In May, I graduated from law school. I finished my academic career. I expected something to happen–a sadness to wash over me as I exited my law school for the final time, a feeling of triumph as I crossed the staged, a sense of pride as I held up my degree for photos with family. The funny thing, however, is that I felt something different than I expected, something that I didn’t realize would be the feeling in my gut as I exited academia for the last time. The feeling was relief. I was so relieved to have survived law school relatively unscathed that I didn’t feel anything but relief that it was over.
I cried for the first hour of my drive home from undergraduate graduation. I didn’t shed a tear leaving law school (perhaps my eyes were dried out from the years of crying that led to graduation day, but it’s unclear). If you’ve been reading for a while, you know that my 1L year was a transitional period that was not nearly as smooth or effortless as I imagined. After watching The Paper Chase, Legally Blonde, and one too many legal dramas, I felt ready for the hunger games-esque landscape of a law school. I knew it wouldn’t be simple, but I genuinely never imagined it would be so hard. Schooling has never come easy for me. While I’ve always strived for success, I’ve had to work. I put in hours upon hours of work to succeed academically. I was the first in my family to pursue a graduate degree, so I was left to hours of research and various conversations with mentors about what to expect.
I will not pour over the details of why law school was my least favorite academic experience, but rather sum it up as follows: feelings of academic inferiority compounded with homesickness and feeling out of place resulted in an experience that I pushed against each step of the way until my 3L year. To put it simply, I was extremely homesick during my first semester. It affected my academic performance in ways I didn’t recognize until my homesickness subsided. Further, I struggled to fit in with the law school crowd–specifically, I had trouble adjusting to the differences between east coasters and west coasters. I felt odd. I’m very sarcastic, but I quickly realized not everyone shared my humor. I am introvert at heart, and I struggled to find alone time to relax and recharge. Finally, I am not competitive with others. I am competitive with myself, but I did not know how to handle having every class’s entire grade be dependent on a final exam that was graded on a curve.
To add insult to injury, I thought that I’d finally understood how to study–I cracked the code… and then 2L spring was my worst semester across the board. Every single class was a disappointment as far as my final grade. Suddenly, I panicked because every less-than grade felt like a ping against my hirability. This concerned me because my biggest, overarching goal of law school was to finish with a job. During my 3L fall, a professor sat me down in an end-of-semester reflection, and told me “I think you’re going to be a great lawyer, but you don’t seem to believe in yourself.” In a matter of three years, I’d gone from the student that teachers called “dedicated and confident” or “a natural leader” to someone that professors felt lacked confidence. I immediately broke down in her office. I explained that my confidence had been shaken to the core during law school and that I was having trouble recovering. Further, I had just had another professor tell me that I didn’t know how to write. As an English major who graduated with high honors, this struck a chord. However, I will say, as a general caveat, that I subsequently learned he’d made a few other students cry and I firmly believe he is everything wrong with law school. But I digress.
I often get messages about law school. People who are interested in law school ask me questions about what to expect and such. I struggle to give advice at times because my experience was nothing like I expected. It took me until 3L to really find my stride and excel how I wanted on a consistent basis. When I give advice, I try to be honest about my own struggles. I worry, however, that I scare people away from the study of law. I am honest with prospective law students not because I hope people will choose a different vocation but rather so that if they begin studying and find themselves struggling, they will know they aren’t alone. If someone hears my advice, and sails through law school, finishing Order of the Coif, then congratulations to them. That is truly awesome. If, however, that is not the path, that’s perfectly fine as well. The most important thing that law school taught me is that we define our successes and we are allowed to forge our own path, even if it’s not the one we envisioned at one time.
Two nights before graduation, I ran into a professor that I had twice in school. Once for a 1L course and once for an elective. He intimidated me immensely (to the point that my stomach would turn would he called out my name for a cold call). As soon as he approached my parents sensed me tense. I was still scared that I’d say the wrong thing and he’d think me unworthy of the degree I was soon to receive. During our conversation, he said that he had hoped to graduate first in his class in law school and that when he didn’t, he failed. Mind you, he went on to clerk for a Supreme Court justice. We define our successes. I would count him extremely successful, but now, in his late thirties, he still feels he failed in law school because he didn’t achieve his goal.
Sitting here in September, a week away from beginning my legal career in a job that I’m extremely grateful and excited for, I say this: the path, windy and prickly as it was at times, was worth it. We cannot give up on our dreams, even when we feel the universe is against us (or, at least, some teaching methodologies). A lot of the “horror” stories feel a distant memory now. However, I will continue to be open about my experience because I think far too many people contribute to the toxicity and feelings of defeat that riddle law school buildings all over the country by refusing to acknowledge the problematic aspects of the teaching methods.
The Socratic method is effective in making us better thinkers, but I think it fails in making us better humans. Further, the structure of law school falls even shorter. When someone butchers a cold call, we say a silent prayer of gratitude that it wasn’t us. When someone falls ill during finals, we think of the curve before their health. When we see someone we know does very well in a class sitting in our class on the first day of the semester, we feel inclined to drop. We begin walking into rooms and doing an assessment of whether we can or cannot beat someone on a curve. Even if a law student tells you they haven’t thought these things, they probably have thought some variation of them. Someone once told me: “I graduated high in my class because I took classes I knew I’d do well in. I avoided the classes with the top people.” He cheated the system and I do not blame him. When our careers rest on GPAs and logged hours of studying and journals and the endless need to lament your lack of a life so we can feel like all the work is worth it, we become shells of who we were.
My biggest advice will forever be: stay above water. You know how to be successful, so keep doing you and you will be okay. Do not fall into the feelings that you must kill yourself with hours of work or you’re doing something wrong. Late night after late night in the library may work for some, but it also may not work for you. Make time for things you enjoy that are nonlegal. When you are struggling to fit in, find your tribe and don’t let them go even if your tribe is small.
I bid farewell to law school. I’m sure, with time, I will remember it fondly because, thankfully, there were highlights. However, for now, I am closing this chapter and placing it on my shelf of experiences that made me stronger. I look forward to the next chapter.