Mary Wagner

Law School at Forty

The words are enough to strike terror into the hearts of most attorneys I know. They are the first words you speak when you address the Wisconsin Supreme Court in an oral argument. The words are ritual, standardized and formal. And I was about to say them myself…if I just didn’t faint.

I have a framed photo on my desk at work. It dates from perhaps a year before I started law school at the age of forty, and only a few months before I would break my back in a riding accident, spend three painful months in a body cast, and have the world as I knew it divide into “before” and “after.”

In the photo, I am standing in a winter woods, with my four children gathered around me. They range, in that picture, from about three years old to thirteen. We are surrounded by pristine snow and bare trees, and framed in a pretty fieldstone archway. I am beaming, and my entire universe revolves around keeping them safe and warm and out of harm’s way. 

If you had walked up to me then and told me that in just a few short years I would not only be a criminal prosecutor but find myself arguing cases before the state supreme court, I would have given you the same stare as if you’d told me that I was really the Queen of England, and a Lear jet was standing by to whisk me back across the pond. Oh, and the roof at Buckingham Palace needs fixing.

I might have smiled pleasantly, rolled my eyes…and then called the police.

But fate—and a tall horse who steered like a barge—intervened, and barely a year after I was lifted off the sandy soil of a riding arena on a back board, my youngest son started part-time kindergarten and I started law school as one of the first part-time students enrolled at Marquette University Law School. I remember sitting in a large classroom during orientation week, surrounded by dozens of twenty-somethings literally young enough to be my children. An affable professor at the front of the room was demonstrating the Socratic method of teaching with an exercise that kicked off with the question, “who owns the moon?”

I didn’t really care about the moon right then, but as he spoke I felt an oppressive cloud of pessimism descend on me like a starless night.

What was I thinking? How could I possibly survive this? How could I compete with kids who had no families to care for and no pets and no responsibilities, who could close the law library and then go out for drinks and convivially debate legal theory over pitchers of beer, who could read textbooks with their breakfast cereal?  In contrast, I had four kids, a dog, two elderly horses, and a marriage that was teetering on the verge of collapse. My sense of doom right then was as deep and all-consuming as a black hole.

But on the ride home, I reminded myself that I’d already borrowed the money for the first year…and I might as well toughen up and show up for class the following week. 

I soon found a comforting road rhythm in driving the thirty miles to school three times a week. I studied like crazy for four hours every Friday morning, kept ferrying children as usual to tennis and soccer and gymnastics and volleyball, and skipped class whenever there was a field trip or it was my turn to be the “hot dog mom” at the grade school.  And somehow, through it all, I managed to achieve a very good grade point average.

There was one serious barrier for me to conquer, though. All my life I had suffered from a tremendous, crippling fear of public speaking. Call it panic attacks, anxiety attacks, sheer nerves, I was unable to get up in front of a room full of people without my heart racing and my breathing going tight and shallow, and my voice shaking with dread. I will never forget the first time I was called on to “brief” a case in front of a law class. 

Standing near the back row of an amphitheater classroom, I could feel the cold wind of fear and desperation creeping up my back, and while I knew the subject well, I barely choked out the words with great difficulty. The professor sat, motionless, on the edge of his desk at the front of the room. I have often imagined what must have been going through his mind. Two things, probably. First, if I died of fright, what on earth would he tell the dean? And second, what on earth would he do with the body?

After that first debacle, I forced myself to confront my demons. In every single class after that, I read ahead and raised my hand, determined to say something on point. Little by little, with every attempt, my heart quit pounding quite so hard, and my voice stopped quavering so much. 

Still, it was a decidedly uphill climb. When the rest of my classmates showed up conservatively dressed in suits for our first mini “oral arguments” day in a legal writing class, I showed up in jeans and a Mother’s Day T-shirt that read “Best Mom in the Whole World.” I wore it to remind me that if I fell flat on my face in school, I still had a life. If I had to do that day over, I’d still wear the same thing.

Three-and-a-half years after I started, I finally graduated from law school with honors and a commitment to finding a job as a criminal prosecutor. I was lucky enough to quickly land a part-time position with the District Attorney’s office in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The post was newly created, and both my boss and I were open to suggestions as to how to make the best use of my time.

As a former journalist, I naturally gravitated to writing projects—briefs, motions, research, appeals.  And then one fine day one of the other attorneys in the office turned up at my desk with several pounds of paper for me to review. He had won a TPR (“Termination of Parental Rights”) case at trial before a jury, but the judge had subsequently refused to terminate the mother’s rights based on a technicality. What did I think?

