It was just a beautiful spring day, and the almost crystalline blue sky harboured not a single cloud. Out back of 1255 Seymour was a big open lot, a sort of parking lot, I guess, smoothed-over gravel, not asphalt, and I don’t recall a lot of cars ever occupying the space, but whatever, a parking lot.
Mike and Kevin had opened up the back door escape hatch of the Domus bar area, and taken to the parking lot to play with a Frisbee.
A Frisbee can be like therapy, you know. Kevin and I sometimes went to the grassy grounds in front of one of Dalhousie’s most substantial structures, the Dunn Building, to throw a Frisbee around, in the dusk as sunset stretched into nightfall, on those wonderfully crisp Nova Scotia summer evenings. That’s a source of happy memories, the simple joy of tossing a Frisbee back and forth with Kev. There are times, not many, when you don’t seem to have a worry in the world, and if you ask me to conjure up a happy memory, which is always, inevitably, a lot harder than retrieving a recollection of something mortifying or embarrassing, my first thought might be of chucking the Frisbee around with Kev out in front of the Dunn building.
All in life that I managed to achieve, such as I did, and the image that might come first to consciousness, if you asked me for a memory of something of unalloyed joy, might be a mental snapshot of a 180 gram white Frisbee, sailing toward Kev, about 50, heck maybe 75 yards away, under the lights. It could sail that far, high up, and then, its forward momentum dissipated, simply settle down and descend vertically, land like a helicopter, right into Kev’s hands. I can see it now, clear as day, as I write this. At such times, I think, the self-conscious parts of your mind simply take a break. All you have is the perfection of the moment, and the wonder of the friendship that supports it.
There were to be greater moments, much greater, objectively, but none that were ever again so free of the constant, underlying anxiety. Some day, maybe somebody can explain to me the upside of being a grown-up.
Anyway, Mike and Kevin were out back on a beautiful day, throwing the Frisbee back and forth, just passing the time.
“Geez, nice day isn’t it?” said Mike.
“Yup”, said Kev.
“I mean, it’s shirt-sleeve weather out here, warm, sunny, dry, not too hot, almost perfect weather, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess”.
“Winter must be over for this year, then, right? It’s Spring?”
“Yeah, sure, I guess.”
“Doesn’t that make it exam time?”
The Spring weather meant it simply had to be exam time, but of course the questions were, which exams, when, and what courses were they enrolled in anyway?
Most professional people that I know, me included, have the exam dream. It’s a recurring nightmare that can involve any level of school you ever attended, and any number of riffs on the basic scenario: you’ve just realized you have an exam tomorrow for a course in which you’d forgotten you were enrolled, the classes for which you never attended. It can be high school French, or something you never actually took in graduate school, and it’s always something that you simply can’t afford to fail, you need a pass to graduate. I always wake up in a cold sweat, but it’s just a dream. Mike and Kevin lived it.
How did it get this way? In my recollection, Mike’s and Kevin’s law school endeavours went sideways pretty quickly, and there were three key factors:
- Anybody in his right frame of mind hates law school;
- The pernicious bell curve grading system makes it almost impossible to do well; and
- 1255 Seymour Street, and all that that implies.
Perhaps not in that order.
It started with beating your brains out to get grades in the “C” range. From there, it was a straight line to not beating your brains out to get grades in the “C” range. After that, it was realizing that you didn’t really need to go to class, you could skip the whole dreary business, just obtain somebody else’s case summaries – “cans” in Dalhousie law parlance – and continue to get grades in the “C” range. It turns out that “cans” was actually an acronym, “CANS”, for Condensed Annotated Notes; who knew? Somebody once asked Mike, “how long does it take you to do up your CANS?” Mike mimed out the motion of reaching his hand into his pocket, grabbing a coin, and inserting it into a photocopier, and then he bent his arm at the elbow and mimicked the back and forth motion of the light bar that scans the image, being careful to add sound effects to fully imitate the action of the machinery. Pause to calculate. “About five seconds”, he answered.
Easy, peasy, provided you could get somebody to lend you their CANS. That could get tricky if you weren’t actually known much within the school; fellow Domophiles weren’t much help, they all needed to borrow somebody’s CANS too, of course. There was always a way, though. From there, it wasn’t so much sliding down a slippery slope as it was diving into a heated pool.
