Personal Advice from an Enlightened 3L
By Timothy Hanna Sept. 8, 2014
I received a lot of advice in the months leading up to law school, from lawyers, other law students, friends, and family. I was nervous and I was me, so I forgot or ignored most of it. One piece of advice slipped through that net and stuck with me though. It strikes the truth with such simplicity that it has proven impossible to forget. “Take the law seriously, but never take yourself seriously.”
My father told me that on my way to my first law school class. I’m not sure I fully understood it at the time. For that matter, I’m not sure I fully understand it now. In essence it’s a reminder to never lose perspective. It’s amazing how simple it is to forget the reasons you decided to study law, or the purpose behind the mountain of work and stressful days ahead. The most important thing you can do going into law school is to remember why you went in the first place and don’t forget to laugh.
I’ll begin with a story not really about law school but about the career search. If one thing you get used to in law school it’s the interview process. The weekend before I started my 2L year I had the opportunity to officiate my sister’s wedding. About 120 of us flew over to Kauai and had a beautiful ceremony underneath a baobab tree in a botanical garden just outside Poipu. If there is a paradise on earth, that might be it. I spent the flight home prepping for the ten plus interviews I had scheduled for the following week. I planned to hit the pavement hard looking for a spring internship, and my first interview was the next morning. The interviewer made the mistake of asking how I spent my Labor Day weekend. There I sat freshly tanned, probably still smelling of salt water and hibiscus, and I had just finished playing minister for my sister’s wedding. I thought to myself, this story will knock her socks off. In arrogance I thought the job was in the bag. I smiled at the interviewer and said, “I had a wonderful weekend, I married my sister.” The interviewer’s jaw dropped so far it hit the floor and bounced. It took me longer than it should have to connect that what to me sounded like a honored role joining my sister in holy matrimony to my now brother-in-law, to her sounded like the festivities of a Clampett family reunion. Instead of talking about my credentials for the job, one for which I was particularly well qualified, I spent the interview explaining why as a potential candidate I wasn’t at risk of being indicted for incest. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
I mention this story because I haven’t had a bad interview since. Sure some have been better than others, but mostly interviews no longer cause stress. Once you’ve had one go that bad, everything else seems like a walk in the park. I was trying to show off in that interview. I was trying to win the interviewer over with something that didn’t relate to my legal abilities or why I would be a good fit for their organization. It was a cheap bid to win points and it failed in the way cheap bids usually do, miserably. I learned a lesson that day, that the best (and in my opinion the only way) to win is by demonstrating your true talents, your work ethic, and your intelligence. The other lesson I learned is to laugh. I could have laughed at myself in that interview, recovered, and probably still gotten the job; but instead I felt like I’d lost before I began.
In law school you’ll make mistakes; you’ll give the wrong answer to questions in class, cite the wrong case, make a bad argument on an exam, or say something totally ridiculous in an interview. That’s not a maybe, but a definite. You are human and law school can be difficult. It’s an unavoidable trait of human nature that when humans attempt a difficult task for the first time they make mistakes. The trick is to learn from your mistakes, have a good laugh at yourself, and move on, to repeat the process all over again. That’s how you learn. That’s how you grow. Winston Churchill once said, “Success is moving from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” Now I won’t lie, enthusiasm isn’t always enough. Success requires using that enthusiasm to fuel hard work and dedication. Remember, you define the terms of your success. Whether it’s a job, a lifestyle, a family, whatever it may be, only you can determine what your goals should be.
But if you are open to suggestions, try “Learn as much about law as you possibly can.” We enter law school for a variety of reasons. Some with a particular job in mind, while some have less concrete goals, be it changing the world or changing the size of a bank account. Regardless of why you’re here, we all had real reasons for committing three years and a great deal of our future financial earnings. If your aspirations are for a particular career path, remember you learn about it in law school, at least not directly. In law school, you’ll study model rules, restatements, and cases from a lot of different jurisdictions, a lot of which is not California law. Practice is different; you’ll be using the laws of your jurisdiction. Although many, if not most of us, will stay in California, there will be members of your class who practice international law, move to different states to establish themselves, or practice federal rather than state law. As a Californian it’s easy to forget, but there’s there are 49 other states out there, and outside of the U.S. there are 194 other nations, 195 if you count Taiwan (though the US doesn’t). All of those have their own laws, customs, and practices. Though there are similarities in areas of law, there are also huge differences. A law school simply cannot teach you the intricacies of every jurisdiction and area of law, let alone the intricacies of even one of these areas. I don’t say this to overwhelm you but to show you the incredible vastness of the world you are about to enter. You could spend every day of the rest of your life studying and still not know everything there is to know about the property laws of California. Although Mr. Miller and Mr. Starr might disagree, to me that is a wonderful thing. Law is a living organism and with every appellate decision and every argument, it grows, it evolves. As a lawyer it will be your job to study this world, not unlike a biologist, you must be able to mark its progress and the most successful of you will predict how it will flow and change.
