The random thoughts of an architect-turned- lawyer from the deep south living in Washington, DC...

Sunday, August 21, 2005

What exactly is "success" in law school?

I sat on a "Law School Survival Skills" panel on Friday where I answered questions for a bunch of wide-eyed excited 1Ls who have absolutely no clue what they are in for. They asked all kinds of questions and we attempted to ease their anxiety by going over what worked or didn't work for us, what to expect from and how to handle law school. The truth is, it really does depend on the person. There is no secret formula to make the first year of law school any easier. The only advice that I really have is to hold on tight because it is going to be a bumpy ride. You will read more than you ever have before, and not understand most of it for a while. You will struggle to make sense of everything and keep your life organized, which I assure you is an uphill battle. You will invest in countless various office supplies to attempt to sort through and organize your thoughts. Your eye sight will diminish two-fold and you will develop back problems due to the un-godly weight of casebooks. Your eating habits will go to crap, you will not get the sleep you are used to, your world will become the law and you lose a lot of your conversational skills with the outside world. There are, of course, little things here and there that can help ease some of the inevitable first year changes. For the most part, though, you have to figure those things out for yourself.

With all of the discussion of what to expect, most people are leaving out what I found to be the most difficult part of the first year of law school...namely the emotional turmoil. I recall my orientation this time last year. The dean stood in front of hundreds of us and said "you are at a top law school and you are used to being at the top of your class. Understand that you are competing with the best, so the rules have changed and not all of the top students can be at the top anymore." Not only did I fail to grasp the true meaning of his warning, I had no idea how I would handle that situation when I was thrown into it, nor did I anticipate needing to. I am generally a happy person and always tend to make the best of situations. I am a dreamer and an optimist. My first year of law school tested all of this and at times, it just plain broke me. It is very hard to hold your head up high when there are so many forces trying to bring you down. People will judge you based on arbitrary methods that do not at all reflect whether you will be a good attorney one day. People measure your worth by a number, rounded to the hundredth decimal point, that is based only on a three hour exam and how all of your classmates did in relation to yourself. Adding to the absurdity of it all, exams rarely reflect how well one knows the material or the law. (I can get a B on a test that the professor told me in conversation prior to the exam 'wow, you really know this stuff' and an A on a test I don't finish.) I realize it is almost impossible for your own self-worth to remain in tact when such importance is placed on these arbitrary standards.

Law school is another world, one in which hard work does not always pay off. That can be a really hard thing to accept. You can put in hours upon hours of work or preparation and not make that skills board or not do well on an exam. You sit there, stunned...so sure that you had nailed it this time. Then, you begin to question things and the worst part is just not understanding what went wrong. I am not even sure there is an explanation most of the time. You wonder if it's even worth putting forth the effort anymore. But then, you turn around, start the cycle over again and just keep on trucking. That's why you are in law school in the first place, your ability to keep on trucking. Everyone talks about "succeeding in law school". Perhaps success is just getting through it. Granted, only a small percentage of people can say they will graduate at the top of their class. At the same time, only a small percentage can say they graduated from a top law school AT ALL, or any law school for that matter. The thing you really have to keep in perspective is that law school is merely a three year stepping stone to more important things. In the grand scheme of life, your "success" within the walls of the law school does not define you or the attorney that you will one day be.

I would like to wrap this up by saying despite the negative ramblings above, I do still love law school. I am meeting wonderful people, I am learning a lot and, most importantly, I am growing in the process. There have absolutely been bumps along the way, but at the same time, I have come to be proud of myself and my accomplishments thus far. In a lunch this summer with my mentor, he said "yeah, grades and law review and moot court do matter, but some people have all of that, but when it comes to being an attorney, they just don't 'get it'. I think we all lose sight of this once we are within the walls of law school, but I like to think that despite what my transcript says, I do, in fact, just "get it".

To my friend hanging on to your "hope for the future, that there will be a time when i will not be judged- when I will not judge myself- by my failures in an abstract academic exercise"...in my most cliche voice I say: the time is now. You know as well as I do that you are worth much more than some law school exam:-)