Chasing Paper

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.

In 1978-79, CBS aired a series called The Paper Chase that followed James Hart for his first year of law school. My mother and I were glued to this series, and Daddy – well Daddy probably just tolerated it. Not really his cup of tea. Nowadays I am a fanatical devotee of streaming services series that I can binge watch for 30 straight days, and I have more subscriptions than one single woman can watch, so even I sometimes forget the way it was back then.

The modern television viewer probably envisions that we had the broad array of options that viewers have today. Nope. We lived way out in the country and there was no cable television, no satellite, no internet. There was a cantankerous antenna which gave us the option to watch CBS or ABC, and on rare occasions when the weather was just right and we held our mouths just so, we could pick up NBC out of Panama City, Florida.

Thus, The Paper Chase was one of only two options for us at that time slot. Also, not to be overlooked, back then television series premiered in the fall and lasted through the spring, airing on a weekly basis. You caught that puppy once a week for several months before the re-runs started. Heck, we did not even have a way to record the episodes or pause them. If you missed it one week, it was tough luck catching up. You had to get a friend to tell you what happened unless you subscribed to The TV Guide which we did not. Let me tell you that heightened your devotion to your favorite programs.

The Paper Chase altered the course of my life. I was a senior in high school trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. Up until that time I varied between telling people I was going to be a writer or a lawyer. That lawyer bit was good sport for most of my relatives. Nobody was a lawyer in my family. And heck it was the 1970’s – women were decidedly MIA in the law, but I was blissfully unaware that being a girl was an impediment. (I heard on television the other day that when Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court by Ronald Reagan in 1981, women comprised less than five percent of the judiciary.) When I boldly announced to adults that I was going to be a lawyer, the ladies chuckled indulgently, and the men patted my head. One uncle generally followed it with a warning that it was very difficult to get into law school. He always had an example of so-and-so’s son or grandson who had tried repeatedly without success to attain entry into law school. Inspired by The Paper Chase I ignored all warnings and plowed ahead with single-minded determination to be the next Rita Harriman, the intrepid young woman law student on the show.

The next fall I went off to college and a little over two years later, I received my acceptance letter from the University of Alabama School of Law. My family was thrilled for me, of course. I entered law school just three years after high school. Uncle Ernest went from telling me I would not get into law school to telling me how many of his acquaintances had sons or grandsons who flunked out of law school. To tell the truth, it was so hard for this young little slip of a country girl at first, that I worried he might be on the mark.

My entering class was distinguished by a new record – more than fifty percent of the class was comprised of women for the first time ever. Sandra Day O’Connor was in her second year as an associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nevertheless, back then there were still a lot of people who were not happy about the influx of women in the law. Thank the good Lord I was blessed with a loudmouth and an alto voice. I had learned about the Socratic method from The Paper Chase; falling prey to it was a whole other story. Many a hapless young woman who had been called on spoke too softly or in a nervous shrill voice only to be shouted down by a furious law professor: “The law is NO place for shrinking violets.”

Once it was clear that I was probably going to make it through law school, Uncle Ernest alternated between telling me about how many people failed the bar or were unable to find employment after spending all that time in law school. Yet again I surprised him on both counts although I can tell you, in all candor, I was sweating the job situation. Many law firms did not hire women at all, or they only allowed for a single spot for women.

I will not bore you to tears with detailing the challenges encountered over 35 years of practicing law. Skipping ahead to 2020, COVID-19 cost me my corporate position. (Maybe it was being long in the tooth at nearly 60, but they said it was COVID-19 losses. Who knows?) In any event the past several months of intermittent legal work punctuated by long stretches of freedom propelled me into an identity crisis of sorts in which I have been plagued by self-doubts. Do I plunge back into the law? Do I now take the path not taken in 1979? The little voice in my head reminds me that way more people want to be writers than ever get published. And of those who do get published, many are not able to make the kind of living I have made as a lawyer. And it’s hard. I might fail. And I’m older. Maybe I’m out of touch with the times. Maybe no one would want to read my stuff. The list goes on.

The only difference between 2021 and 1979 is that now I am the one doubting myself. Back then I did not doubt myself. I simply carried on with my plans. If anything, the arrows of doubt that were hurled at me made me more determined to carry through with my goals. I suppose that is the point. The greatest deterrent is not the doubt of others, but of self. At the same time, fortunately I was also blessed with parents who believed in me. They did not doubt me when I said I was going to be a lawyer, or if they did, I never knew it. We must show our children and grandchildren that we believe in them, but even more importantly we must teach them to believe in themselves. There is no better way of teaching your children and grandchildren to believe in themselves than by modeling it yourself, so here it goes – I am all in for expelling my own self-doubt and a total life transformation in my sixth decade.

University of Alabama School of Law, 1985 – with my Aunt, Rubye Carter