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That Enemy Within: When the Toughest Grader is Yourself

As part of the coursework for Legal Problem Solving (LPS), all students contribute a post to this course blog. Students develop posts from a weekly journal entry, which also is required coursework. The purpose of journal entries is to invite deeper, personal reflection on the subject matter in LPS, reflection being a key component of content understanding and mastery. This course explores how human centered design and other creative problem solving methods and mindsets inform three areas: (1) the delivery of legal services, (2) how we solve clients' (legal) problems, and (3) how law students can intentionally shape their professional journeys. Each student post will touch on one or more of these three areas.

This ​LPS post is by Ryan McKenney, Vanderbilt Law School class of 2019.

I am a Bob Dylan fanatic. I have seen the man in concert 22 times and I have only been alive for 24 years. His music, lyrics, and role as a cultural icon have shaped so much of the way I think about the world and process my emotions. One of my favorite lyrics is from one of his least heralded songs, “Where are You Tonight?” a 1978 gem. The lyric reads “I fought with my twin, that enemy within / ‘Till both of us fell by the way / Horseplay and disease are killing me by degrees / While the law looks the other way.” Of the many Dylan lyrics about the law, this one stands out to me because it shows the possible futility of the law when it is most needed in addition to offering a poetic glimpse into the battles we do with ourselves and how those skirmishes can tear us down from within. For me, law school has been a battle against myself to remain sane, successful, and social while keeping faith in the profession and my ability to make a positive impact on the lives of others in my legal practice.

My father is a lawyer and I grew up listening to him talk about trials and clients, and working as a clerk for his firm in high school. Seeing the late nights and the stress did not dissuade me from following in his professional footsteps. Instead, listening to his passion for helping clients and seeing the pride that he had in being a lawyer and the respect that brought him in our community further pushed me towards the law. I thought the skills most important to the practice of law (written and oral advocacy, critical thinking, and problem solving) were all skills I possessed in some form and wanted to expound upon.

I went into my 1L year bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, excited to take on the world, make new friends, and grow academically and socially. However, 1L year was the hardest year of my life that made me question so much (far more than just the intellectual questioning I expected). Whether it was my ever-present distaste for the structure of legal writing, feeling petrified of failing in the Socratic method during class, or struggling to find connections between daily readings and the broad fact patterns which made up 100% of the grade at the semester’s end, I struggled mightily, fighting with my enemies within and wondering if my becoming a lawyer would amount to anything other than the law looking the other way.

Law school has the tendency to make type A personalities even more extreme types. I would leave class and go to the library where people would be on edge, physically and mentally breaking down from stress, and this rubbed off on me. I could no longer see the forest through the trees. I lost all focus on the long term. Everything was day to day--I had to know every fact of every case or I would fail if questioned about it in class. I had to study longer or harder than the person next to me because they were my competition on the curve. I stopped eating healthy, stopped working out every day, and was not sleeping. The OCI process loomed over me and I worried I was not positioned to get firm jobs in the cities in which I hoped to live. I became a shell of my former self, yet did not realize this was not normal. After all, this was law school, everyone must stand in this fire in order to stand before the bar.

I remember getting my grades on January 3rd of this year. I wasn’t unhappy, but I wasn’t happy. I thought I had done better and I fretted that I had priced myself out of competition for the jobs I wanted and for getting on a journal. I had the worst morning and felt absolutely sick to my stomach. Then, I remembered that the sun would come out tomorrow and the world is bigger than law school and law school is bigger than first semester grades. After that realization, I started class, went through OCI, and since then I really have only had success. I am kinder, less stressed, and have had better relationships and better academic and professional success. I learned to be supportive of both myself and others without comparing and I think I found the panacea to the toxicity of law school.

I came to law school because I wanted to be a lawyer, not because I wanted to be a law school robot. Creativity, collaboration, and the spirit of the law often are masked by the curve, journals, and the letter of the law. To tap into my most successful, most creative, and healthiest self, I needed to stop reading the law school blogs, stop comparing myself to my classmates, and see law school as a three year test that was a leg of a much longer journey. Every class period would not define me. If I could think of cases in the context of the larger class, the class in the larger context of my studies, and my studies in the larger context of my career and passion for the law and for people, each day would be more fulfilling and far less stressful.

My 2L year has honestly been one of the best years of my life and Legal Problem Solving has reaffirmed my faith and hope that I can have a legal career that goes beyond Westlaw, Summary Judgment motions, and partner meetings. It has reignited within me the excitement that brought me to law school in the first place. I came to the law to combine my love of people with my love of business, of creativity, and of advocacy. However, innovation is not always the first trait that law firms look for in candidates and radical innovation and creativity could lead to difficulties as a young lawyer. Additionally, not being embarrassed of my creativity is something that is difficult to me. I really enjoying writing songs and poetry, but often feel self conscious about sharing with other people. Likewise, I worry about being able to employ empathy, humor, and creativity in my legal practice.

Legal Problem Solving and my more long-term approach to law school have helped me to realize that it is “step-by-step” progression that pushes our boundaries, makes us more comfortable with ourselves and our own creative potential, and additionally helps us build better and more innovative teams and push the limits of our places of work--even a law firm. Being confident in our creativity helps us overcome our fear of failure and nowhere is this fear more prevalent than in the legal community. I don’t believe that lawyers (or anyone for that matter) is inherently not-creative. Creative potential simply has to be unleashed and the fear of failure is what keeps that potential locked away in many of us. By being resilient when it comes to failure or to other people not encouraging our creativity, we continue to slowly but surely advance the ball down the field.

I want to laugh, to work in teams, and to put clients at the center of a legal service delivery framework where teamwork and creativity thrive. I don’t yet know what my day to day legal practice will look like, but I know that this class and the struggles I went through as a 1L have given my creative confidence a very healthy boost and has greatly increased my passion for going into the legal field without becoming a robot.

Law school can grind you down and lead you to fight with your enemies within, losing sight of the reason you came to law school in the first place and questioning the role of lawyers. However, the more I learned to see law school as a means to an end and to see the somewhat trite conventions of the professions as opportunities to insert shots of creativity and collaboration, the more I learned to take the bumps in stride, remain creative, and grow more confident as a future lawyer, not less confident as a current law student. When I could see the forest, each tree was beautiful rather than another obstacle in my way.

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