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Rhymes with Awe: Dyspepsia

Like any good pre-L, I keep up with legal news and trends, especially those in copyright and IP law. I recently came across an article that I knew I had to read: “Supreme Court Justices Are Getting ‘Grumpier,’ Study Finds”.

Lately, I’ve been giving more thought to staying in academia, or perhaps clerking after law school. In the past, I thought my end goal would always be to enter private practice. Since taking my job in Egypt, however, I’ve come to find academic research and scholarship professionally rewarding, and, to my surprise, highly engaging. As I consider the potential pathways of my future career, I’m certainly concerned about what will be best for me both professionally and personally. At first, after stumbling across this article and reading the title, I began to think again about those qualities of a job that I find important, including the nature of one’s colleagues. (I mean, who wants to work with a bunch of grumps?) Getting in to it further, however, I was struck by something completely outside of my wheelhouse: the use of word “dyspepsia”. The subtitle reads, “Computer analysis of decisions going back to John Jay finds increasing dyspepsia and a ‘lower grade level’ of writing.” Good gracious. What is this amazing word? What does it mean? How can I use it?

I googled it. Apparently, it means “condition of impaired digestion.” Good to know, I guess. At least now we can use it.

Stomachaches, however, aren’t what I thought of when I interviewed Emily Mahoney, a new attorney working in London at James Ware Schoenfeld Stephenson LLP. Emily, once a wannabe journalist and a champion of social justice issues, told me during our short interview that she “found law school frustrating because in the first year you have to wipe your brain clean.”

She went on to say, “It’s hard in law school when you’re told that you must think a certain way. It can be a struggle to take a step back and say to yourself that you just need to learn this.” At one point, a professor even pulled her aside to caringly say, “You need to get it together.” She laughed and explained that you have to treat the change in how you think as though you’re learning a skill.

Ouch. I was feeling a little dyspepsia after hearing this. Would all of the research and planning I’ve put into attending law school be incomplete? I felt intellectual indigestion at the mere thought of trying to forget everything I’d ever learned about learning, especially since I made it a point to work in research after graduating from college—and working in a field that’s directly related to my specific goals in law. In addition, my training from my undergraduate degree shaped me to think critically of almost everything around me. I developed models, studied theories, and put in long hours to try and  “undo” unnecessarily hierarchical and outdated styles of learning in my head.

Luckily, Emily hit me with a silver lining. She said to me,  “I do feel that law is the best way for me to advance social justice causes.”

After a stint working and living in Vietnam completing an MSc degree at the London School of Economics in Sociology, Emily chose law school over a PhD because she felt that “understanding power was critical to be successful as a lawyer.” She chose Northeastern University for law school, a school that is known for its commitment to public interest work. She’s found herself working on internet, IP, and privacy issues since entering practice. For her, working together on transnational issues to solve problems is a highlight of her work. A downside, she said, is working within the legal realms of another country. “You can’t just jump in right away.” This is something I completely understand. Working in other countries and trying to master the legal landscape as soon as possible is a real challenge.

For those entering law school and hoping to globe trot afterwards, Emily gave me a few great tips:

  1. Work internationally before going to law school. “I still have many great connections from Vietnam,” Emily explained to me.
  2. Use your connections. “Make personal connections with people! And, be genuine.”
  3. Don’t go to law school immediately after undergrad. “Try to look up law firms and organizations you would be interested in working with to research the type of employees they hire. Search on LinkedIn through your connections, and try to think outside the box.”
  4. “Go to a school that will enable you to study abroad. Try to get a stipend or a fellowship. Keep trying, and don’t give up.”

When I asked her about her advice for young women wanting to work internationally, she said, “keep an open mind.” “When I noticed I was frustrated with the country I was living in, I tried to stop essentializing that culture and stop thinking ‘you’re doing it wrong.’” She went on to explain, “You have to ask, what are the flaws in my own country?” She concluded, “Keeping an open mind is critical. By understanding the country you live in, you will be a better advocate, a better lawyer.”

Emily’s last points really rang true to my experience living abroad. I have to say, it’s not easy trying to learn the ins and outs of a country overnight. It’s often way too easy to spend all of your time comparing your new home to that of your home country. For me, I often feel dyspepsia on what feels like a cellular level. It’s not uncommon for me to find myself disagreeing with opinions or hold a different worldview than those around me. But when you’re outside of the confines of your home country, it is easy to feel out of place, different, and a little lost. Even when trying your best, it can be hard to connect with those around you. The benefit of living abroad, however, is that you must wrestle with these feelings and learn to move past them. There’s no other way out, and the confrontation of your worldview with that of a different society, culture, or individual requires that you learn important skills, such as how to manage, explain, critique, and persuade.  I have come to really appreciate the fact (and Emily helped reaffirm) that, by honing these skills, we become better thinkers, advocates and (aspiring) lawyers. 

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