By Jordan Carter • August 05, 2015
If you are like me, you like control. You like a plan. You prepare, execute, and succeed. You see a challenge and you've already Hermioned your way through it before it even begins. I get you. I am you. And so, it is with a knowing shake of the head that I watch eager and competitive law students about to begin their marathon and offer this nugget: you are going to have to let that fallacy go.
I know what you're thinking: Not I! I am energized and focused and know exactly how I'm going to dominate law school. I can study 6 hours a night easily! I've never gotten below an A in my life! I am an excellent writer -- why are we spending an entire week learning how sentences work? Ah yes, I remember it well.
What I also remember: spending 4 hours reading 30 pages of text and still having hours of work left; going back and forth with my roommate (hi Hil!) trying to parse through an impossible Contracts case because we knew the cold call awaited; drafting a memo whose points could not be summarized in the frustratingly few words we were allowed; sitting in a classroom listening to 3Ls parade these complex webs they called "outlines" and not knowing how I could create something like that; attending a neverending roster of Important Lunches, where the takeaway seemed to be "there are thousands of ways to make a mistake; fall for any one of them and you will be unemployable for life." All the fresh highlighters and color-coded planners in the world did not prepare me for these little bombs. I tried to be Hermione but had a whole lotta Neville moments along the way.
And yet, I found that once I stopped obsessing over control, things got easier and I became happier. I sincerely liked law school from the beginning, but the second half was much better than the first largely because I stopped acting like law school was primarily a punishment I had to perfectly conquer and started looking at it as a voluntary and fulfilling experience. Law school is too difficult and too unfamiliar and filled with too many similarly ambitious people to be able to control everything and succeed every time. You cannot do it unless you actually go insane. The very best advice I could give is to approach law school like an large-scale adventure, a trip you know you want to take, a trip you prepare for, but ultimately a trip where sometimes you relinquish your itinerary and accept that other, unplanned things are just going to happen and could actually be quite enjoyable. Here's what I would tell myself now:
Control only what you can. You can set yourself up for a good adventure just by doing the little things. When you remember to pack your chargers and bring extra contacts, you have already fended off some catastrophes with relatively little effort. You can briefly research where you want to go instead of hoping someone else will deal with it. Similarly, you can set yourself up for a good law school semester by doing the groundwork: read the material every single day instead of waiting til the end of the semester; ask the professor the question today, even if you think it's a stupid question, instead of blindly hoping it won't be on the exam; get enough sleep, even when everyone else says they aren't sleeping (I am a crusader for sleep and it is my mission to convert every last one of you). What you cannot do is control other people's aptitude, other people's grades, or the curve. But you can take the initiative and make some things easier for future you. And often, it's these little manageable tasks that end up with the biggest payoff.
Defer to people who know more than you. So many people have gone through this before that there's no sense in trying to create the perfect itinerary from scratch. If 90% of people recommend this monument, you should go. If your best friend has already gone on this trip, you'd be silly not to ask for recommendations. If you are lost in a foreign city, ask for directions. Similarly, you should find people with answers in law school because you will have questions. I believe there is no such thing as too many questions: ask your professors, ask Career Services, ask the librarians, ask your classmates, ask your TA, ask 3Ls, ask your supervising attorney, ask anyone and everyone who seems like they know more than you. Flailing around with a question that can easily be answered is just a waste of time. Ask for help even when you'd rather figure it out alone. Whether it is a question about the case you were assigned or how to approach an OCI or how to format a footnote or where the best lunch spot is, it is always worth it to ask someone. Everyone loves to feel useful and everyone loves to talk about themselves. Especially lawyers.
Remember yourself. If you don't like the beach, for god's sake, don't plan a trip to the beach (do people dislike the beach?) If you want to go that museum desperately but no one wants to go with you, go by yourself. It is too easy to get swept up in what other people are doing and what you feel like you should be doing, but at the end of the day, it's your time and do you really want to waste it living other people's agendas? So in law school, take the seminar class you really want to take even if it's not on the bar. Don't do moot court if you feel you're stretched too thin (best decision I ever made). If a big firm isn't for you, don't work at a big firm. It's a competitive environment and I know how easy it is to fall into the trap of keeping up with what other people say is best. I hate saying no and it still pains me to miss out on something, even if it's something I don't even care about (acute FOMO like the classic millennial I am). But I have learned how important it is to say yes to the things that matter to you, and perhaps more importantly, say no to the things that don't.
Accept that there will be inconveniences and just deal with them as they come. I heard this quote a couple years ago: "If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer.” At the risk of being hideously corny, those words changed my life, so big thanks to a Mr. Sigmund Wollman out there. When something annoys me, and this happens often, I ask myself: Is this a problem or is this an inconvenience? When you're in a new place, you get lost, you embarrass yourself, the restaurant you wanted to go to is closed, it rains, things are more expensive than you thought. But you are on vacation and you know that most of the stuff is not worth ruining the trip over. It is an inconvenience, not a problem. Turns out, most of the crap we complain about in law school is also just an inconvenience. Best to remind ourselves of that as frequently as we must, you know, so we live longer. It's all just a Triwizard Tournament, and as long as you're not Cedric Diggory, you're gonna be fine.
Though I initially wrote this with the 1L in mind, all wide-eyed with her pristine legal pad, it is also a timely reminder to myself and the others who are on the cusp of our first real lawyer jobs. Because here I am, three years of law school in the bag, and I'm about to step into a new job at a law firm with wide eyes and a pristine legal pad. I am inexperienced, nervous, and anxious. It is the first day of school all over again. But I am trying to take my own advice, because if I insist on talking the talk, I could at least adjust my walk, too. I am controlling what I can control (I plan to wear my grey suit, not my black one, because it conveys that I'm low-key and approachable while still responsible and professional). I have all my questions ready to go (hope my mentor is ready). I know which things I want to say yes to and which things are better suited for others. I know that I will flounder and I will make mistakes and I will embarrass myself and I will feel hopelessly inept. But I also know I will also experience immense gratitude and profound joy, make wonderful friends, learn a whole bunch of new things, and create tons of lasting memories. And that's the best kind of adventure there is.