The full Domus immersion made conventional school attendance and academic striving a little bit unlikely. First, if you were going take residence in the Domus basement, drinking, from about 7PM to 3AM every day, that pretty much put a stop to reading cases and poring over textbooks. Second, if you were going to be up until 3 AM almost every day, drunk, with the subsequent hangover to deal with, that precluded attendance at any sort of class scheduled for the morning, and indeed, for the early afternoon. Third, there was Thursday Night: since Thursday Night, the Big Night, might involve drinking until the Sun came up, that obviously precluded any sort of class on Fridays, whenever they might choose to schedule it. Finally, there was the availability of what amounted to paying jobs at Domus – you could be Bar Manager, like Mike, and then Kevin, or House Manager, like Sean, and make the supply and upkeep of the bar your primary purpose in life. Domus needed. It was like a living thing. You spent the daylight hours feeding it, getting it ready to go, and then depleted it all night, until it was time to wake up, drag your ass back in, and begin the cycle anew. Lather, debauch, repeat.
What did the musty law library, what did all those tedious classes, have to compete with the myriad charms of Domus? This was an era, understand, when law school tuition wasn’t the punishing levy to which we’ve become accustomed in these latter days. You could cover it off with modest student loans, maybe bursaries, and summer jobs, so it never felt like there was that much of an investment at risk, not the sort of blood and treasure that modern law students have to expend. You could make a party out of it and not lose much, short-term. So who cared? Not you. It became almost as if law school tuition was the Domus membership fee, you couldn’t be an official Domus employee and not be enrolled in the frigging school, so O.K., pay the price, enrol, and then get down to the real business of managing and inhabiting our own little corner of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Attend classes? What? Give your head a shake. The average Domophile avoided classes the way an ascetic spurned pleasure, it went beyond inclination and entered the world of governing philosophy. It became an article of the New Faith that a true hall-of-famer on the make, a “clutch law student”, could ignore the classwork all day, attend not a single lecture, not even buy the course materials, and still pull off the bell curve-induced mark in the “C” range. After a while, neither Mike nor Kevin even visited the Weldon Law School, except to post notices of upcoming Domus events on the various cork-boards. They became “phantom law students”, as one professor deemed them. They’d be signed up, all right, their names on the class list, but they wouldn’t be seen, not once, before the stinking 100% final exam, for which the boys would cram the night before – if particularly conscientious, two nights before – and collect their regulation “C” grades.
The member of the lay public has to understand something: law school is nothing like medical school. In the latter, you’re being trained to be a physician, no guff, to be able to confront the challenges you’ll face when you get out there in the real world of hospitals and ERs and begin to take responsibility for people’s lives, and yes, their deaths too. That’s serious stuff, and not, trust me, the stuff of law school. Law school had nothing to do with preparing you to be a lawyer. The academics who run these sinecures are almost adamant, almost proud of it: this is not a vocational school. One didn’t attend their institutions in order to learn the nuts and bolts of how to practise law in a given specialty, of which the law has many. No, this was an exercise in learning how to think like a lawyer, to understand the underlying principles, the very life essence, of legal thinking and the functioning legal mind.
In other words, you could take a year of contracts class at law school, and never see an actual contract, never be asked to take a stab at drafting an actual contract, and then be sent out there into the real world, where ordinary people were supposed to assume that your law degree had turned you into some kind of legal Gandolf, and draft real, legally enforceable agreements. You may doubt me on this. If so, that’s because – and this isn’t your fault, understand – you don’t know Jack Shit. Anything law school teaches you that’s actually pertinent to being a real human lawyer serving real human clients is completed in the first, I’d say, three months of first year, and it ain’t much. When I graduated law school, and was given my first assignments as a business lawyer, I was confronted with reams upon reams of clauses and language that I had no clue how to interpret. Certain things were always there, like, say, an innocuous little clause that said “Time is of the essence of this agreement”. Had anyone prepared me to know what that meant, or why I might or might not want it in a contract? Hell, no. It was four years in when I learned what it meant, and when I did, I wished most fervently that I hadn’t included it in about a third of the things I’d ever drafted.
So, here’s the thing, and nobody seems to know it: law school is, you get right down to it, utter bullshit. If we trained doctors the way we trained lawyers, they’d graduate and understand the theory of, say, why cleansing the bloodstream of impurities is crucial, but have no idea what the liver looks like, much less what it does.
If you’re smart – and Mike and Kevin were smart – you caught on to this nonsense fast. Attendance at hundreds of hours of classes dealing with civil procedure, business associations, administrative law and the like, would equip you for almost nothing. The few things that you did learn, which were likely laboured over for weeks in classes taught by relative incompetents using the case law “Socratic Method” of instruction, you were likely going to have to re-learn once you were out in the awful realm of practical application, and you’d begin to realize that what they had taken a month to explain to you was a concept that was much more readily understood after about 25 minutes of practical thought. Mike, Kevin, and the others could not possibly have understood this as well as actually practising law would soon equip them to grasp, but it was certainly possible to get a whiff of the academic horse manure. These people weren’t real lawyers, and not real teachers either. They knew nothing of the importance of ensuring your success in the cut-throat roller derby you were supposedly being groomed to enter. It was – and Mike, Kev, and others among their peer group weren’t wrong about this – practically speaking, an utter waste of time.
