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DANA PARSONS ORANGE COUNTY

First-year law student finds studies can be quite trying

September 02, 2008|DANA PARSONS

I'll tell you right up front that Joe Werner strikes me as a pretty cool guy. He's 22, dark-haired and good-looking, with an easy smile, just the right amount of unshaven face and a vibe that suggests he doesn't think he knows everything.

I feel better about the future when meeting 20-somethings like him.

But I was more curious about the other side of the street.

About whether he was, perhaps for the first time, wondering what the heck he'd gotten himself into. Whether, perhaps, he didn't know which end was up these days. Falling apart? Overwhelmed?

Werner is a first-year student at Chapman University School of Law, two weeks into the semester. Maybe it's my sadistic side, but I wanted to know how a freshman feels now that the perception of law school is a reality.

"It's definitely given me, even in the first two weeks, a very realistic impression of myself," he says. "It's a humbling thing to sit there in class and the professor asks you a question and you're unsure of the answer, then he takes the attention off of you and you're wiping your forehead and he asks someone else and they give this brilliant answer and you're thinking, 'Oh, man.' "

He's saying this not while twisting a tissue in his hands and gently weeping. He's sort of smiling.

His angst-tinged humor makes me laugh, and I ask why he can't just trust the intellect that produced a 4.2 grade-point average at Newbury Park High School in Ventura County and a 3.3 as an undergrad at Chapman.

"It's humbling in terms of intellect," he says. "I'm really shifting my trust from my intellect to my work ethic. I'm definitely just hoping to work harder than anybody else, I guess."

Every incoming freshman knows the first semester is a bear. And that the second semester, when your class load expands from five to six, will be tougher than the first.

"A few of us were hanging out last night," Werner says, "and somebody said it's a sense of going up on a roller coaster and it starts clicking up the track and you know something's going to happen but you're not sure yet. We all know it's going to get crazy and things are going to happen and we're going to have obstacles we didn't see coming."

After college graduation, Werner spent a year working at an Irvine law firm. This is his first time in a classroom in more than a year and he's still searching for his groove, especially since high school and college came relatively easy for him.

Law school requires a recalibration. "It's hard to get a sense of what you should be doing, because there's not a lot of opportunity for feedback. It's not like you're turning in a paper and the professor is telling you what to write. You're on your own and you just have to figure out the subject matter. So, you don't know if you should be spending so much time on this thing as opposed to this other thing. It's hard to say."

The good news is he likes his professors and hasn't seen the cutthroat competition among students that often graces law school corridors.

I ask whether he's met any freshmen who think it'll be a piece of cake.

"There are people like that, and they annoy me," he says.

They annoy you because you don't like their swagger? "No," he says, smiling, "because I'm worried they may be right. Because if it's a breeze for them, they're going to take that high grade and set the curve."

Ah, the dreaded curve. That perverse instrument for judging students with which the really brainy make life rough on the less brainy.

"Everybody worries about the curve," he says, "because you look around the room and know some of us are going to be getting Ds and Fs, which to all of us is a new thing. If we've made it this far, we're not used to this kind of grade."

I don't want to make it sound as if Werner is on the verge of a breakdown. Like I said, he's a cool dude. He says his excitement at carving out his law school career exceeds his nervousness at what might happen.

Is that why he's putting himself through this rigorous three-year ordeal?

"You keep asking yourself if you're doing it for the right reasons," he says. "It's partially that I want that sense of accomplishment when I'm done. Partially because I may not be able to go as far with just a B.A. or a B.S. And it sounds corny, but I'm actually interested in it."

Ah, the challenge. "The kind of people who go to law school are attracted by challenging things," he says. "The majority wants to know if they can climb that rock. You want to know for yourself. That's the appeal, in a sick way."

He's smiling as he says that. For now, he's got some library work to do, although he vows that his law school career will combine working hard and playing hard. "I would go crazy if I lived in the law library for three years," he says. "You can't do that. I'm excited to challenge myself, but at the same time you've got to have a life."

Besides, he has other interests.

"I like to work on cars," he says. "If being a lawyer doesn't work out," he adds, smiling again, "I'll be a mechanic."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

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