I’ve never had children, so I don’t know what it’s like to experience the emotions of a parent. The closest I’ve come to being a parent is my relationships with my nieces and nephews. If being a parent is anywhere nearly as cool as being “Uncle David” it has to be awesome.
This week I’m very proud and excited that my nephew is following in my footsteps and will be starting as a 1st year law student at my alma mater, City University of New York School of Law. This got me thinking about what I’ve learned in my journey from being the child of divorced parents who didn’t have college educations to being a lawyer. I thought about what advice I can offer my nephew as he takes his journey and this list is what I’ve come up with:
Relax. Despite all you’ll hear about how difficult and stressful law school is, it’s really not that bad. When studying law, read the cases as stories and then think about what the moral story is. Don’t try to memorize, try to understand. In law school what you are really studying are the sacred values of our society. It’s much easier and more interesting to study and remember stories than to try to memorize rules and holdings.
Be Diligent. Go to class every day, handwrite your notes on paper, go home and rewrite them, and then later type them into your computer to make an outline in which you brief every case. Study your outline for the final exam. If at all possible, don’t take a computer to class and turn your phone off. They are very likely to distract you.
Strive for Integrity. One of a lawyer’s most valuable assets is his or her reputation for integrity. Start building yours now. Hold yourself to a very high standard of honesty and trustworthiness. People will notice and your fellow law students will remember.
Be Creative. Law is a creative endeavor; make time to develop yourself as a creative thinker. As a law student I was amazed at how much pastel painting opened my mind to think about the law from new perspectives. To this day, when confronted by a vexing legal problem I will sometimes put down the law books and pick up a musical instrument, write or read a poem, or listen to good music.
Open yourself to Weird. Sometimes the weirdest most unorthodox law professors teach you truths about the law that you won’t find in textbooks.
Be Civil. The image of the jerk lawyer is popular entertainment, but is a recipe for disaster in real life. Remember, every dog has his day. The lawyer you insulted, embarrassed, or humiliated today may be the lawyer you need a favor from tomorrow. Civility is much more than being polite to opposing counsel and their clients; it’s treating others as you want them to treat you regardless of how badly they may be behaving. Also, it’s absolutely necessary for your own mental health and effectiveness as a lawyer. Start practicing it now with your fellow students and professors.
Think before you act. When you’re about to do something that you’re not sure of, ask yourself: If I had to explain this on my bar application, what would I say?
Plan your career early. Law is a competitive business; start planning your career now. Most of us don’t graduate into $120k per year jobs with large law firms. Make an effort to network with the legal community outside the law school. Clinics and internships are a great way to start. This will help you identify what areas of law interest you and will provide you with contacts for things like client referrals and job opportunities.
Keep monkeys off your back. No legal career has ever been helped by alcohol or recreational drug use. According to the ABA, lawyers suffer from addiction at twice the rate of other professions and that most addicted lawyers start as addicted law students. Practice good mental hygiene and stay true to your own values. Get help if needed.
Keep things in perspective. There is a difference between striving for excellence and being a perfectionist. Perfectionism will paralyze you and keep you from learning. You will make mistakes and occasionally fail despite your best efforts. The professor, or later the judge or jury, will not always agree with you. Accept it and move on.
Make Time Take Care of Yourself. Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise will help you perform better as a student. Don’t forget, there is a world outside the law school and you’re living in one of the world’s great cities. Go explore. You will cherish the memories.
Enjoy the journey. Don’t miss the experience of law school by only focusing on the life that may follow it. In law school you will the opportunity to explore history, examine our societal values, develop your writing and persuasive skills, and create many new relationships. Be grateful for the experience while it happens. Remember, my 3rd year clinic partner never got to practice law because, despite being young and living a healthy lifestyle, she died unexpectedly while waiting for her bar exam results. No one guarantees us tomorrow, we must be grateful for today.