To me, the point of law school does indeed prepare you for a legal career. Although you don’t learn the law in substance, you will learn a new way of thinking, a new way of problem solving and a new perspective of the world. You will leave prepared to handle any area of law because when presented with a controversy you will know how to spot the issues, analyze these issues and present a legal argument, hopefully convincing a judge, jury, or client that your understanding of the law is the correct one. I hope that when you finish law school you are secure in the knowledge that you can tackle any obstacle that you face, in the career of your choosing.
I hope that your study of law gives you but a taste of the endless learning that the study and practice of law offers. I fervently hope your study creates an insatiable hunger for knowledge. I hope you never stop learning and never stop growing. I hope you never shrug away an opportunity to see the world a little more fully, a little more clearly. Never shrug away the study of an area of law, even if you have no interest in practicing that subject. I cannot tell you how often I find some doctrine in one area of practice that has given key insight and solutions to complex problems in a completely different subject area, even those that are seemingly unrelated. So don’t skip the boring stuff, it will eventually come in handy.
Looking at the big picture of the study of law, it is easy to see beauty in the grandness of such an endeavor as the study and practice of law. The actual study of law can be anything but beautiful. You’ll find it difficult, if not impossible, to look in wonder at the mountains of reading, the late nights at the library, or the stressful times when you re-read a passage for the fourth time and still understand nothing. That is why it has been so important to take a deep breath, still the panic in your heart and the bile in your throat, and laugh at how stupid it makes you feel. Take a step back and think of how amazing it is that you chose to attend law school, that you willingly choose so difficult a task. Remember no matter how difficult it gets that you chose to step into the arena, that it can beat you up again and again and yet you cannot be defeated if only you continue to rise and say, “let’s have another go.” That is nothing if not the triumph of the human spirit.
First year is difficult but fun. You’ll make new friendships, some of which may last a lifetime. These bonds are tighter than you might imagine, a camaraderie that only exists among those who toil and sweat together in the face of a fierce adversary. And I promise you it may seem hard at first but it gets easier. Eventually you’ll look back and realize you suddenly understand and the readings make sense. It may happen in a month, it may happen in a year, but I promise it will happen. After that, it is no longer so excruciating, albeit a bit mind numbing at times. Get comfortable feeling kind of like an idiot at times. For most of us, we were the best and the brightest of our colleges, of our friends, of our families. That’s why we went to law school. So some take it hard that even the most intelligent among us don’t get it right away. Think of it this way, if you already got it there would be no need to spend three years learning it. So be comfortable feeling stupid and remember everyone else is struggling just as much as you. And never forget to take the time to have fun; dance with abandon, sing out loud, swim in the ocean, watch cat videos on YouTube, do whatever it is that makes you feel like a normal human being.
My last and final advice is to be open to any future career. My career goals have changes four times over the course of law school, and it has been the same for many of my peers. I only realized what I wanted by trying internships and courses in a wide variety of areas. At times it felt like trial and error, but with each experience I saw my natural talents more clearly. I found what I liked and disliked, and I found something I was passionate about, that gives me purpose and that I desperately want to devote the rest of my life to. I couldn’t have found such a drive had I not been willing to set aside my previous goals and leap into uncertainty. So follow your heart, even if it leads into the wilderness. It’s far better to be lost and searching for a year than to spend a lifetime settling for what’s safe and secure. And remember that whatever the future brings, even if it is not the practice of law, the things you learn will guide you, give you the ability to comprehend and solve complex problems, and allow you to articulate those solutions in a thoughtful manner. Simply put, if you let it your learning will make you a better person.
So having read this, I encourage you to forget it all. Don’t listen to advice that works for me, write advice that works for you. Go boldly into the unknown. Make mistakes. Learn about wonderful and incredible things. And above all, take the law seriously but never, ever take yourself seriously.