Invariably, folks who don’t know me but are gifted with a keen sense of the obvious recognize I am a “non-traditional” student (a polite label meaning “older than the vast majority of the other students”). They ask when they learn I am about to complete law school, “don’t you wish you had done this earlier?” Those who do know me always preface that question with, “are you crazy [leaving behind almost two decades’ worth of a successful coal industry career]?” The answer to both questions is a resounding “no!” I am thankful I had the foresight (or lack thereof) to avoid law school immediately following my undergrad schooling, and I have yet to be adjudicated mentally incompetent, though some may argue the fact.
Worker Monitoring Coke Oven
Had I attempted law school fresh off my four-year stint at college, I would have failed miserably – of that I am certain. In elementary school and secondary school, I was in the TAG class – “Talented and Gifted.” So talented and gifted in fact, I never learned how to read actively, take notes, study, or manage my time – very basic things for a law student, but skills I never learned through thirteen years of The Three R’s nor after four years of college and a double B.S. in chemical engineering and chemistry.
Besides a stellar introduction to tort law, the other valuable lesson I took from Intro to Law week during August 2013 was that succeeding in law school isn’t about how smart you are; it’s about how hard you are willing to work. For the three years (or more, for some of us) of your legal education, stow away those regal pictures from Facebook © captioned “Work smarter, not harder.” During law school, if you are not ready to devote yourself tirelessly to active reading, deliberate and thoughtful note taking, and studying, followed by some more reading, note taking, and studying, you may want to reevaluate your choice of how best to spend your siblings’ inheritance.
Having been taken with the idea of having a legal education, all was not lost for me, fortunately. After college I took a sixteen-year detour from the academic byways to start both a family and a career. My journey to the Appalachian School of Law actually began a little over eleven years before I ever stepped foot on its campus. When news of the tragic shooting broke, I was working just over the state line in McDowell County, West Virginia for a producer and seller of niche specialty coals used all over the world (can one use ‘boutique’ and ‘coal’ in the same sentence?). With an intensive job requiring my presence in the office from 6:00 a.m. until early evening and a wife and young daughter to support, not to mention a very ‘old-school’ boss, there was just no possibility of making it happen. Having a masochistic penchant for exam taking, I did manage to stow away some practice LSAT exams under my computer keyboard and during any spare moments set my stopwatch and work through as many questions as possible before sliding them back under my keyboard. That was as a close as I would come to ASL for over a decade.
Eleven years, two more daughters, a piecemeal meshing of coal companies, and four promotions later I found myself living in Abingdon. My wife had been able to remain a homemaker since 2000 thanks to my employment in the coal industry. In 2011 I had been promoted to Vice President of Metallurgical Sales – Europe for Alpha Coal Sales Co., LLC, the sort of position I had desired since starting in the coal industry in 1997. The position allowed a person who had grown up in a small town in the coalfields of southern West Virginia with almost no connections to coal (which was really quite a feat considering my surroundings) to travel to the coalfields of Australia and Mexico, visit steel mills in Russia, Sweden, Finland, Belgium, Austria, Italy and Mexico, and visit cities such as Lisbon, Madrid, Luxembourg, Helsinki, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Istanbul, Milan, Rome, Moscow, Vienna, and Sydney.
Mr. Fannin and customers from Finland
I was introduced to many different cultures and the ins and outs of how to conduct business within each. I’ve gotten to see DaVinci’s Last Supper, Moscow’s Red Square, the Sydney Opera House, enjoyed a traditional Swedish Christmas feast in Stockholm, visited the Sofia Haggia in Istanbul, and toured the Vatican in Rome. Being a food lover, I’ve sampled reindeer in Finland, way too many varieties (Benjamin “Bubba” Blue would agree) of herring in Sweden, bear in Russia, horse in Italy, seafood that looked like alien life forms (still living, I’m fairly certain) in Portugal, and found the best steaks in the world in central Mexico.
