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Setting My Own Definition of Success in the Legal Profession

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Ryung Nam (Hannah) Kim, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

1. Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence:

Noticing and appreciating beauty, excellence, and/or skilled performance in various domains of life, from nature to art to mathematics to science to everyday experience.

2. Kindness:

Doing favors and good deeds for others, helping them; taking care of them.

These were the top two results of my Strength Profile survey. Although they are generally perceived as positive qualities, I was very disappointed. I wished I were the type of person whose strengths are qualities like Judgement and Leadership. I wished so because I thought those are what it takes to become a “successful lawyer.”

I did not always think like that. Before coming to law school, I was not ashamed of the fact that I am the type of person who wastes time literally smelling the roses and appreciating their beauty every day. I was proud of myself that I wanted to spread kindness by helping underprivileged population even if it means I would not be making too much money.

But the law school experience changed how I felt about myself. I saw that students with top grades generally seek positions at big law firms. And there were many visible events that glorified the prestige of big law and its six-figure salary. This led me to believe that success as a law student was defined by scoring a firm job with a high pay.

Feeling the pressure but still unable to let go of my passion, I dreamed of an associate position where I could do a lot of pro bono works on the side. However, I was told not to mention my interest in pro bono works at interviews with law firms; I was told that law firms will not like someone who may abandon them for a public interest job after a few years.

So I began to create a fake persona to look and sound like someone that law firms would like to hire. I was advised to put on a heavier makeup to look professional. So I did. I was advised to sound like an assertive and competitive person. So I did. I was advised to pick a practice area to sound like someone who knows what she is doing. So I did.

They said I had to fake it until I make it—that I would be fine once I got my foot in the door. Having no lawyer family member who could tell me otherwise, as well as being stubborn in trusting what I heard, I followed this advice religiously. For almost three years, I had brainwashed myself into wanting what I thought was the law school definition of success.

I did not know how wrong these voices were until I allowed myself to intentionally block them out. For the first time in a long while, I had an opportunity to be honest with myself without feeling weak or whiny: it was the persona worksheet in Legal Problem Solving that instructed to write out factors that make me productive, trigger stress, and influence me.

Coupled with this exercise, the talk by Ms. Lisa F. Smith who wrote Girl Walks Out of a Bar snapped me out of my disillusion. Hearing about her experience and the practice group that I had picked simply to get my foot in the door, I realized it was not going to be “fine” even after getting into big law.

Literally everything about big law went against my real persona that I had written down on the persona worksheet. I was already uncomfortable in my fake skin—I would be miserable if I had to fake 12 hours a day, every day, every week, year after another. When I finally saw this reality, it felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.

I no longer feel an obligation to pursue something I do not want to do that is bad for me anyways. This is not to say that I think big law is bad for everyone. I know that there are people who can do well and thrive in big law. But that is not me, and I am all right with that.

It does not mean that I am a failure; it means that I am setting my own definition of success.

And my definition of success will be one where I get to spend my life helping others as I had always wanted. It will be one where I proudly utilize my strengths of appreciating beauty and showing kindness. I am not disappointed by who I am anymore—I am excited that I will get to smell all the roses I want after getting off work at 5:00 p.m. everyday.

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