When I graduated from law school (Wake Forest University), the prevailing sentiment was that my success was assured, my path was laid with golden bricks, and with some elbow grease, life would be a bed of roses from here on out.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
What few law students understand is that learning the content of the law and how to research is only a small part of being a lawyer. When I went through law school, I signed up for every extracurricular activity I could to build a resume. I was an editor of the Law Review, an associate Justice of the Moot Court Board, the president of my legal fraternity, and a member of various other clubs and organizations. I participated in several competitions as well as in every law school event possible.
What I didn’t know then is that I made law school as difficult and soul-sucking as possible. This was a condition that followed me into the practice of family law, and eventually resulted in my burnout and nervous breakdown 27 years later.
Advice to my Younger Self at Law School Graduation
My younger self – fresh out of law school and ready to conquer the world. Or so I thought.
I have often been asked if I could go back in time and give my younger self some advice on how to succeed in the practice of law without damaging my health and psyche, what would I say? There are so many things I did wrong it is impossible to talk about all of them, but there are some fundamentals that would have greatly enhanced my chances of creating and maintaining a successful family law practice.
Here’s what I wish I could go back and tell myself when I was fresh out of law school; I hope the next generation of family lawyers will find them useful.
1. Develop a Healthy Mindset
First, let me be honest. What you experience in law school and in your legal career has everything to do with those little gray cells between your ears. Studying the law and then practicing the law can either be a positive endeavor or a dance with the devil. You must have a disposition that is positive with a healthy belief in what you are doing. Find your support group and use it often.
Additionally, law practice does not have to be competitive. It should be collaborative. It is not you against everyone else. The truth is that the law is a jealous mistress, but you can be the boss. The trap that many lawyers fall into is that family, fun, and joy must be postponed, in order to establish your class rank and then your salary. That is why so many lawyers – including myself – suffer burnout or quit. If there is any quality that separates lawyers who thrive practicing law and those who burn out, it is a great sense of humor.
2. Manage Your Expectations
Second, managing expectations is probably the most important aspect of law school and family law practice. Most law students fall into one of three categories, and all three have the potential to make a lot of money and be successful.
- The first category is the over-achievers. They are top of the class, brilliant, and appear to have a successful future.
- The second category is the students who study hard but, for whatever reason, don’t make the top grades.
- The third category is the students who appear not to care about class rank and just want to graduate. Some of them work nights and/or have family responsibilities preventing them from devoting 100% of their energy to law school.
My experience is that it doesn’t matter which category you fell into – you can become a thriving, successful lawyer. The only test for law students is passing the bar exam. You can even take it several times and be a successful lawyer. Your mindset (see above) determines your career success, not your class rank.
3. Don’t Take it Personally
The reality is that you will never bat 1,000 no matter what kind of practice you have. You will not win every trial or get every client. The practice of law is competitive and has ups and downs. You will be criticized and second-guessed. You may even be your own worst critic. It is important to remember that you have chosen a challenging and difficult profession.
You have to focus on the wins, not the losses. Find the lesson when you don’t get the result you were hoping for. Your track record is not a reflection of you as a person. Try to take meritorious cases, don’t take losers just to have something to do. Don’t “Drink the Kool-Aid” and subscribe to the belief that winning is the only indication of your talents. Be flexible, roll with the punches, and remember: it is not how many times you get knocked down, it is how many times you get up that matters.
4. Network, Network, Network
Networking is a muscle that must be exercised. The more people you know and connect with, the more successful your law practice experience will be. I got more meaningful advice from court clerks on procedure than spending hours in a library. Make friends and be a friend. You will be remembered long after the memory of the top student fades away (unless he/she is a friend, too).
5. Seek Balance
Finally, life is complicated. We have a physical body, a mental body, an emotional body, and a spiritual body (soul). You don’t have to spend equal amounts of time on each one all the time, but you do have to feed and nourish them to be healthy. Neurological studies have shown us that these bodies are connected in ways we are just beginning to understand.
My Hope for Young Lawyers Everywhere
I hope that practicing family law is a positive experience for you, even when you don’t win. The quality and quantity of all life experiences are determined by your mindset and decisions. Remember: there are no mistakes – only learning experiences. The world needs more positive lawyers and leaders, and I hope you become both.