By Vado Porro • June 15, 2010•Writers in Residence
My first year in college, I found myself getting up at 5:30AM two days a week to get dressed in a freezing cold locker room and skate around on an even colder ice rink with 15 other girls, none of whom had brushed their teeth. My coach made us skate suicides and scrimmage until the sweat on our jerseys froze and our ears became numb from the cold.
I was a strong skater but a weak stickhandler, and I didn't score a single goal my first year in college; but I went to practice twice a week, every week, and I did off-ice drills to improve as I tried to make myself a better hockey player and a more useful part of the team. It wasn't until my sophomore year that I started to feel like I was contributing instead of holding people back. It took two more years - until my senior year - before I felt like a really important member of the team. Now, three years out of college, I find myself scoring goals and racking up points with increasing regularity.
Somewhere along the way though, I learned the power of practice. As I threw my energy into sports, I began to internalize that practice makes improvement. That the more times I tried to do something, the better I got at it, and the easier it got. That the more I knew what could or would go wrong, the more prepared I was to deal with it. And that made me a better hockey player. It made me a better runner. In sports, practice develops two things: muscle memory, and quick, instinctive responses to certain inputs. If you play enough games of catch, you will eventually stop dropping the ball. If you throw the puck at the net enough, it will someday go in.
Practice is important because it provides a safe space to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to improve on them. It's a chance to get feedback without any consequences. It's about the relationship between present performance and future goals. Practice is what bridges the gap.
Last month, I started studying for the Bar. The first rounds of MBE questions made me wonder if I was actually capable of becoming a lawyer. Those initial essay questions made me wonder if I should return my JD.
My bar review course requires grueling daily question practice – two essays and 17 MBEs a day, after which, you painstakingly debrief those and learn from your mistakes. My sister’s skating team videotapes their practices and then watches them for the exact same reasons. I do the practice questions, not because they are fun, but because I want the end result.
Those moments where I really worry because I can’t do it all right away, right now, I breathe in and remember that practice is what will get me there. That practice doesn’t make perfect, but practice makes better. Practice makes Passing. Then, I remember with a smile, Practice makes Lawyers.
Practice also helps you focus. You have to focus on the small parts of the bigger picture. Flash cards and outlining are drills. Listening to lectures in the car is like off-ice or cross-training. Whether you’re ready or not, you test your new-found skills through a full-on scrimmage or practice exam. You lose by 10 points and you figure out where you made mistakes and you work on them. Next time, you don’t lose so badly.
Sports have taught me that the more I do something, the easier it will get, and the faster my thoughts will come to me. It's all about muscle memory and a trained response to certain inputs. The more I practice, the easier the exam is. This is especially true for MBEs. Three years ago, my 1L professors gave us MBE questions that I couldn’t answer for the life of me in 1.8 minutes. I couldn’t even understand the call of the question. But as you practice those questions, you realize that there are only so many ways to ask about voluntary manslaughter, just like there are only so many plays the opposing team can use on the field. It’s all about learning to manage every possible scenario and eliminating surprises.
As with everything else in life, you get out of practice what you put into it. Practice ultimately requires passion, patience, and faith. If you don't have the passion for what you are practicing, all you will do is go through the motions. Even going through the motions, over and over and over again, will eventually yield some small result, but it’s so much easier if you really really want to be a lawyer. Patience may be the most necessary, because it can be hard to believe that you'll ever get better at something. Particularly for me, right now, in Week 4, I’m having trouble seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. But I’ve trained for enough races and won enough hockey games to know that even though I don’t believe it now, I will get there. Development is slow and difficult to see in yourself. Practice also requires faith in yourself- the ability to be self-critical without ever becoming discouraged is the only thing that will yield improvement. If you aren’t honest with yourself about your weaknesses, your denial will be your downfall.
Beyond law school and the bar exam, it is important to remember that as lawyers, we engage in the practice of law. We aspire to bridge that gap between our present abilities, and our goals for ourselves, our clients, our community. And the more we practice, the closer we get.