The picture above is a “Best Lawyer” Oscar I got from one of those souvenir stores in Hollywood that’s always having “going out of business” sales. I got it in the spring before my 1L year, and I thought it was hilarious. It now holds a special place on a bookshelf next to law firm swag and my Hillary Clinton bobblehead.
But what does becoming the “best lawyer” actually look like? I started law school believing that success in the legal field looks like checking all the boxes that have made others before you successful. This leaves very little room for failure.
This is a story of a time I failed at something and the world didn’t end.
At the end of my 1L year, I got some news that changed my life forever. It marked the beginning of the worst time period in my life. It happened two weeks before finals and a week before my birthday. I considered dropping out of law school, but my career had always been the most important thing in my life and I couldn’t do it.
Armed with determination and a prescription for PTSD medication, I set out to study for and take my final exams. I don’t remember much. I remember crying at the library, crying on my drive home, crying on my outlines, crying in my coffee. I remember getting to a point where I couldn’t cry anymore.
I remember not eating for three days straight and losing six pounds (not really a tragedy in my case, but still unusual). I remember breaking down in front of my friends during a study session.
I remember a lot of specific little moments in time, but I don’t remember how I got through finals. I don’t remember how my interview to be a Legal Writing TA went. I definitely don’t remember the write-on competition in great detail.
When I think of write-on, all I remember is laying out a bunch of different papers on our bedroom floor, writing for hours, and this weird coffee drink my husband made me with some sort of gelatinous coffee ice cubes. I remember clicking the “submit” button, sinking deep into the covers of the bed, and spending days thinking “now what?” as I waited to go back to Dallas and start my summer job.
When summer started, I forgot all about law review and journals. I focused my entire being on one task: get through work without looking like a complete weirdo. Try to have fun at events. Don’t bring people down. Don’t indicate that anything is out of the ordinary. Just. Get. Through.
When I got the email with the law review and journal results, I was sitting at my desk working on a pro bono project. I opened everything, saw that my name wasn’t on any of the lists, and I just thought: Oh. Well. There goes that. I closed the PDFs and got back to work.
It didn’t hit me at first. Not until I thought about it again a few days later. What would my classmates think of me? I started to worry. I googled “How important is law review?” and read every article from one end of the spectrum to the other.
I wondered what my firm would think of me. Would they still want me to come back? Was my GPA good enough to override this failure? Would they even care at all?
I blamed myself for not doing more. If I had spent less time crying and feeling bad for myself. If I had paid closer attention to the Bluebook. If I hadn’t taken two days to rest between my last final and write-on…
I was embarrassed. Writing is a huge passion of mine and I was an English major in undergrad. I thought write-on was going to be a breeze for me. I did well in both semesters of my Legal Writing class. Why did I have to fail at this?
Surprisingly, though, everything worked out.
I came back to school. I heard people constantly complaining about how much they hated law review, and I felt kind of relieved. My friends didn’t seem to think I was an idiot. I had time to get involved in other things I was passionate about. I stopped needing the PTSD medicine. I went on to have a great 2L year. Life went on.
We started the LPS class talking about designing our legal careers. The word “designing” makes it sound like we have a choice. It often feels like we don’t. If you look at my employer’s website and filter for attorneys from Vanderbilt Law School, the vast majority have law review or a law journal in their bios. I won’t.
It’s hard not to feel like you have to do exactly what everyone else did in order to be successful. It’s hard not to see every deviation from the conventional path to success as a complete failure and an indication that you won’t make it.
But, seriously, you're going to make it.
One thing law schools could do better is put their students at ease. Tell them that success doesn’t look the same for each lawyer. That they’re inevitably going to fail at something they expected to be good at. And that it’s okay to do that. All of us conceptually know that, but it’s easy to lose sight of it.
I plan to put the “Best Lawyer” Oscar in my office for those times when I feel like everyone around me is doing better. There’s a reason the Oscar was a $9.99 spring break souvenir: no one can be the best at everything all the time.
And that's fine.