What’s Luck Got to Do with It?

It’s December 2012. I’m a 2L. I’m on my way to take my Federal Jurisdiction exam and meet what I think to be my fate, when I run into a well-intentioned faculty member. He asks me where I’m heading. “To my Fed. Jur. exam,” I manage to get out. His response? “Yikes. Tough class. Well . . . good luck!”

If there’s an inauspicious way to kick off an exam, I’m pretty sure that’s it. 

Fast forward two summers: I had graduated from law school, and my entire life had become about (1) studying for the bar exam, (2) not overdrawing my checking account, and (3) Chipotle burritos. Left and right, people were wishing me good luck on the bar. Every time they did so, the pressure mounted, as did my conviction that my professional future rode entirely on either luck or some God-given ability—neither of which I felt particularly flush with at the time. From these experiences, I began to think “good luck”—even when offered with utmost sincerity—might not the best way to send someone into a high-pressure moment.[i]

But we all do it. We say “good luck” to friends before they start a trial or to students before they take an exam because we wish them well. Behind the two simple words, though, seems the implication that we are mere pawns, our fate left to the caprice of the gods. Luck’s sister concepts are, after all, fortune and chance.[ii] Expounding on the etymology of luck, University of Cambridge Professor Robert S. C. Gordon has written that the word’s etymological roots imply that “[l]uck, good luck at least, brings happiness . . . , and this much seems uncontroversial. But conversely, there is already a more sombre . . . implicitly secular philosophy embedded in this lexical chain . . . : happiness is a matter of pure luck, and the path from one to the other is steeped in doubt.”[iii] In other words, the notion of good luck—or the wish of it—might just imply that our happiness, our success is out of our hands.

If we’re being honest, this thought might not be so out of step with how many a law student feels going into a final exam. After all, this pretty well encapsulates how I felt walking into my Federal Jurisdiction exam—nervous that everyone in the class was smarter than yours truly, and convinced that if I happened to do well, it would be only out of sheer luck.

But this, of course, goes against so much of what we try to teach our students about law school. We tell them hard work is rewarded with knowledge. Accomplishments flow therefrom. Luck or chance or cosmic design is a part of this (and every) equation, but hard work, strategy, practice—these are the key ingredients.

Those key ingredients also happen to be the things we can control. Plenty of research on self-determination theory in general and lawyer happiness in particular has teased out the connection between the principles of “autonomy, relatedness, and competence” with individual and lawyer well-being.[iv] Viewed in this framework, wishing someone good luck seems, at best, inapt when talking about an examination for which one has prepared for weeks, if not months.

So where to if we abandon Lady Luck? In recent years, I’ve found myself defaulting to one of the following: “You got this,” “you’ve prepared for this,” or “I’ll see you on the other side.” Really, I’m just trying to let students know that we see how hard they’ve worked, they deserve to feel confident (or at least to fake it) walking into an exam, and that they will get through this.

Come to think of it, even “break a leg” intuitively feels better than “good luck.”


Maybe, after all of this, could it be that I’m just superstitious?

[i] A cursory Google search has since confirmed that I am not alone in this conviction.

[ii] See Robert S. C. Gordon, Modern Luck: Narratives of Fortune in the Long Twentieth Century 18 (2023).

[iii] Id at 19.

[iv] See generally Edward L. Deci & Richard M. Ryan, Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness (2018); Lawrence S. Krieger & Kennon M. Sheldon, What Makes Lawyers Happy? A Data-Driven Prescription to Redefine Professional Success, 83 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 554 (2015).

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