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No bridge is too far: Navigating law school as a single dad

Single Father
Using video to talk to your kids helps when you're a parent studying at law school long distance. (Shutterstock photo)

I am a law student at the University of Georgia (UGA) and a father to two beautiful girls. Unfortunately, 1,400 miles separates me from my babies. Their mother serves in the Air Force, but I separated from active duty after our divorce to pursue a legal career.

When your ex-spouse is active duty, parenting can be particularly challenging (i.e. aligning career moves to minimize separation) and creates a situation where seeing my kids is not always routine or simple. I sought a new career so that my ex-wife and I were not both subject to a transient career, but it meant surviving three years in law school.

I will ask you to trust that there is a method to my madness. The “how” and “why” I chose a legal career, or UGA, is another story for another day. For now, this article focuses on the law school experience itself, and offers tips for managing law school while separated from your kids.

Adjust your expectations

As a single parent, graduating law school and passing the bar requires herculean effort; however, your performance (i.e. grades) is unlikely to reflect the magnitude of your accomplishment. In other words, don’t expect to be an all-star student. All-star students, generally, invest fully into the experience. Aside from being incredibly smart, these students are committed to the classwork, network with faculty and lawyers, dedicate time to social clubs and events, tryout for competition teams, etc.

As a single parent though, you have obligations that impede (or prevent) you from doing most of these things. Do not be discouraged! There are unlimited paths to become a lawyer; very few require you to be top-whatever in the class.

“The attitude you have as a parent is what your kids will learn from, more than what you tell them. They don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.”

—Jim Henson

Be aware though…you will need to generate a marketplace for yourself. Be proactive; target specific opportunities that will help you stand out. For example, I participated in a semester-long internship so I could develop relationships with an office without relying on my resume.

During the semester grind though, you’ll need reminders of your worth as a human. So …

Find your rock

By design, law students compete “on a curve”—your performance is relative to your classmates, and not just the material. The pressure created by this environment can wear down anyone; compound that pressure with the loneliness you feel separated from your children and some days will be overwhelming. You’ll need to vent.

I encourage you to find someone not in law school. Find that person you can share all of your successes, failures, and fears. Find that person who will listen to your frustrations about the amount of reading you have to do, your anxiety about finals, your dismay after learning your grades, but share your excitement when you land a summer internship.

In law school, where every person necessarily competes against each other for resume prestige, even genuine conversations about job interviews and grades can feel like each person is gauging their relative class rank instead of sharing in your struggles and successes. Building trust takes time; single parents sometimes struggle building those relationships in school because of commitments that pull them away from the library. 

Find your person. Your rock. You’re embarking on a tumultuous ride.

Skip class

Ok—not every class; strategic skip-days though … absolutely.

You’ll be exhausted just from class, but getting out of bed occasionally becomes an insurmountable task because of the additional time devoted to FaceTime dates with kiddos, out-of-state visits, and a part-time work schedule. Combine physical fatigue with the emotional torment that comes from missing band concerts, birthdays, recitals—you will fail to muster the energy to properly outline, study, and do all the other “law school things” (i.e. networking, applying for internships).

Trust me—burn-out is inevitable.

Skip class. Recharge. 

Remember: How you spend your resources reflects your priorities

I message my children every day. I call them at least twice a week; FaceTime at least once. But—they don’t always message back. Sometimes, I compete with Netflix during phone calls. Occasionally, on FaceTime, I watch the ceiling while listening to them play with toys. And this is ok! They’re kids. Unquestionably, we love each other. I only mention these moments to dispel romantic notions that FaceTime shortens the distance between us.

Even during law school, it’s important to be with your kids. As Jay Pritchett says, 90% of being a Dad is just showing up (side note: binging Modern Family is a good study break). As a divorcee to an Air Force officer, “showing up” is a challenge. As a law student, it’s nearly impossible. I’ve missed birthdays, holidays, sleepovers, etc. I’m not there to hold them when they are sick. I’m absent … a lot. Several nights, this reality feels particularly crushing.

I work part-time in the Student Veterans office on-campus. During every school break, I serve as an Air Force reservist in the same area that my children reside. These things distract me from law school, but they’re necessary to see my children. Whatever you need to do to see your babies…just do it.

Your kids are everything – law school is secondary. Make sure your actions reflect that fact.

Finally, nobody does this alone

Lean on your support network and accept all the help you can find. Don’t be a hero.

Steven Miller Steve Miller is a 2L at the University of Georgia School of Law. Prior to law school, he served in the Air Force for nine years before transitioning to the Reserves in the Space Operations career field. After graduation, he is excited to do lawyerly things in the Washington, D.C. area, where he hopes to be reunited with his babies.