Advice for Students Entering Law School in 2015

Recently I read through an engaging thread on LinkedIn that asks: “What’s one piece of advice you’d give yourself upon entering law school this year?”

I was impressed by how many Queen’s alumni reached out with candid and honest advice. Many commenters focus on tried and true advice for law school success: Students who listen, prepare for class, and work hard will often be rewarded with good grades. Demonstrating mastery with good grades in law school has and always will be impressive.


I think that students entering the class of 2019 should also question whether good grades should be their goal. If I could, I’d ask my 1L self to challenge the timeless advice for success in law school. What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers, and risk takers.
What the law needs now are big thinkers, dreamers and risk takers
  
Being an expert at grinding the grist of daily readings and lecture will not help us move forward or create new ways of delivering legal services. Specifically, the legal services that most Canadians need but can’t afford.

After leaving the hallways of law school, I recognize the many ways we’re reinforcing the myth that lawyers can do it all on our own. Law school rewards students, for example, who contribute modestly, dedicate themselves to individual study, and perform better than the competition.

When applied to client service, that model creates capable practitioners who’ve learned to treat every problem as unique. That time-intensive method promotes high quality, but comes at a high cost. 

Why are we focused on graduating students with skills that helped 20th century lawyers succeed, when skills like systems-thinking, project management, and IT leadership will help 21st century lawyers succeed?

Instead of teaching students to challenge, question, and evolve methods we’re sending the message that evolution isn’t necessary. Our last major innovation was inspired by Socrates: asking students questions in class rather than lecturing. We’re not even measuring our learning outcomes: are we getting better at preparing students for practice, or worse? 

I say this all in hindsight. I entered law school after the 2008 financial crisis and hoped that things would go back to the way they were. Like many students, I liked how timeless law seemed. I naively thought law was a sure and steady path to success. 

After seeing so many capable classmates graduate and struggle to find employment, my perspective has changed. Hardworking people who will make great lawyers can’t find work, because the old ways are no longer affordable. I see now that the only way to success is to stray from that well-worn path, to explore other avenues, and to embrace change. 

I wish all the students accepting offers at law school this year the best of success. Please comment or reach out through my contact form if you have questions or want to talk about law school.

Design Firms Do Conferences Differently: FITC Toronto 2015

This past Sunday, April 12 through Tuesday, April 14, Toronto hosted the 14th annual Future Innovation Technology Creativity (FITC) conference. Now in its 14th year, FITC caters to a more design-heavy technology group, featuring equal parts technical workshops, wild parties and inspirational talks. I was able to attend the event as an “official blogger,” or volunteer media personnel. I really enjoyed the introduction to the world of design and digital art–the people who make tech beautiful and easy to use.

Why was I there? I wanted to learn more about creative firms and the challenges they face, because I’d like to have creative agencies as clients one day. If I learned one thing, it’s that a traditional legal marketing approach (focusing on expertise, stuffy speeches and pinstripe suits) is completely foreign to people in the design community. The experiences they share are more raw and honest.

When I arrived at FITC, I noticed right away how different it was from an ordinary conference. The design-conscious organizers made the Hilton’s basement conference zone look like a rock concert. Party lighting brought some energy to the otherwise neutral hotel concourse. The dress code was casual but stylish. Mohawks were not uncommon. Attendees included coders, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and they were all friendly.

FITC’s 14 years of success showed. The event ran like clockwork, with large teams of volunteers registering, ushering, collecting feedback, and directing the day. In particular it was nice to see breakout rooms for sketching, dancing and creative pursuits. FITC isn’t all about sitting down and listening–it was more like a supportive community coming together to share lessons, jobs, tools, and good times.

As part of my role, I got to cover a few specific talks:

  • Gavin Strange, Bristol UK-based animator for Wallace & Grommet’s creator Aardman, talked about pushing boundaries with “one-nighter” projects and new media.
  • Shawn Pucknell, FITC’s CEO spoke candidly about bankruptcy, failure, and how to survive.
  • Kim Alpert, a creative strategist and artist, talked about breaking through limits and refusing to be defined by anyone’s expectations.
  • Finally, I learned about Flickr’s ongoing growth and transformation following its acquisition by Yahoo. It was a great story about shifting competitive landscapes and leadership.

For anyone interested in design, technology or startups, I highly recommend connecting with the FITC community. Ideally I’d like to attend next year as a volunteer again or a speaker. If I do, one thing is for sure: a standard legal precedent walk-through won’t cut it.

Finally, big thanks to the FITC organizers for inviting me as an official blogger this year, it was a great experience.

I Failed in Law School and You Can Too

Originally published on Canadian Lawyer 4Students online

Nobody is perfect. If you came to law school believing that you were, chances are that the first year gave you doubts. Every year law school classrooms get filled with brilliant, hardworking and competitive young professionals. Being just one in the heap can be a difficult adjustment, especially for those who came from places where they were considered exceptional. It certainly was for me. I failed at more things in law school than any place I had before. Those failures helped me learn that missing the target is alright. I failed in law school and you can too.

