A Valuable Law School Lesson

I was 18 years old when my dad dropped me off as a freshman on the front steps of my dorm at the University of Florida. “You’re on your own now,” Dad said shaking my hand. “You know your mother and I don’t have funds to help you.” As my parents and younger sister drove away, I wondered how I was going to earn the degrees I aspired to.  

Seven years later, I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting then went on to earn a juris doctorate in law. I completed an eight-year program in just seven, often working two jobs at a time to cover expenses. I finished my studies with Patti as my fiancée.   

As school starts again (maybe?) for a new — albeit unique — school year, I can’t help but become nostalgic, particularly with the many memories I have from the University of Florida’s College of Law. Whenever I recall my law school days, I’m often reminded of the hardened, knowledgeable professors who didn’t humor our quick wit but taught us so much more than we could find in our textbooks.  

One such professor was Scott Van Alstyne. He wasn’t your standard law scholar; he became a professor after a storied legal career including stints as the managing partner at two large, well respected law firms in Chicago and Milwaukee. To this day, I can hear his nasally upper-midwestern accent as he chastised me and my classmates for our dumb answers.  

“Mr. Hersch, I wouldn’t trust you to represent me in a parking ticket dispute!” was one of his more humorous jabs I can relay in a family-friendly newspaper.  

Some of my classmates, including one who is now President of the Florida Bar, complained to the dean about Professor Van Alstyne’s tactics and salty language, but I understood the goal. An ability to think calmly under pressure was necessary for our careers. Despite the frequent jabs, “Scotty” as we affectionately called him, became one of my favorite professors. He even hired me as his teaching assistant during my third year of law school, the final stretch before graduating.   

Yet, just before the last semester of our third and final year, the Bar decided that all law students would require the successful completion of an ethics course to graduate. Because our curriculum was set, they squeezed Ethics 101 into an already jam-packed schedule. You may have heard that in the first year of law school, they scare you to death, in the second year, they work you to death, and in the third year, they bore you to death. The third year is particularly difficult to survive because most students have jobs lined up.  

However, our ethics professor didn’t show us sympathy. He was a recent graduate himself, but the worst was the starting time of his two-hour class7:30 a.m. every Thursday. On Wednesday evenings CJs, a local oyster bar, featured $2 pitchers of beer for law students. CJwas rustic, complete with cement floors, picnic tables and a jukebox. I have great memories eating greasy wings and singing Jimmy Buffet tunes armand-arm with my classmates atop the tables into the wee hours of the night.  

It’s also where another classmate (who would later become my sister-in-law) introduced me to Patti and her sparkling green eyes. When summoned, I jumped off a table to introduce myself sloshing a red Solo cup full of beer following a rousing rendition of “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” But that’s a story for another time. 

So, you can imagine how we fared during this sunrise class. After one particularly rowdy evening, the professor bellowed, “Mr. Hersch, a man walks into your office with a smoking gun, slams it down on your desk, and says ‘I just shot a man with this gun.’ What do you do?”   

Still groggy and hoarse from the night before, I smiled broadly and said, “I would tell him to get the hell out of my office as I’m a tax attorney, I don’t practice criminal defense law!” The class erupted in laughter, and I beamed with pride at my own cleverness. The professor, clearly not amused, and due to his youth was sensitive about perceived challenges to his authority, stared me down as the laughter dissipated, resulting in an awkward silence. Only then did he growl at me to visit with him after class.  

Once in his office, I was met with a seemingly endless diatribe, lasting so long that I missed my next class. He didn’t like my joke, eventually marking me with a C+ for the semester despite my feeling that I nailed the final (my other grades that term included 4 As and a B+). I laugh now when recalling the experience, but I learned a valuable lesson when to keep wisecracks to myself.  

It’s been more than 31 years since I graduated from law school, but there will always be something special about the time I spent in Gainesville. It was hard work, but the professors, nights at CJs, and the expertise I left with made all the work, studying and late nights worth it.  

© 2020 Craig R. Hersch. Originally published in the Sanibel Island Sun.