The work was not all fun and glamour – it was exhausting and lonely, especially for a homebody like me. With as many as thirteen or fourteen flight legs in one seven day trip, I rarely spent two nights in a row in the same country, and usually would visit at least one country during the week in which I only visited long enough for a meeting followed by lunch or dinner. Then I was back to the airport for the next flight. The majority of my waking hours was spent either in airports or airplanes, with each jaunt usually bracketed by harrowing taxi rides (you haven’t truly lived until you ridden in taxi in Istanbul). Due to the time difference, and my inability to sleep on planes, I would hit the ground running on Monday, heading to my first meeting of the week after having been awake for thirty hours or more. Each day’s meeting would vary in intensity depending on the customer, their culture, and their agenda, but would always include several members on their side of the table and either only me or me and one of our in-country agents, which meant I was on my toes from arrival to departure and further meant that by the end of my entire trip I was mentally exhausted as well as physically spent.
Slot Coke Oven in Alabama
Halfway through my tenure as Alpha’s ambassador to the European coke and steel producers, I began to think again about how I might be able to realize my fantasy of embarking on a legal education while still juggling family and work. I quizzed some lawyers in my office as to their law school experiences, sought their advice on how crazy my idea seemed, and inquired as to whether they thought law school was for me. In January of 2013, I placed a phone call to ASL and with no introduction or prefatory comments, inquired as to whether they had a part-time JD program, only to find out there was not. A bit dejected, I spoke with one of my lawyer friends at Alpha who gave me the name of her former colleague who taught at ASL. She urged me to visit with him and discuss exactly what I wanted to do and how both I and the school could benefit from my enrollment.
In February 2013, I made my first visit to ASL’s campus in order to meet with Professor Pat Baker. Professor Baker was excited to meet with me and had arranged a campus tour as well as a visit to the admissions office. By April I was admitted, pending a satisfactory showing on the LSAT which I would not take until July. I attended the ASL Open House in June and remember being very impressed with not only the professors, but also the other prospective students. By the second week of August 2013, I was arriving for the start of Intro week along with the other members of the Class of 2016. Fortunately for me, those sixteen years spent in the coal business helped me develop and hone the same skills required to succeed in law school, though I didn’t know it yet.
Take meaningful notes and use them make worthwhile outlines
When I first got involved in coal sales as part of a larger company (14,000+ employees at its largest) I quickly realized there was more going on than I could keep straight simply by participating in meetings and conference calls. We sold numerous coal brands and qualities to more than thirty-three countries on five continents. I learned the value in maintaining dated logbooks of about one hundred pages each. When one ended I would begin another, and kept them all for posterity. My logbooks would travel with me to the mines and preparation plants one week and then to Europe the next. They became invaluable sources of information about everything from production swings and quality issues to seemingly innocuous customer statements which could be of utmost importance during later contract disputes. I became a voracious note-taker; too late to buoy my undergrad GPA but just in time to begin my law school experience.
I retain a tremendous amount of information from writing it down. For me, taking notes of the pertinent issues brought out in the casebook reading or class discussion helped me synthesize what I needed to take from the reading and accompanying lecture. I don’t write repetitively – just the one time when I first heard it or read it, when was freshest in my mind. I would date and number my note pages just as I did my old coal logbooks. Then, when it came time to start and update my outline, it was simple and easy to methodically pull out the most important pieces of information with which to build upon. Outlines can be had from numerous sources – subscription services, blogs or websites, classmates, etc. Don’t use other people’s or premade outlines – you’ll be surprised how much you’ll retain just from building your own outline before you ever actually sit down to study it. Using another’s outline can be fatal to your course grade without knowing why certain facts of this case were important or exactly why this diagram branches as it does. Crunch-time before finals is not the time to reverse engineer someone else’s outline.
Choose Study Groups Wisely and Watch Out for Time Wasters
I started out with a small coal company with a corporate office of ten people. We each had multiple responsibilities besides our primary function. If one person was slacking, the whole office felt it and felt it quickly. At the time I left the industry, there were still 150+ people in the corporate office I inhabited for almost twleve years. I’ll never forget when, during a management roundtable discussion of how to regain the efficiency of a nimbler company, a colleague pointed out that certain groups within the corporate hierarchy existed solely based on circular work that began and ended with that group and did nothing to facilitate the business of the company. These groups would find problems that didn’t exist, create committees to tackle the “problems,” engage (i.e. bog down) other groups to assist them with confronting these problems, until such time as the problem faded away or the group latched on to some other issue du jour.
