It’s too late for us, but not you.

Deciding on Law School

Based on this blunt advice, I thought law school would solve my problem. I could attain the 30 credits to keep my license by learning something of value. So I bought an LSAT review book, studied a touch, and took the exam. Brooklyn Law was ideal with a night division, tuition of only $685 a semester, and a half hour away from school and home by subway. I applied and was accepted into the four-year program.

I knew nothing about the law biz. My father was on jury duty once or twice, but the only time anyone I knew was in a courthouse was when my friends were busted for pot, and Tom Cuite, the local City Council member, had to go tell the judge to dismiss the charges, which he did. It’ll be like college, I reasoned—you do some studying, show up, and you’ll be fine. I didn’t visit the school, didn’t talk to any law students, and never heard of torts until I received my list of first-semester courses.

Eleven credits, classes five nights a week, from six to eight except Friday, which was six to seven, looked gruesome, but I’ll have the 30 credits—with the increase in salary—in no time. In August, I bought the books and sat in the law library to read my 30-page Contracts assignment. After an hour, I was through maybe five pages, understanding not a word. I asked another if she understood the assignment. Absolutely nothing, was her reply. I was not alone.

Except for a few annoying brown noses, no one grasped the legal terms, principles, and procedure. And the homework didn’t stop. Every free second, I was studying, ignoring my lovely bride of three months. All weekend I’d live in the library, arriving at nine, never leaving until four or five. While my buddies slept late, watched football, drank beers, I was holed up like a mole.

Had I known the impossible workload, the alien language, and arcane principles, I would have gladly attended Brooklyn College with its boring, but predictable, classes. But I couldn’t quit now. Everyone in the neighborhood knew I was in law school, a small town in the middle of Brooklyn where nothing was secret. I once ran into the street and was almost hit by a car. My mother knew before I returned home.

In this almost exclusively Catholic area, forgiveness was taught and practiced. You could break all the Ten Commandments—commit murder, rob the poor box, miss Mass—but if you went to confession, you were heaven-bound. Two sins, however, were never absolved: quitting and ratting. If I quit, I’d be shunned, outcast by family and friends. “Your father spent nearly three years in Africa and Europe fighting Hitler, and you couldn’t handle reading a few law books? In an air-conditioned library?”

I joined a study group and slowly began to figure it out. But I was always exhausted—writing lesson plans, teaching five classes starting at 7:40 a.m., marking tests, then running to the law library, studying, in class to 8 p.m., home, bed, and up at 6 a.m. the next day. Never ending.

And then we had the exams. My first was Torts, taught by an entertaining former trial lawyer who seemed like a nice guy. His test wasn’t. I used an hour of the three just to read the complicated and convoluted questions. I guessed at most of the multiple-choice answers and hurriedly wrote essay answers. Shell-shocked, we commiserated in O’Keefe’s Bar, where my fears were confirmed, showing in my grade of 79.

I fared better in Contracts and Civil Procedure, and did well in Legal Writing, but I was exhausted and defeated. This wasn’t school; it was boot camp. And I had only three and a half years left. Yet, I constantly reminded myself that I now had 11 credits toward my required 30, which almost made me smile.

Law School Doesn’t Count

After I began my second semester, I took my certified Brooklyn Law transcript to the Board of Education, where I found my way through the bureaucratic maze to an engaging older woman, who smiled when I told her I wanted to include my 11 credits in my file. She looked at the transcript, hesitated, and said softly: “Oh, we don’t accept credits from law school, only graduate school.” “What?” I blurted. “We don’t accept law school credits. You have to go to graduate school. You should have checked. Sorry.” I walked slowly out to Court Street and almost threw myself under a bus.

I didn’t dare tell my wife, who was so lonely she adopted a cat. My law school buddies were adamant that I couldn’t quit now: “Once you get through the first semester, the rest is easy. I think,” they argued. Whenever confronted with a critical decision, I did what I always did—nothing. So I continued in law school, but what about the 30 credits? Suppose I wanted to remain a teacher?

I had no choice. I had to attend grad school and law school at the same time. Luckily, I was free summers, so I was able to take two courses, a total of 5 credits for three summers. But that was only 15 credits, so I arranged my schedule so I’d be free one night to attend grad school. The History of the English Language, Educational Ideas in Historical Perspective, and other such drivel. Taxation and Commercial Paper were more compelling.

Only one hiccup. The Romantic Movement was a poetry course concentrating on Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, and that crowd. I told you I was Irish, so my idea of romance–well, maybe a card and a few daisies. And what’s all the big fuss about nature, its mountains, meadows, and lonely streams? In Brooklyn, our stream was the Gowanus Canal, lonely because it was the most polluted waterway in the nation. I couldn’t do it, just couldn’t. I tried to argue with the professor that I didn’t deserve an F, but she was adamant. And right.

In a little over two years, I attained the 30 credits. Then a year later, graduated from Brooklyn Law, took a leave from the Board of Ed, was hired at Speiser & Krause, and never left. I became a decent lawyer with a decent career because I always remembered the soft voice: “You should have checked.”

Kenneth P. Nolan can be reached at [email protected].