Denver Bar Association
September 2000
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The Adventures of Tom Finn

by Diane Hartman

Survivor . . . Our Version

We thought it might be interesting to follow a law student during the dreaded first year of school. Tom Finn agreed, and we will be checking-in with him from time to time. We chatted with him in Dallas by phone before he moved here to go to the University of Denver College of Law. Call this series our version of "Survivor."

Tom Finn, 33, has a southern drawl, an engineering degree, a ready wit, and a long and twisted academic history.

Why law school? Why now? What on earth is he thinking?

With a background in environmental engineering, where he got to wear a rubber suit and clean up hazardous waste sites, Tom dealt with lawyers and laws a lot. It became clear to him that to make real progress he needed to know the law. One problem he encountered was that often lawyers didn't know the science well. He figures law school is part of the natural progression toward being a well-rounded environmental professional.

"But if this doesn't work out, I'm thinking med school," he joked.

He took a torturous route through a spate of colleges: "My advisor said I was graduating with more hours than most of his Ph.D.s." He changed majors, schools and "didn't miss a party."

His grades for his first several years were not impressive.

"Recently, he's been having 'bad school' dreams- the kind where you show up for class and don't have the assignment ready."

One day, a professor pulled him aside after class. "I was standing there barefoot, wearing a tie-dyed shirt, and he said, 'Tom, I understand there are more important things than school. That's the way it should be. But if you don't come to my class and turn in your homework, you're not gonna pass.'" Somehow this got through to him. He switched majors to civil engineering, specializing in environmental engineering, and started improving his grades.

An Air Force brat born in Germany, he once lived in Colorado Springs and fell in love with the state.

"This is where all the water stuff is happening, where all the water battles will be fought." He's especially impressed with the earth law clinics and the experience of the professors at DU.

He's been on the campus "and I know we share it with a cooking school. I hope I don't miss Constitutional Law and walk into pasta-making."

He's glanced into the lecture halls and tried to picture what it will be like ("Paper Chase?").

As he walked past students, he wondered if "they were smarter than me. Do they have something I don't? And I'm wondering if it's as hard as people say it is."

As soon as he "came out" and started telling friends he was going to law school, "everybody had stories . . . they talked about how cut-throat it is.

But when I ran into actual lawyers they would say it's not so bad. General advice people gave me was to make sure that law school doesn't become my life." Still, he added, there are people who just shake their heads in disbelief.

Recently, he's been having "bad school" dreams--the kind where you show up for class and don't have the assignment ready.

His impression of law school is "a kind of stripping down of how a person thinks and then reprogramming. I've heard that everyone wants the number one spot, but I hope it's not as cut-throat as I've heard."

What if professors yell? "I've worked for a Marine before at an irrigation pipe company. After him, I can handle anything."

He'll move here with "Ange," with whom he is in a serious romantic relationship. Tom said she once roomed with a first year law student and knows what to expect. "She told me that during finals, her roommate walked around in the same clothes for days and had food all over her shirt. She never showered and mumbled incoherently. Finally, Ange had to take her roommate by the shoulders and say, 'Get a hold of yourself! Look in the mirror! Shower!'"

Welcome to law school, Tom!

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