Don’t underrate this factor, either: if you had a poli-sci background at Dalhousie University in the early 1980s, you’d been taught by the best. Truly. I’ve been around the academic world, shit, man, I’m a man of letters, and I’ve seen more than my share of post-secondary education, and only at Dalhousie, at that moment, did I ever see the very best it could be. If you added what Dal’s history and economics programs could contribute, you understood a great deal about the flow of history, the pros and cons of various means of social organization, the rhetoric of ruling paradigms, the falsehoods buried in the justifications that kept ruling elites in power, and the illusions, as well as the profound truths, of civil society. That’s what the elite crew of Dalhousie liberal arts professors taught you, and you may believe me when I assure you that I’m in no way being ironic or facetious here. We were taught by the very best. It was thus a profound disillusionment for Mike and Kevin to cross the campus and see every old lie they’d been instructed to despise being exalted as an integral facet of the fabric of our system of law.
I really believe this. Had they never been taught by the best, or had a similar cadre of new professors awaited them at law school, what happened would never have been possible.
So, if you’re a young man, twenty-something, with access to a 24/7 bar in which you could drink cheaply, listen to your favourite music all night, and flirt with pretty young women, would you choose that, or would you choose a path of rectitude in which you attended Friday morning Tax class at 8:30 and spent two more hours on the concept of “income from an office of employment”, a legal construct by which money earned from working like a serf would be treated more harshly by the tax man than filthy lucre earned by already having money and letting it grow while you sipped your Chivas Regal?
No sir, once you’d absorbed certain unpalatable realities, and also, subsequently, realized that excelling was almost impossible, that the profs had no idea how to teach, that what they were teaching didn’t much equip you for what you’d be facing supposing you graduated, and that it was, to boot, horrifically, crushingly, irrepressibly drab and awful – and Domus beckoned – what would you do? Go to class? Spend night after night with three colours of hi-liter going over things in the casebooks? Would you? Really?
Yeah, all right, maybe you would, because you wanted the prize. That’s what I did, when I finally succumbed, and went. I wanted the shiny object, but I was lucky, I’d already had Domus, I’d already seen law school from the inside. I knew what I was getting into. I was free to push forward, unencumbered by illusions, hopes, and dreams of doing something meaningful. Law school was a job, a competition, leading towards another job, another competition, and there were certain things you had to achieve, without worrying that your dreams about what it was all about were proving to be nonsense. What dreams? I just wanted to get my arms out of a bucket of Varsol. I was almost ten years older, too. I rather doubt I could have taken the strain of law school if I hadn’t already known how shallow and empty it would be, and If I hadn’t already more or less sated my youthful compulsion to indulge in the joys of the dissolute lifestyle that was there, free for the taking, seductive, irresistible, really, to young men of a certain age. Perhaps I was doubly lucky, too, that I went to U of T, not Dal, and U of T had no Domus, well, nobody else did, but U of T had no law student bar at all. They had a wine tasting club. They called it “The Supreme Cork”. I shit you not.
So call it disillusionment. Call it immaturity, call it being led astray, it was what it was. The boys were at the bar. In the light of day, they tended to its needs. At night, they depleted its resources to the point of exhaustion. Lather, debauch, repeat.
Yet some part of them still wanted the diploma. Tuition wasn’t really just the membership fee to Domus. They’d been brought up to achieve. So exam time always initiated this frantic process, what courses am I in, what are the course materials, when is the exam, what short-cuts are out there to get me through? It could become very tense and exhausting, being utterly unprepared and blindsided by exams in courses you’d only just realized you’d been enrolled in all year long, especially if – God help us – they were scheduled on a Friday. What sort of Torquemadas scheduled an exam on the day after Thursday Night? The day after Thursday Night, for fuck sakes. One time, Mike, having finished his own Friday ordeal in another room, peered into a class where Rossi was suffering through his own dark day of the academic soul, looking through the small window in the door of the classroom. Rossi was trying to overcome the effects of the prior night’s alcohol with some uppers. Even out the strain, right? Mark watched as Rossi looked at the question sheet, picked it up, and used it to mop his fevered brow, the sweat pouring off him.
