Life, Pursuit of Justice

The Things We Carry: Seven Things I Learned in Law School and Three Things I’m Giving Back

It’s been about two weeks since I graduated law school and after much reflection, I’ve found a few things that I’ll carry with me forever, and a few things that I’d like to shed as quickly as possible.

Law school was a journey. At times, I worked two jobs. At times I pulled 18-20 hour days. At times I wondered if everything was worth it. But, even through the trials (both literal and figurative), I am immensely grateful for the three years of soul-searching, character-building, skill-enforcing and growth that I endured. In three short years, I completed six internships, participated in two journals, helped write two books, compiled numerous UN human rights complaints and reports, visited four countries — three of which were new to me –, successfully completed 3 new skills or employment trainings, established a new organization on campus, and received two kickass fellowships.

Three years.

From those experiences, I compiled the following list of 10 of the most notable lessons.

  1. Justice is not [necessarily] driven by the law

In my last semester of law school I participated in the Children’s Rights Clinic, working primarily on Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases with a few custody and other domestic issues sprinkled in. I learned very quickly that, while the law may try to define success through the implementation of blackletter rules, the outcomes quite often do not meld well with real-life circumstances. The law does not account for familial bonds, personal lived experiences or the souls of the individuals involved. Because of this, the law fails to recognize the most important component of justice: the individual behind the case, the human aspect of righteousness, the face behind the facts.

As hopeful lawyers and practicing attorneys, we should never fail to remember that our concept of justice, supported by legal theory and understanding of the law, is far different than our clients’.

As law students and advocates, we must remember that no individual other than the one who owns the lived experience can define success. No one other than our client can tell us what a “win” is. No one other than the one we are serving can guide us down the path of favorable concomitants.

As humans, we must remember that our will is not divine will and, ultimately, it is not the will that must triumph.

Justice is not driven by the law, but instead must be driven by the ones who are actively engaged in the case, the conflict and the struggle.

 

         2. Pure hearts are steadfast hearts

I’m going to be real frank here: never in my entire life have I met so many…questionable[?] …. people than [some of] those I met in law school. *Let me add here and now, that I also met some of the most breathtaking and hardworking individuals in law school as well, but there is an alarming concentration of entitlement, pomposity, narcissism and general lack of self- and universal awareness that raises to the level of incredulity.

Self-preservation and self-interest roam rampant in the halls, and the ranking system implemented by law schools drives egos and grandiose conceit to an unprecedented level. Over the years I’ve seen petty drama rip apart friendships, romantic relationships dissolve into detestation and general niceties fade away to where smiles are no longer exchanged across the halls.

Thankfully, I’m a rather guarded individual and managed to avoid 99% of the drama. Thankfully, also, I found a small group of individuals that I am not only charmed, but proud, to call my dear friends. These men and women are not only pure of heart in their intentions, but are focused and aware. They see the world for what it is and, in spite of this, continue to seek justice instead of impassivity. They chose courage instead of acedia, and optimism instead of fatalism. Through constant support and love, we built each other up throughout the years instead of abandoning each other in fleeting conflict. When there was tension, we addressed it. When there was anger, we extinguished it through loving conversation and sought understanding. No one was left behind, and no one was abandoned … because we were in it together and when one of us rose, we all rose.

This isn’t to say that there weren’t  aren’t people that I wish hadn’t drifted away. This isn’t to say that we all made the right decisions all of the time. This isn’t to say that simple miscommunications didn’t cause deep wounds.

The fact of the matter is that life in and of itself is not permanent, and the temperance and fortitude that it takes to trudge through law school causes incredible waves of internal and external change. Through this change though, we find those who are pure of heart. Those who would gladly sacrifice an hour of studying to walk you through a personal struggle; those who would put down a brief to pick up your hand; those who would deny a moment’s rest to provide a shoulder.

These pure hearts, these men and women I befriended in school, taught me that by giving pure love and support, you become unyielding and resolute not only in your friendships but also in your work.

