Society

Mark Bourrie Goes Back to School (at 50!)

This article was originally published in the September 2015 print edition of
OTTAWA Magazine

These days, it’s almost impossible to get a Snoopy lunch box with a working Thermos, no matter how hard you look. And with the ferocious enforcement of intellectual property rights, it’s simply too risky to buy one on eBay. Knock-offs abound.

So I go to school with food stuffed in a backpack. Or, when the bills are paid and there’s money in the bank, I eat in the cafeteria.

As I pick at my greasy fries and look around the room, I wonder, why bother being a law student on the wrong side of 50? People my age are supposed to be checking off the days to retirement. In fact, some of my high school friends are already voluntarily out of the workforce. Meanwhile, I’m paying tuition — a lot of tuition. I could seriously upgrade my car every year with the amount I spend on tuition.

The answer?

I want to be a lawyer. I have wanted that for 40 years, but things just never worked out. In my teens, I hated high school. I went to four of them in four years and managed to squeeze out a Grade 13 diploma with a C average. That was enough to get me into the University of Western Ontario — but I could not afford to stay. So I took a year off, worked in a paper mill in northern Ontario, and saved enough money to go to Ryerson. At the end of my second year, people were offering me media jobs, and I took one.

Through my 20s, I wrote for the best newspapers in the country and I was able to cobble together a BA through correspondence courses. Law school was still out of reach, but grad school wasn’t. I got a master’s and a PhD without spending any of my own money. If anything, I came out ahead because I worked as a teaching assistant and both of my theses were published as books.

But I still wanted to be a lawyer. My wife had gone back to school in her early 40s and earned a law degree. She had articled at one of the big business firms and landed a job as corporate counsel to a federal agency. It wasn’t the job that made the experience so wonderful for her. She had been a champion negotiator in law school — yes, there is such a thing, and I think having a teenager honed her skills. She was also more confident and more aware of important issues and problems.

So I got the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) practice book. The LSAT is an evil thing. It tests reading comprehension (I was good at that), verbal logic (I was okay with that), and formal logic, which uses bizarre pattern games. I was terrible at formal logic.

You may have come across these games at some point. “Ten students ride a bus. Kathy will sit next to Jim but won’t sit next to Dave. Dave will sit next to Jack but won’t sit next to Abdul … Where will Larry sit?” That part of the LSAT is the thing that prevents many people from becoming lawyers. (Journalism school grads get, on average, the lowest LSAT marks Philosophy majors score the highest.)

The first time I wrote the LSAT, I screwed up the computer sheet and put my answers on the wrong lines. So I wrote it again, and within a few weeks, I was a law student with a bill of $16,000 for first-year tuition.

As for going back to school, it was hard. Law school is like high school but with less beer and pot. When you’re older than most of the profs and can feel your brain calcifying in class, when you can physically feel it becoming harder to recall names and facts, it is very challenging.

Maybe the hardest challenge is not to come across as Chevy Chase’s character on the television show Community. Being a white, middle-aged, straight, physically able anglophone puts me in the situation where I have to not visibly wince when I hear people trashing “old white men.”

The only thing worse would be to come across as a dirty old man among a group of very attractive young people who are, for the most part, young enough to be my kids (or even grandkids, where I come from).

Yes, it is strange to sit in a classroom and shed follicles. I always hated classrooms unless I was teaching. Watching cows out a classroom window got me through two years of high school English. (My word association for King Lear is “heifer.”) But I’ve made friends, very bright young people who give me a lot of faith in the future of this country.

And the work is interesting. Case law is really just a collection of stories — often funny, sometimes very sad — that say a lot about the way we treat each other. The key case for product liability — that is, your right to sue if your car’s gas tank is poorly designed and it explodes — involves a woman finding a snail in a bottle of ginger beer in Scotland.

Law school is very much like The Hunger Games, except everyone survives and the winners get the chance to work 100-hour weeks for Bay Street law firms. The losers end up doing much more interesting work for much less money. I’ll never work on Bay Street — and it’s not because I’m a bit dense, very opinionated, asthmatic, style-challenged phobic of big cities, and utterly uninterested in the work (though these are apt descriptors). It’s because I’m too old.

What I can do is get my degree, do my articles (a form of internship that harkens back to 19th-century sweatshops, except with better coffee and longer hours), and open my own practice.

But I’ll miss the students. Yes, we could bet on which of my young colleagues would most quickly swipe the coppers off a dead man’s eyes or who will be the first to be disbarred. But there are many law students who truly believe in fixing society’s wrongs. Some will do something about those wrongs. Others will be pressured by circumstances, including chill-inducing levels of debt, to find lucrative and safe work. But at least they’ll give their colleagues moral support.

Behind almost all of them are spouses, parents, siblings, friends, even employers and older mentors, who support their decision to go into a program where high grades are almost impossible to get, humiliation at the hands of profs is not uncommon, and there’s no longer a guaranteed golden ticket at the end.

Those people should be proud. And those who really want an adventure should think of joining them.

Mark Bourrie is a writer and historian who is now studying law. He spent his summer vacation researching his next book, The Killing Game, which explores ISIS propaganda.