I had been a prosecuting attorney for less than a year. I had never looked at the Children’s Code before this. But I rolled up my sleeves, read the statutes and the judge’s decision, and came to the conclusion that the judge had gotten it wrong. My boss gave me the green light to file an appeal.

A few months later, the written decision came down from the Court of Appeals. The appellate judge ruled in favor of the trial court judge. Once again, several pounds of paper landed with a thump on my desk. What did I think? We had now lost the case twice in a row…but when I looked at the law and the appellate court’s reasoning, I came to the conclusion that this decision was wrong too. I got another green light, this time to go knocking on the door of the state supreme court. My “petition for review” was granted. And I was absolutely terrified.

All of my old fears of speaking before an audience came flooding back, in spades. As a survival mechanism, my obsessive compulsive streak kicked in then, and I zealously over-prepared. Terrified that I might not have an answer, or that my mind might just go blank, I researched…and rehearsed…and researched some more. 

The stakes were high, as they always are at this level of argument. On a personal level, the case came down to whether a three-year-old boy who had been placed in foster care for very good reasons could be freed up for adoption by the family who wanted him. On a broader plane, the issue that would be decided for this case and all cases coming after it was just when in the formal TPR process the courts should stop favoring a parent’s right to stay connected and start considering the “best interest of the child.”

Since the case involved a young child who clearly deserved a better life, the “mother tiger” in me kicked in as well and I spent extra time on weekends working on the case. As ideas came to me while I was driving, I pulled over to the side of the road to jot them down on Dairy Queen napkins. I sat cross-legged on the cold floor of the courthouse basement, poring over dusty statute books from the 1800s, trying to trace the path in the law from when children were considered property to the realities and priorities of the present day.

I rehearsed my introduction over and over again as I drove, afraid that if I didn’t have the words—including my name—absolutely committed to some subconscious part of my brain stem, I might freeze like a deer in the headlights. 

And finally the day came to argue before the high court. I had brought my older son with me for company. I treated him to lunch beforehand at an Italian restaurant. I passed on his offer to share his breadsticks, and took another dose of Pepto Bismol to steady my nervous stomach. My friend and co-worker who had tried the case in the local circuit court joined us. As he sat beside me at the counsel table in the packed room, I told him “if I pass out, just pick up my notes and keep reading!” I wasn’t kidding.

As the person who had asked the high court to hear the case, it was my turn to go first. The justices filed into the courtroom in their black robes, and solemnly took their seats. One of the justices and I had been reporters at the same newspaper many years earlier, and she gave me a quick smile as our eyes met. I don’t recall that it made me feel any less nervous.

As I began to speak, I could feel my chest start to tighten and my air supply go dangerously short. My voice shook for a bit, but it passed. I remembered that what was at stake was far more important than what I was afraid of, and my breathing finally returned to normal as the justices started to pepper me with questions about the case and the law.

Gratitude and relief beyond words flooded through me when I finally got to sit down and turn the hot seat over to the attorney on the other side. When the arguments were finally over, my son and my friend and I left the courthouse and stepped out into the sunlight. As I cleared the doorway, I looked at the sky and declared, “Thank God I’ll never have to do that again!!” I was absolutely sure that I wouldn’t survive another round. 

The three of us headed to a nearby restaurant for a little celebration. We settled in to our air-conditioned seats, and ordered drinks and nachos. As we waited, I repeated my heartfelt desire to avoid such an incredibly grueling experience again. 

My friend looked at me and smiled wickedly. “You know, I’ve got another case I want you to look at…” Oh dear God.

Timelines for appeals in cases involving TPRs are mercilessly short. I wouldn’t have thought it possible at first, but only five weeks later—and months before the first case was even decided—I had finished another brief and had it sitting in the supreme court’s “in” box. And I went on to prepare and argue three more cases to the court after that.

Then I finally got to catch my breath. Even now, the thought of saying the words “May it please the court” can make my heart race.

As for that first case…the decision eventually came down months later in our favor, with the vote being a clean sweep of seven to nothing. I like to say that the good guys won, and just leave it at that. 

But win or lose, every time I look at that picture from the snowy woods…I think about how far I’ve traveled.

I first wrote this essay for my "member page" at MORE.com. It was a finalist in the Royal Palm Literary Awards, and is excerpted here from my latest book, When the Shoe Fits...Essays of Love, Life and Second Chances.

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