 

 3. A good pen makes all the difference

As a long standing biblio- and logophile, paper and pens have been a foundational household item for many years. Once, my mom tried to get me to buy store-brand paper and pens and I couldn’t even pretend to make it work. Ask her. My eyes rolled to the back of my head, I started sweating and I’m about 87% sure I had an out-of-body experience. You just don’t put nice words on shoddy paper with inferior ink. Any artist knows that the quality of your canvas and brushes is half of the masterpiece.

So, when I started law school, I went all out. I grabbed a cartful of my favorite pens and was ready to go the first day. I didn’t care that I spent an ungodly amount on these bad boys, I just cared that they made me feel some sort of happiness in the 16 hour days. I color-coded my notes, I highlighted each portion of my briefs to an inch of their lives. I was crazed, and I know I wasn’t the only person who thought that.

Life is too short to deny yourself joy that is exceptional and notable only to you.

Over the course of three years, I’m sure I plowed through a small fortune on simple writing utensils.

But you know what, I don’t care. The point of the matter is this: understand the things that bring you unique joy. To some, this may be that expensive glass of wine after a successful day in court, or swanky shoes or even a daily ritual that involves a run to Starbucks. Whatever it is and whatever it looks like, indulge in it. Life is too short to deny yourself joy that is exceptional and notable only to you. Not everyone appreciates a deep-bodied and well roasted espresso. Not everyone appreciates color-coordinated binder tabs. Not everyone finds joy in 5am yoga classes. Find your ish and own it unapologetically.

 

 4. Professionalism does not mean losing your personality

When I entered law school, I thought I was going to have to shed a part of myself that didn’t fit the “traditional attorney” mold. I lost the piercings, washed out the hair dye and covered the few tattoos that I did have. To me, being professional meant being perceived as an understated, unassuming woman that didn’t curse, didn’t talk too loud, and certainly didn’t wear anything other than black. [Two things here: (1) my feminism has since evolved, thank God. (2) I tried wearing clothing that wasn’t black and it didn’t work. So I guess I’ve at least got that going for me).

Because of this, I largely lost my personality in school, internships and work. I felt weird forming close personal relationships with supervisors or professors because of my fear of being perceived as too casual, too familiar or too juvenile. I didn’t put myself in situations where I could come off as uneducated or unaware. Instead of risking these potentials, I closed myself off and was all business, all the time. I operated like this for two years: in fear that if I was my actual self, I wouldn’t be taken seriously.

but then…

Let’s all give a big HALLELUJAH! to my Clinic professor, because at the 11th hour (2nd semester of my 3L year, to be precise) the angel of all angels entered my life and showed me how to balance personality with professionalism. I don’t know how I survived without this woman, because the second she came into my life she forced me to find myself once more.

It is possible to be kind yet firm. Colorful in personality yet professional in performance. Young yet notable. Free spirited yet significant.

She taught me how to be a badass in the courtroom without being defiant; how to own your case as a young attorney or law student and earn respect; how, as a woman, to occupy a male-dominated space with your knowledge and self-awareness.

Through her guidance I became comfortable in the courtroom. Through her guidance, I felt comfortable talking issues on my own and for myself.

I had finally found how to balance authenticity, growth and self-identity in a way that honored my truth but also pushed me to break new boundaries and pursue a path of evolution that constantly jostled me to new personal and professional experiences.

 

      5. Find something you’d die for, and live for it.

A lot of my classmates entered law school because they didn’t know what else to do, they wanted to make a lot of money, or their parents were attorneys and it just “made sense.” To be honest, I stood alongside them. After graduating college I figured, Well, I can go to grad school….or law school…. 

I’d love to profess some amazing story about how I knew from a young age that I wanted to be an attorney and fight for justice and righteousness, but it would be a fabrication. I knew I wanted to enact change and work with people, but I didn’t know in what capacity. Law school, to me, represented a concrete degree with real, tangible benefits that could translate into actual change in the community. Grad school seemed…squishy and not as powerful. So, I chose law school.

Entering with a general idea about what I wanted to get out of law school, but not truly having a mission of righteousness behind me, I pushed through my first few semesters. And then, I found it.

