Looking back as a 3L, I’ve realized now that law school has just been one giant test of my transition to adulthood. The first test: recognizing “validation-seeking” advice.
You’ve encountered validation-seeking advice. The “if you can convince others to do what you did, then your path must have been perfect and everything you went through was worth it” kind of advice.
My first encounter with validation-seeking advice was with those law school self-help guide books. Like many of you anxious prospective students, I bought a few of those books my 0L summer—and I lived to regret it.
Here’s the thing. What none of those “how to do law school” books tell you upfront is that nothing can prepare you for law school. Every law school is different. Every law professor has a unique academic style. Everyone has a different way of learning and note-taking. Even the type of students you’ll encounter are different at each school. You have never done anything in your life remotely close to what you’re about to do now. You won’t know how to prepare until you start.
Of course, if these books were that honest, they probably wouldn’t sell. The first chapter of the book I bought—one of those “law school survival guides” —attempted to define success by the size and notoriety of the law firm you sign with at the end of your journey. The rest of the book explains how to achieve that success. The theme of each chapter was clear: if you don’t do it this way, you’re destined to fail.
Suffice it to say, it was validation-seeking advice for the author, and all it did was freak me out.
More validation-seeking advice followed when I announced my intent to go to law school. All of a sudden everyone had something to say about it. Because I was a computer scientist, I was told I have to go into patent law. How else would I use my engineering degree? Of course, this was coming from other computer science patent lawyers. I really didn’t even know what patent law was; I just knew that I absolutely hated sitting in a cubicle for eight hours a day coding.
I would later discover that patent law is just coding for nerd-lawyers.
I met with a professor that summer that would later become my law school advisor. He had left me with one surprisingly not-so-simple task to complete before I started that fall: be able to describe what I want to do with my legal career.
You have never done anything in your life remotely close to what you’re about to do now. You won’t know how to prepare until you start.
Almost immediately I retorted, “well, I want to be a lawyer.” To which my, very patient, advisor responded, “and what are you doing in that role? What specifically are you working on?” At that moment, I didn’t have an answer.
I traded in the law school survival guides for academic papers and blogs about the type of law I wanted to practice. I studied for and passed a privacy law certification. Turns out, I’m not a fan of privacy law. I built a Twitter account and started following law professors. Turns out, I love academia. Eventually, I discovered my passion for Internet law and fell in love with a niche online speech law known as Section 230.
I returned to my advisor that fall with a better idea of how to answer his question, and together, we built a career plan for my next three years. This was constructive advice.
Your 1L year is probably your most vulnerable. You have no idea what you’re doing; You’re constantly overworked, stressed, exhausted, anxious about job opportunities, fretting over networking, and listening to endless law school panels with “career-experts” telling you what to do in order to be successful. Even if you already have a plan, you’re susceptible to noise. Validation-seeking advice would constantly distract me from the plan my advisor and I devised.
It starts with your peers. I’ll never forget the encounter I had my third week of law school. A colleague had come up to me in the library one night to show me his outlines. His father or brother or friend of his mother’s friend was a lawyer and had the “best strategy” for outlining. Here I am, sitting there simultaneously in awe and sheer terror because his outlines were beautiful. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know what an outline was. My colleague said, “man, if you’re not outlining now, you’re behind.”
By overwhelming me with his impressive outlines, my colleague was validating his study habits. More likely, my colleague was probably using me as a way to gauge whether his outlining timeline was early enough. I can’t criticize him for it though. I engaged in a lot of validation-seeking advice too. We all did. We couldn’t help but casually drop our study habits into conversation, masquerading them as “tips” or “strategies,” desperately hoping that our peers were following the same techniques. At least then, we knew we were doing something right.
A few months later, my criminal law professor would tell us that he never outlined. It didn’t work for him, so he didn’t do it, and he was fine. He left us with that, never telling us whether it was right or wrong, but just that it was right for him. Again, this was constructive advice.
Validation-seeking advice isn’t limited to neurotic law students. Regardless of the plan my advisor and I were working towards, so many attorneys I met with were sure they had a better idea for me.
Attorneys love to talk. Or, they love to hear themselves talk; which I’ve always found interesting because it’s the exact opposite of what we’re taught in law school: Listen, get all the facts, analyze the facts, apply the rules, advise. But for some reason, when it comes to giving law school or career advice, the fact-gathering seems to go out the window. Instead, most advice I’ve received usually starts with “well, when I was in law school…” Because again, if they can convince me to do what they did, then their path was probably right.
Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate advice. I made it to 3L based on the life lessons passed on to me by older and wiser students and career professionals. But the best advice always came from the people that took the time to get to know me first. Instead of telling me what they did, they’ll ask what I want to do or where I want to end up. Ironically, I always find it incredibly frustrating that my advisor, the one person who knows me well enough to tell me what to do, never tells me what to do. It turns out, the difference between validation-seeking advice and constructive advice is whether the advisee is able to reach their own decisions as a result..
Being able to filter out validation-seeking advice is probably one of the hardest parts about being a law student. For the next three years, you’ll be a walking suggestions-box. So I’ll get it out of the way for you:
You should do law review. Employers LOVE law review.
Don’t do law review. Employers don’t care.
Make sure to do OCIs.
Work for a law firm.
You can’t work in-house unless you work at a firm first.
But not that firm.
JD advantage isn’t a real career.
You shouldn’t be in law school if you’re not going to be an attorney.
How are your grades?
If you’re not in the top 10%, you should probably drop.
You should transfer.
You shouldn’t transfer.
Don’t you think you should do moot court?
You should publish.
Publishing is a waste of time.
Don’t join that org.
Join that org.
Did you finish your outlines?
Your outlines are too short.
Your outlines are too long.
Use commercial outlines.
Never use commercial outlines.
Don’t outline—try note cards.
Work smarter, not harder.
You aren’t networking?
You’re networking too much.
Don’t be lazy.
Make sure to follow up.
Don’t be too needy.
Dress for success.
Dress down—it’s Silicon Valley after all.
You’re too loud.
Why don’t you speak up?
Don’t be a gunner.
Be a gunner.
Be a generalist.
Be like her.
Be like me.
Validation-seeking —and not to mention, totally out-dated—advice.
Eventually, you’ll begin to spot validation-seeking advice pretty quickly. The important part then is staying true to yourself, your path, and your plan. Even then, validation-seeking advice will probably knock you off course. But having that course already pre-set, will make the recovery a lot smoother.
For what it’s worth, I didn’t do law review; I maintained a middle-of-the-curve, nothing special, GPA; I didn’t do OCIs (well, I went to one interview, told off the interviewer who had asked me why I was even bothering with a law degree if I wasn’t doing patent law, and then proceeded to cancel all of my other interviews); I realized at the end of my internship at a major tech company that I didn’t want to work on a legal team; I pursued a non-traditional legal career; And I did the worst thing a law student could possibly do: I became a specialist.
Though I broke every single rule in the law school survival guide, I still managed to become employable and fulfilled. By not doing law review, I had more time to publish other smaller works. By maintaining an average GPA, I had more time to devote to building my career and meeting new people. By not doing OCIs, I opened the door to different, more suitable opportunities. By pursuing a non-traditional (“JD Advantage”) career, I stumbled upon a path with which many students like myself have found tremendous success. And by being a specialist, I’ve become a recognized expert on one of tech’s most important laws.
Most importantly though, I didn’t let validation-seeking advice define my own success.
How will you define yours?