Finding Your Own Path

Life sometimes turns out not at all as we planned.  And that can be a very good thing.

Take my life, for example.  As an undergraduate, I had it all planned:  I was going to be a career woman in corporate public relations or a professional writer, living in a large city — Chicago, perhaps — unencumbered by family demands because I decided I did not want children.  Fast forward a couple of decades and here I sit, in the living room of my home in suburban Madison, Wisconsin, a mother of two sons, a lawyer, and a law professor.

How and when did that master plan change?  As I think it must be for most people, there wasn’t necessarily one grand event that put me on a different path.  Instead, it was little choices I made along the way, little, but, as it turned out, significant choices, such that one day I woke up and realized I was in a place that vastly differed from where I thought I’d be. When I think of it, I am always reminded of something author Marion Winik said in her book Rules for the Unruly:  Living an Unconventional Life: “The path is not straight.”

Many of us develop our master plans those years in our early twenties, when the whole of our adult lives lie before us and options seem abundant.  And while we think that we’re making our own choices, we sometimes forget the large but often subtle role that expectations play in developing that master plan, our own expectations, but also the expectations of parents and significant others.  Perhaps most subtle of all are institutional and societal expectations, which might influence us in ways that we’re not even aware.

Those of us who chose to go to law school may do so, in small or large part, because it is expected of us or because we expect it of ourselves.  However, to the extent that you chose a legal education because someone else is expecting you to do so, you’re setting yourself up for some rough years.  Law school is a tremendous amount of work, and if you’re there for reasons that aren’t entirely your own, then it can feel like a painful amount of work.  For me, the choice to go to law school came six years after leaving college, when after several years of working in public relations and then becoming a stay-at-home parent, I yearned for some intellectual challenge.  By that time, I had met a woman who was a lawyer and a mother and thought that law looked like a good career.  (Had I been playing closer attention, I would have noticed the challenges she was facing trying to combine a meaningful legal career with motherhood, but that’s another issue for another day.)

But even those of us who go to law school for ourselves often find ourselves three years later on a legal path that looks quite different from the one we originally envisioned.  Law school, like most institutions, has its own culture and its own internal “rules.”  Those of us who go into law school not fully understanding that culture and those rules (or, like me, not really understanding there was a culture and rules) may not realize the pull those things have on us.

Once I started law school, I also started to learn about how it worked and about the things that were rewarded and desired.  You want to get in the top ten percent of your class first year so you can do on-campus interviews the fall of your second year for summer associate positions at law firms after your second year.  You should do law review or moot court.  Or both.  Then, once you do on-campus interviews, you should be able to snag an offer for a summer position.  You are supposed to get an offer from that firm after your summer there, so you don’t have to spend all third year worrying about finding a job.  In your third year, then, you should apply for judicial clerkships.  You’d do a judicial clerkship and the law firm will hold your spot because they like their associates to do clerkships.  Certain classes better prepare you for practice than other classes, one or two of which you might to take simply because you’re interested in the topic.  Certain firms are more desirable than others and certain kinds of law more lucrative than others.

This, I learned, was law school’s path to “success.”

It turned out that I was pretty good at law school.  And because I was pretty good at law school, I started to pay attention to that path to success.  I allowed myself to follow it, drawn into the idea of private practice at a large firm and someday making partner (and a lot of money), and abandoning completely the kind of law that drew me to law school in the first place:  children’s issues.  But what became clear to me in my three years of private practice – doing a little bit of transactional work, a little bit of litigation work, and no children’s issues work – was that I had lost myself.  I had allowed myself to be derailed by institutional and perhaps societal expectations that were not my own.

It took a little time for me to find my path, but where I’m at now is so perfect for me.  I spent many hours thinking about what I liked do best in law school and in practice, and it all came back to writing and thinking.  Whenever I had an assignment in practice, I often wanted to spend more time getting into the policies behind the law or the cases, or I wanted to explore some intended (or unintended) affect the interpretation of law created.  Practice often does not allow you the time to do that.  But academia does.  I knew I was on the right path and in the right place after one week of teaching legal analysis and writing to 1Ls in August 2004.

But even now I sometimes see the same institutional culture at work – that path to “success” that so many students adopt and stress about.  They all want to make the top ten percent; ninety percent of them won’t.  They fear that they’ll never find a job these days because they won’t be in that top ten percent.  Or they believe they have to take a job that pays a lot, even if they don’t know that they’ll like the work, because they have substantial law school debt.  These are not insignificant concerns.  But buying into the institutional definition of “success” and even succeeding by its standards does not guarantee that these legitimate concerns will be resolved favorably.

In the coming months, I’d like to explore that institutional culture and delve deeper into surviving law school without losing yourself.  I’d love to hear your biggest concerns.  What aspects of “yourself” do feel you’re at risking of losing?

Cross-posted from Ms. JD.

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