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Emerging from the Shadows: Life, Love, and the Law

This Legal Problem Solving post is by Emily Lamm, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2019.

From the first moments of law school, I was mortified. Instead of entering this new adventure with confidence, I could only calculate the ways in which I would inevitably fail. The prospect of obtaining the coveted firm job felt like it was slipping away. Every time I was called upon in Civil Procedure, I made a blubbering idiot of myself. I had neither read a case nor met a lawyer before entering law school. I poignantly felt like an outsider––an unpleasant but all too familiar feeling.

My family immigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia when I was five-months-old. I did not know English (other than the pieces I picked up from Arthur on PBS), and so I spent my childhood observing how my peers interacted and learning what was said in the moments of silence. I didn’t look any different from my peers, but internally I felt like an alien. The same assemblage of sentiments continued in high school, but for different reasons. My focus was on academics and athletics––running cross country and track and playing basketball. While this focus did not in itself isolate me, I also did not especially understand the extent to which my friends wanted to be with boys or seek to participate in the partying culture. Despite these fundamental disconnects, I did my best to assimilate. I abandoned my kind-hearted self of the past, and traded it for a prickly exterior shell.

I left high school proud of what I had accomplished on paper, yet hopeful college would provide more freedom. Instead of liberation, the previously adopted façade had fused more tightly to my core. For all the freedom college provides, it also presents a profound opportunity for isolation. The more I fell into isolation, the more distanced I became from myself. I knew I was different. I had known since I was just eleven-years-old. Yet, instead of embracing that difference, I ran away from it, literally. Year after year, I put more strain on myself to become faster––I ate less and ran more––because if I ran fast enough, perhaps the truth could be left behind. Unsurprisingly, the truth continued to follow me, and it was not until I lost running to injury that I was forced to face it.

Law school was an inescapable bottleneck encompassing the remnants of my past. I struggled with the poisons of relational thinking and grappled with confidence. I did not know if I deserved to have faith in myself and own who I truly was. Yet, law school was also a fresh start in a community of like-minded peers. By the second semester of that pivotal first year, I decided I would be more vulnerable. Ultimately, I realized that the daunting competition of law school is within oneself rather than with one’s peers. There was no reason to hide the fact that I was gay from the welcoming community around me. All of my struggles were not suddenly resolved, but the process of being true to myself had begun. I was finally at ease after over a decade of filtering myself. I became more present in the community, performed better academically, made new friends, and seized the interviewing opportunities for summer associate positions. The bottleneck was suffocating in the beginning, but now that I had escaped from its confines, I was free from the weighty veil of the past.

If it were not for this liberation, I would likely have continued as a shadow of myself. Thankfully, I am now en route to a rewarding life in the legal profession. I have embraced my idiosyncrasies, the creative and radical interests swirling about in my mind, and the interdisciplinary perspective I feared I would lose in the law. I am immersed in a diversity of research opportunities with four different professors, and I live a calm life with my significant other, Lauren, and our puppy, Nikita.

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We venture on walks, runs, and hikes, and we always take time to listen, support, and discuss. This doesn’t mean we don’t eat cookies, watch Netflix, or find ourselves in heated arguments. On the contrary, it just means that we strive for balance each day. Balance is an intriguing concept in the law––balancing tests are critiqued and scoffed at as inefficient, and the law firm setting is seemingly driven by the complete opposite of balance. Yet, without balance, we fail to recognize the nuances of context and are at risk of overlooking the underlying needs of our clients. The legal profession need not be conducted in a vacuum or silo. Indeed, intersectionality and interdisciplinary thinking have a crucial place in the law. They challenge us to think about the multifaceted nature of each problem, and the creative ways in which it can be resolved through collaboration.

The Legal Problem Solving course provides a place to contemplate one’s past and future within the present. Human-centered design and design thinking are not just about solving the world’s most contentious legal dilemmas. On the contrary, they fulfill a niche that has long been neglected by attorneys––self-reflection. If we live a life of suppression and fail to confront our greatest internal struggles, our ability to empathize with others will be inhibited. Although empathy is easier to discuss than truly implement in one’s life, it is absolutely central to innovation. The three pillars of design thinking––viability, desirability, and feasibility––all hinge upon one’s ability to recognize the differing (yet overlapping) needs of the business, users, and technology. Without empathy, we are deeply hindered and cannot transcend the first step of design thinking. This is precisely why I felt compelled to share my story. I hope to encourage all of us to reflect upon and share our narratives. We have all felt like outsiders before––inferior, incomplete, deficient or defective in some way. This shared experience is incredibly powerful and should be addressed by oft-isolated attorneys. Perhaps then we will recognize and begin to celebrate our interconnectedness and diversity.