My 2L summer, after six years of focusing on the Eastern Mediterranean, and after countless hours dedicated to working with vulnerable communities in conflict zones, it finally clicked: this was my niche. Direct impact aid and legal services within the region. [resounding “duhh” here]. I maintained a small microcosm of interest and experiences over the years, but never truly focused on honing in on specific issues such as displacement, social services and reintegration theory for forcibly displaced communities in countries such as Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

I can’t tell you how much clarity came from accepting this divinely placed calling. I had a weight lift off of my shoulders. Granted, that weight was quickly replaced with a laundry list of skills I needed to master before becoming marketable in the region, but I at least knew where and how I was supposed to use my skills.

Without law school, and without my law school in particular, I wouldn’t have unmasked the thing I’d die for. Without law school I don’t think I would have found the courage to fearlessly pursue internship after internship, experience after experience. I wouldn’t have thought myself capable of working at two of the largest human rights organizations in the United States, and I certainly wouldn’t have placed myself, at 24, in the Middle East.

The world leads you to strange places and for six years I disregarded the Universe’s constant — and certainly exasperated — attempts to open my eyes to simple see and accept where I was supposed to be.

   6.  Limits are both paramount and inconsequential.

It is through the above experiences, and the above calling, that I found that limits are both paramount and inconsequential.

Limits are required for bar reviews and alcohol intake, particularly in an environment that can promote intolerance and/or addiction.

Limits are necessary when deciding whether or not to spend another hour at the library or go to happy hour.

Limits are critical when determining the amount of time you want to dedicate to yourself, school, and your relationships.

But limits are also useless in calculating how you want to spend your post-graduate years, time and skills.

Limits are inconsiderable when determining the type of life you want to live.

Limits are insignificant in terms of self-possession, value and the credence you give your own abilities.

Limits are boundaries, but boundaries are meant to be broken.

 

       7.  That J.D..

No explanation here. I’m permanently affixing it to the end of my name and running with it.

 


And with the many things that I have learned from law school come the things that I would happily never touch again.

  1. Ego.

I tried to come up with a better title, but really this is the only title that does this topic justice. Law school breeds conceit. Whether it’s a result of class ranks, defense mechanisms to the Socratic method and overbearing supervisors or simply the evolution of the self, it happens and it is ugly. Over my three years I saw the metamorphosis of many of my classmates and the development of what appeared to be a continual dance between the student body. Individuals endlessly had to one-up each other in the halls. Instead of recognition, acknowledgment and rising together, we sat around and talked about our own achievements instead of learning about one another.

Which, really, is quite an interesting (and concerning) thing when you consider that attorneys must learn about other people as part of their job. It is our job to learn about others in a way that is sincere and genuine, and to care to a great enough extent to lend our services [after passing the bar, of course]. The role of an attorney as an advocate is one of great privilege, and one that is not achieved by many. And so, it is strange when, instead of sitting with one another and growing and learning, we constantly seek to rise above the rest and ensure our successes are known.

It’s heartbreaking to know that many of the individuals I entered law school with (including myself) at times or continuously succumbed to the grasp of pomposity and self-absorption. Again, no one escapes fault of guilt here, as we are all responsible for experiencing this at some point in our law school lives. The ultimate test, though, is how we addressed it and whether or not we recognized it within ourselves. Many students did, or will in the coming months and years. Some will not. Some may never know what shifted inside of them.

For me, I hope to shed the ego of law school. For me, when challenged by grace and conceit, I hope to choose grace.

2. Perfectionism aids addiction.

Lawyers are about 2x more likely to become addicted to drugs or alcohol and have a higher incidence of depression, anxiety and suicide. It’s striking to me that larger efforts aren’t placed on identifying triggers and potential victims earlier. Most schools, including my school, actively provide seminars and workshops on mental health and wellbeing, but I don’t ever recall resources provided beyond that. Sure, main campus has counselors and health resources, but with law students’ pressured schedule and the stigma surrounding mental heath, it’s unlikely that any student would carve out time to trek to main campus and create an appointment.

On the first day of law school, law students are largely “normal” in terms of their mental health and overall wellness, but within six months, “early signs of psychiatric problems such as anxiety, hostility and paranoia can be detected.”» Again, it’s amazing that more efforts are not placed on ensuring that these law students do not fall trap to the throes of addiction. Law schools and the legal community seem to be are blatantly aware of this disease plaguing the profession, but there is close to nothing being done to change the statistics.

