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Why it helps to craft a personal mission statement and declare your law school purpose

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Having worked remotely during the pandemic, it’s with fresh eyes that I now walk through the law school, pausing to take in its sights and sounds. On the walls, works of art depict social justice and civil rights movements—many with powerful messages and compelling photographs—proof beyond a reasonable doubt that law and lawyers matter.

Hanging in a number of offices are beautiful paintings with the Biblical phrase: “Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue,” some also in Hebrew, which transliterated into English is: “Tzedek, tzdek tirdof.”

I love seeing the word justice prominently displayed in a law school building. It serves as a constant reminder of why we’re here.

I recently posted the law school’s mission statement on my office door, with a question: “What is your mission?”

A living, changing document

I urge every law student to craft a personal mission statement, to find and declare some purpose with which to undertake and persist undergoing the rigors of legal education and bar prep.

Your mission statement will be a living, changing document, to be sure. But it’s important to take time for yourself each semester to think about why you’ve embarked on this challenge and where you’re heading.

Your mission statement is private, just for you. It may articulate the values that drive you or the goals you’re heading toward. It may reflect the kind of lawyer you want to be. It may focus on your role within the legal system or your sense of responsibility to make that system the best it can be for everyone.

There’s no right mission, but here are some examples:

  • My goal is to do my best and work my hardest as I prepare to become an advocate for my future clients.
  • I’m studying to be a smart, savvy, ethical lawyer capable of supporting my family and myself and doing work that helps others.
  • I’m driven to learn how the law can serve historically underrepresented people and to train so that I’m best prepared to help steer society toward an equitable and inclusive future.
  • I’m working to be part of a profession that will allow me the financial security I never had when I was growing up.
  • I’m dedicating myself to detail-oriented deep learning as I work to achieve a respected position within the legal community.
  • I’m committed to developing the knowledge and skills to help and inspire others while being true to myself and making my family proud of my accomplishments.
  • My focus is on learning from my successes and my challenges during law school, preparing for a lifetime of hard yet meaningful work, and developing the strength to deal with what I know will be life’s inevitable curveballs.

When you know you’re doing something worthwhile, it’s easy to put in long hours. New parents often feel this way—even after never-ending sleepless nights and other overwhelming challenges. We see this sense of purpose in athletes’ faces during and after competitive sporting events; the struggles are visibly worth all the pain.

Similarly for law students, when you believe the knowledge, skills, and license you’re working so hard to acquire will serve you well—for a lifetime—it’s easier to accept (possibly even welcome) the challenges.

And spoiler alert: Law school shouldn’t be easy. It must become more inclusive and more connected to the profession. And it should become more collaborative and less competitive—training for teamwork, problem solving, and alternative dispute resolution rather than its previously nearly exclusive focus on litigation. But it shouldn’t be easy. The profession isn’t easy.

If you don’t feel deeply challenged or haven’t yet experienced reading until your eyes hurt or struggling to understand a complex legal doctrine, ask yourself if you need to step up your game. Remember that you must be prepared not only for years of intense study and months of bar prep after graduation but also for a lifetime of difficult though incredibly rewarding work.

The many meanings of justice

So I return to my question: “What is your mission statement?” As you contemplate why you chose law, and as you consider the values you believe are worth fighting for and the goals you’re working toward, I invite you to think about the word justice.

Justice, according to Black’s Law Dictionary, is “the fair and proper administration of laws.” There’s also, of course, a secondary definition as a term for certain judges, typically in appellate courts, such as U.S. Supreme Court justices.

But what’s meant by “the fair and proper administration of laws”? Fair for whom? What happens when the administration of laws isn’t proper? Why does that matter? How do you develop the strength to stand up and say no when asked to violate the law?

Law-dictionary.org lists as the primary definition of justice: “The constant and perpetual disposition to render every man his due.” Aside from the gendered aspect of this phrasing, what’s the meaning? What exactly is someone’s due? Does it differ depending on what the person knows, what background the person has, what the person’s intent was?

Of course. First-year students know this from reasonable person and other tests in torts. They also know it from distinctions between levels of intent in criminal law and differences in nearly every course about how and when particular rules should apply.

Would it help as a 1L and as a graduate reviewing bar subjects to contextualize legal education as learning to seek, advocate for, implement, and defend justice?

I hear the cynics saying, “Yeah, right. We started law school to pursue our values but soon in started thinking it’s all about vast influences of money, power, and the status quo.”

There are plenty of reasons to become cynical and to turn off, including the first-year focus nearly exclusively on learning how to reason by reading past judicial opinions, with little, if any, room for creativity or personal opinion. But drafting and frequently reviewing a mission statement can help you remain true to your own values as you struggle through the process.

The passion with which you entered law school may find new expression as you move into upper-division coursework, take interesting electives, and delve into experiential and clinical work. You may also find new sides of yourself. But you’ll still be you. And after you graduate, you’ll have additional tools to help influence change.

So take time now to look at yourself and ask who you are and who you want to be. In class, when responding to or asking questions, when you participate in oral arguments, write for and serve as an editor on a journal, or represent clients in clinics, ask yourself what you believe in and how you want to be known by others when you’re a working professional.

Consider for a moment the great statue of Lady Justice. She’s pictured holding a sword (representing authority and force) and scales (which relate to balancing the equities and the strengths and weakness of each side’s evidence). She wears a toga (indicating being philosophical and thoughtful) and a blindfold (to convey impartiality).

What will you be wearing to personify the kind of lawyer you want to be? What will you hold in your hands? What will you be open to seeing or hearing, and how will that impact your thinking?

A foundation to return to

I can’t guarantee that crafting a mission statement and leaning into your own professional identity will help you rise to the top of your law school class or pass the bar exam the first time around. But I’m certain that having purpose and meaning helps, a lot. (One of my favorite law professors reminded us frequently, “Toasters come with guarantees; lawyers do not.” Alas, a lot of life has no guarantee, but finding helpful tools is a step in the right direction.)

Many law students understandably find it too depressing to face difficult times when they don’t even see a tunnel, let alone light at the end of it. Rather than finding ways to recharge or get help so they can see a brighter future, they check out.

Don’t check out. And don’t give up.

When you’re feeling tired or demoralized by the challenges of law school, imagine looking into the eyes of a client you helped. When you’re fed up with bar preparation, take a quick study break to read, listen to a podcast, or watch a video about a lawyer who made a great difference in some cause that matters to you. And know that you’re closer than you might realize to being that advocate, that counselor, that problem solver, that leader—that person who makes a difference.

Hang on and hang in. Graduate, pass the bar exam, and let your evolving mission statement help guide you to a lifetime of doing good and doing well.

And know that the effort is worthwhile. For all the lawyer jokes, for all the disparaging of our profession (and admitting that, of course, there are some unethical lawyers, just as in every profession), remember that we lawyers are responsible each and every day for so much of the good that happens in our world.

We right wrongs. We defend people who are wrongly accused. We help people secure housing and raise and provide for their children. We help develop lawful policies and procedures for new frontiers in technology and intellectual property. We push to uphold existing laws and advocate for new laws that protect fundamental rights. We defend our environment, our democracy, and our world.

We have much to work on as a profession. But we also have much to be proud of.

What are you committed to working on? And what would make you most proud of if you were looking back on your legal career 20 years from now?

What’s in your mission statement?