From Briefcase to Backpack

A postgrad finds joy in moving onward instead of upward.

January/February 1998

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From Briefcase to Backpack

It finally hit me in the Tresidder copy center the other day: I am a student. To most people here at Stanford, this is no big revelation. But to me -- a 29-year-old attorney who was collating and stapling her own photocopies for the first time since law school -- it was huge.

Twelve months ago, I was starting my fourth year as a lawyer at a "big firm" in San Francisco. A classic yuppie, I had a secretary, an office with a view of the Bay, and a perpetual stomachache.

So began my frantic search to escape law-firm life. Fortunately, I have other interests, like writing. So I threw everything against the wall -- including applications to journalism schools -- to see what would stick. And what did? A Stanford master's program in journalism, which is what brought me to the Tresidder copy center this fall.

Now I no longer have an office, a secretary or free Starbucks coffee in the firm's kitchenette. But I also don't have unreasonable partners roping me into Friday afternoon projects that require canceling my weekend plans.

These days, I spend my time covering sports for the Daily, studying in the CoHo and perusing the Stanford Art Gallery. I respect my professors far more than I did the senior lawyers who were supposed to be my mentors. (The partner who attends weekend seminary school but also entertains married clients at strip clubs is one person I particularly don't miss.) I look forward to interviewing sources for stories more than I did interviewing clients about ways to defeat valid cases against them.

Instead of striving to bill 2,100 hours a year, my lofty pre-graduation goals include running the Dish, watching a Ram's Head production and seeing the sun rise at Lake Lagunita. Favorite student perks include setting my alarm -- for an 11 a.m. class. What will it be today, I wonder: jeans or jean cut-offs?

Of course, I am studying a lot. But unlike when I practiced law, I actually receive positive feedback for my hard work -- provided you don't count my father's "An A minus? Why not an A?"

Being a student does have a few drawbacks. No matter what I'm doing -- surfing the Internet, grocery shopping or taking an aerobics class -- I know I should be studying.

At least when you're done working, for the most part, you can leave your work at the office. There is no pressure to read textbooks instead of John Grisham, to draft term papers instead of e-mails.

And, of course, there's the burden of finances. My law school friends are earning hefty six-figure salaries, and I would be, too, had I stayed. I'll be lucky if I make a fraction of that as a journalist next year. One of my lawyer friends tells me incredulously, "You're moving in the wrong direction!"

So I clip coupons. I rent movies instead of seeing them in the theater. I buy used books. I eat a lot of macaroni and cheese. I choose generic instead of brand names. These are practices I am likely to continue as a journalist long after I've left Stanford.

I used to be able to treat myself to a monthly massage, but my masseuse would always complain, "You have little attorney shoulders!" These days, those shoulders carry a backpack full of textbooks. And that feels strangely more comfortable than my old leather briefcase.


Leslie A. Gordon is a graduate student in communication.


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