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I Wish I’d Known: Judge Stephen Dillard

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Stephen Dillard Investiture
Stephen Dillard is sworn in as Chief Judge of the Georgia Court of Appeals of Georgia by Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday, June 21, 2017.

I was a bit of a late bloomer. I did well enough in high school and college, but I didn’t get serious about my study habits and career goals until law school. So when I arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, in the blazing-hot summer of 1993, I was terrified that I wouldn’t measure up to my classmates.

I’d done everything I could think of to prepare myself for the rigors of law school. I spoke with every lawyer who’d meet with me. I read Scott Turow’s One L. I watched The Paper Chase four or five times. I even made a few trips to the local law library and browsed through random law books, hoping this might give me some advantage during my first year.

I’d worked myself into a frenzy of sorts.

Looking back, it all seems so absurd. But at the time, I was deathly afraid of failing, and I initially viewed my classmates as rivals, rather than fellow travelers on a difficult journey.

This was a mistake. An understandable mistake, given the strange, fear-inducing culture that surrounds every student’s entry into law school. (“The first year, they scare you to death.”) But a mistake nonetheless. And it was a self-inflicted one.

Don’t overthink things

The truth is that you can overprepare for law school, overthink your plans for the first year and beyond, and get too caught up in the naturally competitive environment of law school before classes even begin. You’d be far better off spending the last free time you’ll have for the foreseeable future relaxing and doing things you love.

But if you’re already in the throes of your first year or even the second or third year, and you’ve made the same mistake I did by arriving at law school with a mentality that’s equal parts fear and ambition, then please do yourself a favor and pump the brakes.

Law school is a marathon, not a sprint; and you’re going to make yourself—and probably everyone else around you—miserable unless you radically change your perspective. If that’s how you’ve acted for a year or two already, odds are your classmates have noticed.

In my case, my fear of failing and desire to succeed caused me to initially isolate myself from most of the class. I skipped several of the “welcome to law school” social events and spent countless hours in my tiny apartment poring over casebooks and treatises. I thought I was alone, but I was wrong. Many of my classmates also felt isolated and were just as scared.

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this until about halfway through my first semester. Thankfully, I eventually built relationships and formed bonds that have lasted long after graduation.

But I wish I’d started that process from day one.

Suffice it to say, the relationships you develop in law school are crucial for your success as a lawyer. But it’s not just about potential business and future job prospects. These connections are important because there will never be another group of people in your life who’ll understand or appreciate the unique, shared experience of your time in law school as a class.

Put people first

So do yourself a favor and don’t fall into the trap of obsessively competing with your classmates or viewing them as adversaries. Grades, awards, and rankings have a way of sorting themselves out over time, and there’s no scholastic achievement that’s worth damaging your reputation or ruining a friendship.

You really are “in this” together, so don’t lose sight of the human dimension of law school. Work hard, but also take time to help your classmates be the very best they can be. If you see others struggling, check in on them. Study together. Share your outlines. Mentor students in the classes behind you as you progress through law school. Encourage each other as you go through exams, competitions, and job interviews.

Your law school experience will be a far more meaningful one as a result of the time you invest in these relationships, and you’ll graduate with a network of close friends and supporters.

And that’s worth its weight in gold.

Judge Stephen Dillard Judge Stephen Louis A. Dillard is a presiding judge of the Court of Appeals of Georgia. He was appointed to the court in 2010 after chairing the appellate practice group at James, Bates, Pope & Spivey in Macon. Since his appointment, he’s been reelected twice by Georgia voters.