Study groups can be great. Particularly during the first year of law school, when I think many students need camaraderie and peer support just as much as they need a good night’s sleep. I learn well by explaining or teaching to a small group. Some students learn well by asking questions in a student-group setting without fear of Socrates himself discharging lighting from his fingertips or John Houseman from The Paper Chase causing the loss of one’s breakfast after having recited the facts of The Hairy Hand case. Personally I spent very little time in study groups during law school since I commuted from one and a half hours away and had family and work to tend to outside of school. I did notice that many of my classmates began to shun study groups following the 1L year. I think once folks have made it through (or decided law school was not for them during) the 1L year, they find their own groove and what works best for them in terms of absorbing and retaining knowledge. No doubt some study groups can become well-oiled machines with the right cast of characters. Be careful with whom you allot your precious time and make certain that you are getting the most out of that time. Develop a keen eye for quickly recognizing the time wasters around you and steer clear of those folks. You don’t want to be strapped into the seat behind them when they crash and burn. Your waking hours are priceless – be sure to allocate your time to the most pressing topics and complete those before small issues become big ones.
Treat Law School Like a Job
I must have heard that line a dozen times during Intro Week. I had been a workaholic so long I had unfortunately begun to treat life like a job. For those fresh out of undergrad, the true meaning of that may be a bit amorphous. Show up for class as you would work. Set a schedule for each day of the week and stick to it – don’t sleep in on Wednesday just because your first class isn’t until 11:00 a.m. Live by the calendar app – schedule every day like a workday, but be sure schedule in some time for you and your family. It will do you no good to overwhelm yourself from the get-go – keep it light and study in short bursts to avoid spending 4 hours on a topic only to find you retained maybe 10% of what you just studied. Mixing it up keeps your mind limber and anticipating change.
Easy enough, right? I would suggest you take the school/job analogy a few steps further. Workplaces aren’t democracies and neither is law school. You’ll have some professors whom you may not care for personally and some classes which may not interest you in the least. Those aren’t licenses to disrespect the professor or zone out during class. I am a firm believer that every experience you encounter can be learned from and built upon. It took me fourteen years to reach the position in the coal industry that I had striven to attain since the late 90s. I took more than a couple of job assignments not because I would enjoy them (a couple I downright despised the entire time), but because I knew they were bridges leading to what I wanted to achieve and they had to be crossed. Your professor is the boss and your grades are employee reviews – perform badly and if you’re lucky, you’ll wind up with a dead-end job and if you’re not lucky, you’ll get fired.
Build your academic reputation as you would your professional reputation – it will stick with you long after you leave ASL, even more so if you practice locally following school. The favorable impressions you make at ASL can pay dividends in the future many times over. Respond to emails in a timely fashion, certainly from the Deans and your professors, but also from your peers. Be on time to class, extracurricular group meetings, and special events, and be ready to roll once you’re there. Do your fair share on group assignments and pitch in with extra help or assistance when it’s needed. Treat the faculty and staff with respect – they will see you at your very best some days and at your worst on others and many of them dealt with the same trials and tribulations as you.
And Now a Word from Our Sponsor
When I was a 1L, in the last regular class of Contracts II, Professor Mark “Buzz” Belleville gave a little ending speech to the semester. It didn’t have anything to do with contract law. Professor Belleville said nothing about barren cows, broken crankshafts, or drunken deals for a Virginia farm. Instead, he challenged the students to find out what makes them happy and to aim for that, recognizing that such a goal may not make you the most popular person, or bring you the highest status, or earn you more money than you have Mason Jars in which to bury it. I remember being very affected by what Professor Belleville had to say. It was obvious he had taken his own advice and felt it important enough to impart on us. At the time I was at a high point in my coal industry career and had no plans to do anything else.
That day, I realized that I had created a really poor scorecard for measuring how “successful” I’d become. When you live, eat, and breathe your career you don’t realize at the time the damage you cause in the many other aspects of your life. You neglect yourself as well as your family and friends. Those of you who may already understand this are a step ahead of folks like me – it took me the better part of twenty years to understand what is really important in this life. There may be some of you reading this who have yet to begin your career or start a family and are certain you can balance giving 110% to both, and still give yourself the time you need to relax and decompress. It is very easy to fool yourself, and it gets even easier as time goes on and your priorities change you instead of the other way around. Take time now and then to take stock of where you are and what you are. How does the world define you? How does your family define you? How do you define you? If the three answers aren’t identical, take a breather and reevaluate your choices.