Law school schedules remain packed, the ranking system is seemingly concreted into perpetuity, and hiring schemes at large law firms remain in place. When will we recognize that this profession is hiding an ogre wearing barrister’s clothing?

“Work hard, play hard…and don’t let anyone know if you can’t keep up.” »

For some reason, we think that masking addiction with the prestige of a law degree or legal career eradicates all wrong. The grandiosity of  “J.D.” makes drug addiction glamorous while masking the impact on family, friends and society. As CNN’s Patrick Krill stated so eloquently, “[T]he law is a calling that holds society on its shoulders, and regularly finds troubles at its feet…We are, after all, a nation of laws, and lawyers will forever play an indispensable part.”

I cannot describe the shock, then, as I watched classmate after classmate, both at my school and at others, fall victim to addiction. In the disorder and chaos of law school, and through the desire of perfectionism, substance abuse acts as a control mechanism. In the arena of competition, substance abuse helps individuals reach new levels of concentration, sleep less, think faster, produce more. For students struggling to keep up, substance abuse seems to be an easier way to catch up and hide the fact that they aren’t a legal Einstein.

Instead of preaching to our students, colleagues and friends that the law favors no one, and even the top 1% of the class simply cannot understand all of the legal concepts as seamlessly as they proclaim to, we fall prey to the perpetual search for the Holy Grail of Perfectionism. When good isn’t enough, we search for better.

I’ll be the first to admit that the struggle for perfectionism is one that I’ve battled for years. Instead of substances, I turned to over-scheduled anxiety. I said yes to everything, sacrificing time for myself, for my family or friends in exchange of a busier schedule. I kept telling myself that I operated better when I was busy and ignored signs of exhaustion and high-functioning anxiety. After my 2L summer, I hit a wall in terms of my mental health. I became despondent and emotionally removed  from my community. I was constantly tired, no matter how long I slept or how many cups of coffee I drank. [More on this here]. I wasn’t taking care of myself, and it finally caught up with me.

As students, advocates, members of society we must understand that dreams of perfection don’t float. There are not enough seconds in the day, neurons in the brain or discipline in a single soul that could produce perfection. Humans, by nature, are imperfect. We, as emotional, spiritual, multifaceted creatures cannot attain perfection. Whether you’re a scientist, realist or religious, I think we can all agree that perfection is a fleeting goal.

And for me, law school was the last harbor of sought perfectionism.

3. Civility is a lost art.

There are numerous instances that come to mind when I think about the lost art of civility, particularly those in my generation. Piggybacking off of the discussion on lost friendships above, people have lost the ability to work professionally with one another if there is a hint of conflict or antipathy. Instead of noting differences between individuals and vowing to work together despite these differences for the greater good of our grades, our internships, our jobs or our clients, students and young attorneys instead pledge a lifelong covenant of antagonism.

It’s freaking astounding.

Gone are the days where disputes are mere bumps in the road of friendships and relationships. Gone are the days where disagreement simply meant a topic of personal differentiation. Now, a simple nod in the opposite direction suggests a potential nuclear diffusion.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

The failure of students to realize that the classmates they see everyday are the lawyers, judges, advocates and supervisors that they will be working with for the duration of their career. The treatment they provide each other will be remembered for longer than they walk the halls of the school they attend, and certainly longer than the time it takes to study for the bar. In the law school halls, I hope to leave this ignorance of simple kindness and instead harness the power of kindness.


 

1 thought on “The Things We Carry: Seven Things I Learned in Law School and Three Things I’m Giving Back

  1. The Universe calls when we are least likely to hear- during times of great change, transition, chaos-sound like anything? Listen. Secrects are revealed. Ego is needed , necessary, when young. It is how we learn who we are as a separate person. Build our foundation and grow into ourselves but as we mature we need to let it go. Relationship is how we live in society. Relationship is how we work. Ego doesn’t like relationship because it threatens the importance of self. Yet, relationships make the self stronger. Find joy everywhere. Practice kindness everywhere. As St.Francis of Assisi said,”Preach the Gospel everyday. Use words if needed”.

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