During some sort of contracts exam, for which Mike was less than unprepared, having neither attended class nor bought the materials – hey, the materials were expensive! – he regarded the exam questions, and got up and left the room. Exams in law school are open book, it’s not about what you can memorize, it’s about how you can reason through problems having learned the rules about how you think like a lawyer (that is, how well you tolerate cognitive dissonance), so nobody objected as he left his seat, apparently intent upon retrieving supplemental materials. He took the elevator up to the law library, now more or less vacant, since everyone was otherwise occupied writing finals downstairs, and asked the rather nonplussed staff member behind the counter if he could please sign out the contracts case book. “Aren’t you supposed to be writing that exam right now?”, she asked. “I am indeed”, says Mike, “so if you could make haste I’d be mightily grateful”.
Sean had another strategy. As exams approached, and his prospects of catching up on all the missed course work dimmed, he had what under the circumstances, we’ll say, was the good luck to have developed a subcutaneous cyst on his back. Or was it his backside? Can’t recall. Back there somewhere. He’d seen doctors at Student Health. It wasn’t dangerous, particularly, it was just a boil which, in time, would need to be lanced the old-fashioned way, and Sean asked them if it could wait, because he had an exam the next day. Sure, they said, come in after. Sean then went to the exam, looked at the question sheet to see if he had a chance of answering anything, and upon realizing he didn’t, slammed his backside against the wooden chair, deliberately bursting the cyst. It was, he assured us later, productive and foul. Who, at that point, could deny him dispensation to go get it dealt with and come back later, in a couple of days maybe, once the doctors were through with him? More study time! Yay, cyst!
Again, I ask you: could I possibly be making this up?
Once, Mike completed his family law exam on the information contained in an article in Family Circle magazine. “A simplistic distillation of the law”, he said, “but it got me a ‘B’”.
So now, it had come to this. They had to transition from chucking the Frisbee around out back to figuring out what classes they were in. After some scrambling, they found out they were enrolled in such daunting courses as Wills, and Admiralty, and trooped over to the Weldon to see if they could still buy the materials, and, crucially, if the relevant exams had already been written.
For Kevin, signed up for Admiralty, apparently, there was good news and bad news. The materials were still available, and the exam had not already been written. However, the exam was tomorrow. Tomorrow. For the love of Christ. He bought the Cerlox-bound casebook, printed, in legal fashion, on paper 8 ½ by 14 inches long, and carried it back to Domus. There was still time, right? All he had to do was go through the materials, and get the gist of it.
Two things about Admiralty Law: first, it’s exquisitely complex. I know. I took it, much later. It isn’t rooted in the English Common Law. Admiralty is its own thing, with some doctrines, we reckon, going as far back as ancient Phoenicia. It has its weird little quirks. For example, if you sue somebody in a court sitting in Admiralty, you don’t sue human beings – you sue the ship. An “in rem” suit, it’s called, that is, translated from the Latin, it’s a thing you’re suing. There were lots of little twists like that, ancient rules about salvage, duty to rescue, flotsam, jetsam, treaties on international carriage of goods, it was a web of strictures, some as old as civilization, some as new as multi-state negotiations concluded only a couple of years prior.
Kevin was, as noted, very smart, but that wasn’t the problem. He had a practical bent; and he couldn’t really give a shit about law. Thus, he was delighted to discover that the first few pages of the Admiralty casebook were devoted to the description of ships, their characteristics, and purposes. Great huge ships, mind you! How they actually worked! There was a big fold-out sheet that gave you a diagram of a modern “Panamax” container ship. Wait – what was “Panamax”? Well, when designed, the locks of the Panama Canal were set at 110 feet of width, so any ship that wanted to transit had to have a beam of less than 110 feet – sometimes only a shade less – or do what ancient mariners had had to do, and round Cape Horn instead. A “Panamax” ship was one designed to have the greatest possible beam that would still allow it to transit the Panama Canal. Oh my God! Fascinating! There were of course different kinds of ships, too, most importantly, these days, oil tankers and container ships, especially, it seemed, container ships.
