Reading past articles about what other lawyers say they wish they’d known in law school, I thought I had nothing new or unique to add. Then I thought I’d write that I wish I’d known how important first-year grades are (I had no clue). Or maybe I’d write about how many doors a law degree opens besides the obvious one of practicing law or how much joy there is in a nonlinear career.
And then, upon reflection, I realized I definitely do have something unique to add.
I wish I’d known that not knowing and discovering things for yourself is part of the adventure of life and that making mistakes and learning from them is invaluable. Nothing impresses the lesson better than learning it on your own.
Today, I’m very glad I didn’t know any of the wise tips shared by other lawyers for this column—or, for that matter, much else.
Let me explain.
I graduated with a degree in journalism. I wanted a job like Nancy Dickerson’s. She was a pioneer in TV news who was both glamorous and made journalism seem like a possible career path. I wanted to follow her and cover real news. But I was offered jobs on the “women’s page”—yes, that’s what it was called, and that’s where “girls,” as we were then called, were assigned.
That wasn’t what I wanted.
Not to be deterred and with no idea what law school would be like—or how much more discrimination there was in law than in journalism—I applied to law school thinking editors would consider me qualified to cover hard news if I had a law degree.
I’d read that one of my favorite columnists, Anthony Lewis of The New York Times, had gone to law school. What I didn’t know was that he’d gone after winning a Pulitzer Prize, not to improve his writing or job prospects.
So I applied to Columbia University Law School. Had I known that only 5 percent of my class would be female and only 5 percent would be people of color—and that I’d be confronted by fellow classmates saying that some man would be drafted and die in Vietnam because I took his rightful place in the class—I might have been dissuaded. Not knowing those things allowed me do something I might have been afraid to do had I been fully informed.
I graduated more than 50 years ago. That was before there was a women’s movement, an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or a Title 9. Want ads at that time read “Help Wanted Male” or “Help Wanted Female.”
Discrimination was blatant. Job interviewers asked what birth control I used, how many children I planned to have, and what I’d do if I were hosting a dinner party and a client needed help. Had I known all this, where would I be today? Think of the opportunities I’d have missed.
Taking risks I didn’t know were risks, but knowing I could do what was required, has worked for me. Going to law school to get a better journalism job opened many doors I never envisioned. It got me a starring role in the Watergate trial and then an audition to be a legal reporter for ABC, an opportunity I decided to pass on because I loved being a trial lawyer—at least until I didn’t.
Because, from there, I’ve had a diverse career that included service as general counsel of the U.S. Army, stints as solicitor general and deputy attorney general of Illinois, chief operating officer of the American Bar Association, international business executive, and chief of the Chicago Public Schools’ career and technical education department. In that position, I was able to create a unique high school that lets students graduate with a high school diploma and a two-year college degree.
And now I’m living my college dream. I’ve published a memoir that has been optioned to become a movie. I’ve become an MSNBC legal analyst. And I host two podcasts (#SistersInLaw and iGenPolitics).
So I’m sticking with telling you that I don’t wish I’d known anything that I didn’t know back then. Had I known the risks I was taking, it might have stopped me from even trying the path I took, which worked out perfectly.