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For most of us, failure is felt quickly and often in law school. Anyone familiar with the grading system knows that actual “F’s” are uncommon, but ask any law student and the feeling is rampant. We often mentally assign ourselves “F’s” for failing to meet our own expectations. Whether it’s about grades, body image, career, extra-curriculars, or relationships, law students tend to have high expectations live up to.

Law students’ monumental expectations start much earlier than 1L. They likely coincide with being asked to beat out thousands of applicants to be allowed to attend. Maybe our first acceptance package goes to our heads—we expect to be able to keep up the “top ten to twenty percent” pace indefinitely. The tragedy is that once we join the top ten to twenty percent, our success is redefined as the top ten percent of that group. Comparing ourselves to others is a losing game; it can only end in disappointment.

Before I graduated, I fell into the “other law students” comparison trap many times. Early on I spent most of my energy trying to be like the “others” out there. If you spoke to me about who I was measuring myself against, I would describe the group of law students who had it all: great relationships, lots of friends, supreme fitness, straight A’s, buckets of energy, and made law review. Whenever I dropped the ball in one (or all) of those areas, which I did frequently, I felt like I was way behind.

The problem was that that group does not really exist. If I had actually stopped and broken it down, it was actually an amalgamation of all the people in my class. I had magically combined many uniquely talented individuals into one person. In reality, nobody has it all figured out.

Job number one for law students should be to drop unfair comparisons. They are a distraction. Eventually I learned to measure myself against my own standard. For example, I had to learn the hard way that a heavy class schedule and multiple volunteer commitments did not leave enough time for a solid relationship. I started noticing how much I needed to sleep, study, relax, and see my family to feel successful. I also started noticing that I learned better outside class and away from the library. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that relationships take steady work to stay strong.

I only started improving in law school after I started focusing on my own priorities. Avoiding social comparison during law school helped me focus on what really mattered for my success. Refusing to compare myself to others still takes constant work. These days I still set goals and push myself, but my goals are grounded in reality.

Learning to measure ourselves by our own standard is the first step to overcoming a feeling that we are failures. Experiencing actual failure still feels terrible. It sounds cliché, failing a few times in law school helped me create some of my best successes.

My first law school failure was an actual “F” on a midterm. I attended class. I studied for the test. I read everything. Other people passed. I had no excuses. Even if it was not life-changing, it was a big deal. The first big deal in a legal career with many bigger deals ahead.

The real tragedy was what I did next: I avoided getting feedback. Instead, I ignored it and focused on the classes I thought I had a chance to improve in. At the time, that helped me avoid feeling like a failure. Later that year I came up against the same professor’s exam. I struggled and felt awful. Facing my failure earlier may have made that second test much easier. More importantly it would have helped me grow into a better law student.

Getting used to the idea that we can fail is important. In law school tests are temporary. In law practice the consequences can last a lifetime. Turning away from failure means we risk making the same mistakes later on. Failure intolerance makes us hesitate when we face challenging goals—the possibility that we could make a mistake is paralyzing. Procrastination is comforting because it prevents us from ever trying our very best, so we avoid true failure. Instead, if we make failure acceptable, we become free to do our very best and learn from mistakes as they happen.

It took me a long time, but I eventually built up the courage to acknowledge my failures head-on. That became critical during my legal job search. I was rejected from more than a hundred jobs and positions in law school before I secured a job at a great firm. The rejections were often impersonal. However, I also had rejections that felt devastatingly personal—after spending months networking and getting to know the recruiters and interviewers. My worst week started with multiple rounds of interviews, handshakes and dinners at several first-class law firms, and ended with the emptiness of zero job offers.

The last thing I wanted to hear was how I personally lost such great opportunities. The failure was deeply painful. I actually tried my very best and did not measure up. On the advice of a career coach, I eventually got the courage to follow up with a well-known recruiter I respected very much. I asked how I could improve. She candidly shared several key weaknesses that had proven fatal. It was difficult to listen to, but it helped me mature immeasurably. It is easy to walk away from failure with the belief that we bore no responsibility for the outcome. Instead I walked away with the very uncomfortable feeling that it was mostly my fault.

The upside was that owning my failure helped identify what I could control. Motivation to do better next time was still possible. The universe was not against me, nor was it 100% my fault. There were just some things I needed to improve before I could get where I wanted to be.

After picking myself up and getting back on the job hunt, I eventually landed a job at an excellent firm. A few rejections helped me improve enough to make a match. Learning to seek out and incorporate feedback helped me make my last semester in law school my best ever. I wanted to write this because I thought I spent most of law school trying to succeed. In reality, I spent all of law school learning how to fail. And you can too.