As a first-generation lawyer, I really didn’t know what to expect from the practice of law. I wasn’t prepared for the pressure and the stress, and I didn’t know how to overcome the need for perfection and validation that I’d inadvertently nurtured through a lifetime focused on academic performance.
My first several years practicing law continued to track the academic model of performance-evaluation-validation to some degree. As an associate at a large firm, there were goals to meet, and I strove for perfection. But as you advance in your career, the metrics begin to shift and change. Sometimes they’re defined differently depending on the source. This is often when lawyers realize that finding true fulfillment means defining your own measures of success.
Why am I talking about mid-career revelations in a blog for law students? Because the sooner you know this phase is coming, the sooner you can start developing your own metrics that are meaningful to you. What kind of lawyer do you want to be? What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of life do you want to lead? These are all important things to think about as you look ahead and begin shaping your future as a lawyer.
Constantly monitoring and performing under the metrics everyone else has for you is stressful, and even the most high-achieving among us can’t be everything to everybody. How did your grade on that final stack up? Did you get discouraged after seeing a classmate impress during moot court tryouts? Did your friend get a call back from a firm that didn’t select you for an OCI interview? Are you stressed about getting that prestigious clerkship? Stop. Just stop.
Take a breather. Reflect. What’s important to you? Which opportunities will serve your needs best? Might your current definition of success change in a few years? That’s okay, too. Nothing is set in stone. You can transform your career as you go. The most important thing is that you feel that what you’re doing reflects who you are and serves your needs. This starts in law school.
Of course, some metrics in law school are unavoidably important. Grades aren’t everything, but they are important. If law review, moot court, trial team, or other extracurriculars align with your interests and goals, then your ability to participate in those activities is important. The bar exam? Important! Work hard on what’s important, but don’t confuse your performance with your identity or your value.
And when it comes to making time for other activities, make sure you’re getting involved because those activities speak to your interests. If you have an opportunity to do something that excites you, find a way to make it work. If you’re offered an opportunity to do something that might sound impressive to someone else, but doesn’t appeal to you in any way, shape, or form, respectfully decline.
The same philosophy applies when you start the job search and interviewing process. Interview with a firm or organization because you’ve done your own independent research and believe it would provide a great opportunity for you, not because everyone else in your class is clamoring to get on the interview list. Law school is the perfect time to start letting go of other people’s judgment and expectations.
Law school is also a great time to start making connections in the legal community. Bar associations are a wonderful place to find camaraderie and explore shared interests. Many organizations have law student divisions, making it easy to get involved.
Also, get to know your local legal aid organization or one in the area where you’d like to practice. There are so many opportunities to help your community by using the legal knowledge and skills you’re developing. You are guaranteed to find a program that strikes a chord with your interests (and if you don’t find that program, don’t be afraid to start it!). Lawyers have unique opportunities to make a difference in their communities. Don’t let those opportunities pass you by. They will bring a whole new level of meaning to your career.
There’s no better time than right now to start focusing on fulfillment and satisfaction with your life as a law student and soon-to-be lawyer. By defining what success means to you, you avoid a lifetime of reacting to ever-changing, widely conflicting, and almost always unsustainable ideals perpetuated by others.
So, when you’re faced with decisions—from class selection to extracurriculars to job prospects—take a step back and ask yourself which options best serve your vision of your future. Then, do you and never look back. Your life will be so much richer for it.