One Flew Over the Law School: 10 Sanity-Saving Strategies

Michelle Williams law studentLove, love this guest post from 3L Michelle Williams. An important read.

Lawyers are meant to be driven, resilient, competitive, organized, professional, articulate and perhaps even aloof, calculating, detached. Emotional issues and mental imbalance are NOT a part of that calculus.

But, that’s not always true, is it?

Lawyers (and the law students who eventually turn into lawyers) are a cross-section of humanity: Introverted, extroverted, quiet, talkative, emotive, stoic. Law school can be a grueling process full of embarrassment, exhaustion, isolation, conflict, comparison, and doubt — and the practice of law (what little I know of it) contains elements of those same motifs.

Facing the pressure of 1L year left me both surprised and disappointed by how I reacted.

Quite frankly, I had my own set of personal torments and weaknesses before I started law school; late nights and overwhelming work did not improve me. By the middle of Spring semester 2011, I was sleeping too much, working too little, unable to focus, and buckling under the pressure of everyday tasks.

That’s when I showed true strength of character: I asked for help.

There is an outstanding counseling center at my university that allowed me access to a psychiatrist, group therapy, and a personal counselor. In the midst of the most precarious year of law school, I took time away from my books to get balanced.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Balance comes from embracing reality AND recognizing that what you call reality is more correctly your perception of reality.
  2. You are not now, and never have been, your grades. I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better because I got my first Cs in law school. Allowing my grades to define me was foolish when I was in high school and college (making nearly straight As). No person is one dimensional.
  3. Do not allow yourself to become exactly what a lawyer is meant to be. I realized that I was putting too much pressure on myself to play the part of a lawyer — an act of professional dissimulation. I was hating myself (and my chosen profession) for that. So, I decided that I would have to be Michelle, who practices law. I am not detached; I am not calculating; I am not always articulate; I am not particularly competitive. Who says that those traits make a good lawyer? No one to whom we should listen.
  4. Ask for help. A larger university is likely to have a counseling center where post-doctoral fellows work to gain practice hours. Go there; complete all the various forms; go through the initial interview; stick with the counseling/therapy. At law schools that are not linked to a large university, you will have to swallow your trepidation and go see the dean. Every dean worth his/her salt will know of resources/groups/organizations in the area that offer counseling, therapy, and psychiatric services.
  5. Offer help. I had a colleague who I suspected was struggling with balancing the demands of law school and life. But, I never reached out. I never said anything. I never asked. I never sent an e-mail. Could I have helped? I failed to do two things that lawyers should do: speak up and speak honestly.
  6. In the battle between law school and self-care, self-care MUST ALWAYS win. Eat healthy, drink water, stay in touch with nature, sing, dance, exercise, and generally be kind to yourself. After all, you should not be making yourself into a lawyer. You should rather be learning to practice law — the key thing is to not lose YOU.
  7. Hold tight to what you want, but accept that what you want might change. Be a litigator! Be a transactional attorney! Work for a large firm! Be a career clerk! Law school is full of different people following different paths. I entered law school believing that I could make it as a transactional attorney in a mid-sized firm. I stuck with that until I realized that I really wanted freedom, autonomy, and the ability to help people: enter a new desire to be a solo practitioner. Do not waste your valuable time attempting to convince someone else that your (new) dream is worthwhile. See number one, and allow that person to have his/her own perception.
  8. Practice all things (particularly drinking and studying) in moderation. If you have been in law school for more than two days, you have heard all of the lawyer-as-alcoholic jokes. At the end of a long day involving being cold-called for a case you did not read, trying with all your might to remember the difference between a fee simple determinable and a fee simple defeasible, and 80 pages of reading completed during a frenzied three-hour tour of duty in the library: nothing sounds better than a glass of wine/G&T/margarita/mojito/scotch on the rocks. Remember, however, that the point at which you can only relax and release with an adult beverage (or other perception altering substance) in your hand is the point at which you need to ask for help. See number four.
  9. Surround yourself with healthy people. Notice that I did not say people at the top of the class, or people from your section or people from your study group. A healthy person might not be in any of the aforementioned groups. A healthy person does, however, know his/her own limits. A healthy person strives to maintain a sense of balance and encourages you to do the same. A healthy person recognizes the difference between what a lawyer is meant to be and who s/he actually is.
  10. Rage against the machine. No, not with sticks and bricks and matches. But, with YOU. I’m Black, female, and working class. So far in my life, I’ve never owned a new car; I’ve never been to school without a scholarship or varied forms of assistance from Uncle Sam; I have a strong Southern accent; I didn’t grow up knowing lawyers; and, I hate suits. Despite all of that, I can and will be a good practitioner. So can you.

— – —

Thanks, Michelle. I wish I’d heard all of this when I was in the midst of my 1L breakdown.

Michelle Williams is a former public school teacher and current third year law student at Georgia State University College of Law. She is interested in employment law, workers’ compensation, and education law. Currently, she handles aspects of workers compensation cases at Sims & Associates, PC in Atlanta, Georgia. Michelle’s blog, Just Living, addresses a broad spectrum of legal issues. She hopes to be a barred attorney in the state of Georgia after the July 2013 bar exam.

Read on:

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  1. This is great advice for any one who has decided to take on law school. I say that as some one who is just about to finish up law school after a plenty of unhealthy and healthy periods throughout my time there.

  2. Great article! I have been feeling so low and unmotivated lately. Your advice is exactly what I need right now.

    • Personally, I always found the first part of the Spring semester tough. Maybe it was just the fact that it was winter (and cold and dark), but I was never terribly motivated! Hope you’re feeling better soon.


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