Getting an Education on Being a Lawyer, and Not Just on the Law

What is your personal conception of professional success and satisfaction for yourself as a lawyer?  How will you know when (or whether) you achieve your conception of success and satisfaction?  These are important existential questions for anyone working in a professional setting to reflect upon, but especially for me, as a 3L gearing up for my last semester of law school.  Yet, I was struggling.  I always knew I wanted to go to law school.  I always knew I wanted to litigate, and I had always planned on going into criminal law.  I have known these things for years.  Why had I never gone a step further, and thought about how I viewed success and satisfaction, and at what point I would feel I achieved those goals?

The questions were posed to those of us in Professor Peter Rofes’ Lawyers & Life course during the Fall 2018 semester.  They were the first of what would be scores of questions, each one seemingly simple in language and length, but digging deeper than many of us had ever been asked to do in our law school careers.  What parts of your legal education have you found to be the most rewarding?  What makes you stand out from other soon-to-be new lawyers?  What do you look for in an employer’s organizational culture? What aspects of your career, disposition, or accomplishments would you want emphasized in your “career obituary”?

The discussions among the fourteen of us in the course ranged from professional and academic to personal and emotional.  While we were asked to explore those strengths we found most essential to our success in law, we were also asked to explore disappointments and failures that we felt helped build resiliency and growth.  The class was a safe space where uncertainties and insecurities were just as respected and appreciated as optimism and development.

Every few classes, the atypical nature of the class and its themes came up in casual conversation:  Why were more law school classes not asking us to evaluate why we are here and where we are going?  Paula Davis-Laack was an attorney who, after suffering burnout in her legal career, earned her masters in applied positive psychology and now dedicates her life to teaching and leading workshops on stress, resiliency, and professional burnout for law firms, healthcare, and other organizations. She identified our Lawyers & Life course as one of only a handful of courses on these topics.  She shared that a colleague teaches a similar class, “Well-Being and the Practice of Law” annually at Duke Law, and that another colleague was recently given approval to teach a similar course at the University of Tennessee Law School.  As to why there are not more courses like these offered, Davis-Laack pointed to something I have felt most made these courses stand out.  She attributes the lack of courses offered at law schools addressing the wellbeing of the lawyer to the thinking of many deans and professors who “feel like the main (or even sole) purpose of law school is to train students to ‘think like lawyers,’ and ignore the very significant ways the legal profession is changing and the fact that lawyers will need new skills to compete for jobs and for clients.”

I, too, felt that throughout my law school career, much time and focus was (rightfully) on “the law,” but little time or focus was spent on building “the lawyer.”  I am grateful to have taken Lawyers & Life, as well as the Peacemaking & Spirituality workshop taught every October by Mark Umbreit, a visiting professor from the University of Minnesota Law School. However, I am also disappointed more law students may not have these opportunities to reflect on themselves and their future careers before perhaps being forced to reflect upon these issues in light of unhappiness later in the midst of their careers.

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