I recently had the opportunity to re-read the personal statement I submitted with my Marquette Law School application, now almost three years ago, for one of my current classes. While many things had changed—for example I am now far less idealistic, definitely less “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” and no longer have a passion for criminal law—the opening and closing statements still ring true and effectively capture the development as a person and future lawyer I have experienced during my law school career at Marquette. As the new class of future Marquette attorneys has only recently began this journey at Eckstein Hall, I wanted to write a blog post to them explaining what I think the most influential and important aspects of my almost-complete legal education have been.
“When a butterfly struggles to free itself from its cocoon, it causes fluid to be pumped back into its wings. This independent act of vigilance, determination, and extreme effort is what allows the butterfly to take flight. This fact has inspired me as I enter the next phase of my life, and has shaped my perception of law school’s purpose. I enter the ‘cocoon’ of law school well-prepared and with the knowledge that with conviction and a lot of hard work, after three years I too will take flight.”
The above paragraph, while admittedly a bit hokey, was the opening to my personal statement. It reminds me of a fact that Father O’Meara shares with the entering 1L class each year: it is common knowledge in biology “that growth occurs along places where there is tension, stimulation, or irritation.” His point is that tension is necessary for both development and learning. These statements illustrate the personal growth I, and I’m assuming most other students, experience during law school. Law school is structured in such a way that it pushes students to their physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual boundaries. It forces you as both a future professional and a human being to look inward and outward for answers or solutions to life’s most difficult questions . . . oftentimes leaving you bewildered, confused, and experiencing extreme bouts of self-doubt. There will be tears. There will likely be anger. It will try your personal relationships and drastically alter your perspective in many ways. You will feel yourself changing and sometimes not understand it, or perhaps not like it. I encourage you to push through it. Take moments of self-reflection. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself. In the end you will achieve a peace and contentment that comes with self-awareness—even if it’s a sense of being aware about how little you know and how much you still have to learn. Struggle, for it is the only way you can flex your wings.
“I believe in the ‘butterfly effect,’ the idea that there exists the propensity of a system to be sensitive to initial conditions. As a lawyer, I will be the causal factor of the initial conditions which, over time, will help change our legal system, the local community in which it resides, and the society of which that community is a part.”
These lines concluded my personal statement and have particular meaning now that I prepare to exit law school and enter the next phase of my professional career. While law school will change you in many ways, this is a reminder to stay true to yourself and your goals, as idealistic and altruistic as they may be. You have the unique opportunity of attending Marquette, a school that prides itself on educating the whole person and not producing only good lawyers, but good people. Through education comes power. You will know and understand far more about our society than most and that knowledge and understanding will give you the ability to make a difference. Understand that this difference may not be as large or overwhelming as you initially thought, but most major developments and improvements throughout history started with something small. Remember the Allegory of the Starfish:
A man was walking along the beach where hundreds of starfish had washed ashore at high tide and were slowly perishing in the hot sun. The man saw a boy picking up the starfish one at a time and throwing them back into the ocean. He approached the boy and asked him why he was doing that. There were hundreds of miles of beach and he couldn’t possibly make a difference. The boy slowly leaned down, picked up a starfish, and hurled it back into the ocean. He looked at the man and said, “It made a difference to that one.”
One client, one case, one ethical decision at a time you will have the power and ability to make a difference in people’s lives and, over time, within broader society. Do not take that power lightly or for granted. With that power comes responsibility. As an attorney you will have the responsibility to protect some of the things your clients hold most dear: their property, their family, their secrets, their liberty and freedom. You have a responsibility not to let them down, to “zealously advocate” for them. You have a responsibility to the bar to do so in an ethical manner. And you have a responsibility to yourself to stay true to your moral code or risk not being able to look at yourself in the mirror.
The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word “crisis.” The first stands for “danger;” the second for “opportunity.” In crisis, be aware of the danger but recognize the opportunity. There will be many times throughout your law school, and likely also your professional career, where you will be faced with a crisis—whether your client’s or your own. Take the tools you have acquired through your legal education, and the strong sense of self that will develop if you take your education seriously, and use them to face the danger and seize the opportunity. Law school is not easy, neither I guess is being a lawyer, but in my limited experience its been well worth the challenge.