By Emily Rock • December 16, 2012•Law School
I’m very close to the midway point of law school. It seems like a good time for some reflection, and so I’m trying to tally the lessons I’ve learned and reminders about how I want to live my law school life. This fall, I dealt with the worst clinical depression I've ever experienced. Law school didn’t cause that, but keeping up with law school while trying to manage the depression was tough. And it made me realize some things:
Some things will always be more important than school. Health is one of those things. Some days I couldn’t get myself out of bed and to class, and I always felt guilty about that, but if I needed the extra rest, that was the right choice. My relationships with my family, fiancé, and friends all take precedence too. When you have never ending reading and a zillion extra curriculars and a clinic and other commitments, it’s easy to feel like you can’t take time for anything else. But I’m always happier when I treat people well, when I take time for the people who matter to me. If a friend needs someone to talk to, and I spend half the evening on the phone and don’t get the next day’s reading done, that’s a night well spent.
Sometimes, just getting through a day is reason to celebrate. When it all feels too hard, give yourself credit for the little things. I mean really little: in the depths of my depression, if I got myself out of bed, and ate some oatmeal, and picked out something to wear, that was a good start. If I followed that up by going to class but spending most of the time daydreaming, well, fine. Not ideal, but fine. On a better day, I still try to break my to-do list down into really little parts—answering a few emails, reserving a room for an event, reading a chapter at a time. I don’t achieve anything by being overly hard on myself, and self-loathing is not a good motivator. Beating myself up over work I haven’t done just doesn’t help.
And anyway, school stress is just… school. It’s sort-of related to real life, but only kind of. Aside from my clinic, where clients actually count on me, nothing bad really happens if I miss a class or don’t get all the reading done. If I don’t impress every professor, or take all the hardest classes, or sign up for every activity, the end result is basically going to be the same: I’ll come out with some new skills and knowledge, a law school degree, and hopefully a job.
The chasing of elusive gold stars is ultimately a little silly. I can’t do it all, and I don’t actually want to do it all. My main advice to incoming law students (and to my classmates) would be: go ahead and sign up for moot court or journal or that class with 5,000 pages of reading, but only if you have a reason for it. The reason could be skills you want to develop, or a topic you’re passionate about, or just that you think the activity will help you get rich one day. I don’t care what your reason is, but don’t do anything just because it’s what everyone else seems to be doing. Don’t do it just because you’re afraid of closing any doors. Whatever your motivations, be intentional, and then own your choices. There’s no reason not to get enough sleep most nights. There’s no reason to spend three years perpetually world-weary because of all you’ve taken on. But there is every reason to learn as much as you can, to contribute to the community you’re in, and to strive to live up to your own expectations.
Which brings me to a lesson I’m still trying really hard to learn for myself: how to keep other people from stressing me out. When I was growing up, one of my dad’s frequent sayings was: “if you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter.” I’ve been fighting my internal sense of comparison ever since I can remember. In law school, it’s like a tidal pull: I wade into a conversation, feeling sturdy and self-assured, and then I feel irresistibly drawn out to sea. It goes something like this:
Me: What are you up to today?
Classmate X: Just putting the finishing touches on my outline for Evidence.
Me, in my head: Outline? Finished? I haven’t even started studying for finals. I guess I should probably be doing that too. Jeez, I’m clearly behind the curve. Wait, no, it’s way too early for that, so you must be overzealous and crazy. Why am I even talking to you?
My goal is to be able to come out of that sort of conversation thinking, instead “okay, that’s what Classmate X needs to do to feel prepared. That has no bearing on what I need.” If my classmates need to vent about how tired and stressed they are, that’s their choice, and I can choose to wrap up the conversation more quickly, or change the subject—and I can let their stress be their own, and not internalize it.
At least, that’s what I’m hoping.
Finally, what I want to remember in the next year and a half is to occasionally take a step back and remember how absurdly lucky I am. To be getting a legal education, to have the luxury of worrying over what classes to take, to be able to engage with brilliant classmates and faculty, and to be able to help people in the community where I live—all this makes me feel so grateful, when I take the time to remember my gratitude. Just once in a while, I want to let myself appreciate the life I have, even though I don’t know where I’ll be in 5 years, even though sometimes law school is incredibly frustrating. Law school has also been an amazing learning experience, and it’s such a privilege to be here.