Containerization had revolutionized international commerce. The apparently simple idea that goods were best shipped in standard-sized boxes for which ships, trains and trucks alike could be designed to haul, well, it had changed everything! Moreover, there were types of container ships, they weren’t all the same! Some had ramps that lowered from their sterns, which were set at an angle such that the ramps could be lowered right onto the adjacent pier. Thus you could simply drive vehicles on them, and off them. These were therefore “roll-on, roll-off” vessels, or “Ro-Ros”! Amazing! Others had well decks that could be flooded, allowing containers to be loaded by barges, right into and out of the hulls. “Float on, Float off” – “Flo-Flos”! And oh, damn, the ships also had various markings on their hulls, near the water line, things that any observant maritime boy had noticed, in passing, as the vessels entered and exited Halifax Harbour. Here they were explained! It was great! For example, a cargo ship’s hull was always marked with a “Plimsoll Line”! Wait, get the fuck out of here, I’ve seen that!! What does it mean? Well, “the Plimsoll line is a reference mark located on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth to which the vessel may be safely immersed when loaded with cargo. This depth varies with a ship’s dimensions, type of cargo, time of year, and the water densities encountered in port and at sea.”
Oh! This was so interesting!
I sat there, as Kevin studied the casebook with almost savage intensity, sitting at the Domus bar and having a beer. The exam was in about 12 hours, but all this stuff about ships and how they worked was great, and he couldn’t move past it. The mechanics of international trade, the actual means by which billions of tons of goods were exchanged between continents, now that was interesting and important. The related law? Oh for Chrissakes, please.
Back over at the school, I guess on the scrounge for CANS, or there doggedly advertising some theme night at Domus, Kevin and Mike ran into “Frank”, the giant leprechaun, so named because he was 6’6″ tall and once wore a button on March 17th that said “World’s largest leprechaun”. When they got off the elevator, Frank was getting on. He asked them how the study was going for the impending Admiralty exam.
“Fine” said Kevin. “It’s just that I’m having trouble remembering all those confusing terms: Ro-Ro, Flo-Flo, Flotsam, Jetsam, FOLO, FOFO, LOFO, LOLO, etc. It’s all so difficult”.
“That stuff is murder”, Mike concurred, sombrely.
Frank turned white as a sheet. Mike thought he would faint. Frank hadn’t boned up on that stuff at all! Yikes, was that the important stuff? Holy shit! Ay Carumba!! Time to get back to cramming! The elevator door closed before they had a chance to tell him, supposing they could have been bothered to tell him, that he could relax, they were just yanking his chain. Nice guys.
Meanwhile, Mike, if not at the same time, but perhaps some other time, it’s hard to keep this stuff straight after all these years, found out that he was in Wills and Estates. This, too, is a rather fraught and complicated area of law, going back to ancient times, drawing on legal concepts modified by the Common Law that derive from Greek and Roman traditions. The reader might understand a bit about how complex a body of law this is by being informed that this is where the notorious “Rule Against Perpetuities” comes up. Wills and estates is no joke, and it’s also an area, like the equally ancient law of real estate, in which things can get insanely arcane.
Oh shit, real estate, that was another one. In first year, Mike was sure he was getting a grip on this, but it was hard to tell. The relevant law is full of medieval terms signifying the extent of a person’s actual legal interest in the relevant piece of land. One might possess “fee simple absolute”, or only the “fee tail”, that sort of thing. The case books tended to illustrate these concepts by reference to hypothetical plots of land, say “Black-acre”, or “Green-acre”. Some hypothetical protagonist might have some sort of interest in “Green-acre”, maybe a fee tail. Mike assumed the colour of the land denoted, at law, the actual legal doctrine at play, such that “Black-acre” always meant “fee simple absolute”, and “Green-acre” always meant “fee simple contingent”.
Such little misunderstandings could cost you dearly on an exam graded on a bell curve.
Wills and estates was a lot like that. Mike and three others formed a study group, and Mike won that study group’s Wills prize; he got a “D”. There were also two “E”s and an “F”. Yes, Dal Law handed out “E” grades in those days, it was described as a “gentleman’s failure”, and I forget why the distinction between “E” and “F” mattered, maybe it had something to do with the prospect of writing supplemental exams to secure passing marks.
That was the problem with letting the futility of trying to get high grades discourage you from trying to get any grades at all. You could end up with decidedly awful grades. It wasn’t like there was much danger of actually flunking out of law school, everyone involved would do his or her level best to get you over the top somehow, but the thing was, there weren’t a lot of law firms in the Greater Halifax area, and all of them would be looking to see your transcripts.
At the end, when Jason and Kevin and Jerry, all denizens of 1255 in various capacities, started applying for jobs, they held a “PFO” contest. “PFO” stood for “Please Fuck Off” – the essential message of a given law firm, expressed in a letter of reply, having reviewed your job application. They all stapled the PFOs to their walls, and there were dozens. I forget who won.
All anybody hiring in a law firm cares about is the candidate’s grades.
So it goes. All those PFO-worthy grades set off a sort of chain reaction, which is how I ended up where I am, and others too. A story, perhaps, for another day.