Congratulations! You passed the bar exam. You passed Character and Fitness and were sworn in. What comes next?
Transitioning From Law School
Law school is a uniquely stressful experience. People who are good students, accustomed to excelling in their studies, find themselves in competition with other good students for scarce resources. The competitive nature of law school, the emphasis on learning codes, rules, cases, statutes, regulations and precedent take students away from themselves. Years of sitting in class with your entire section competing for scarce As, internships, and summer positions takes a toll on the emotional well-being of would-be lawyers.
The experience of law school increases anxiety and depression for many law students. Newly licensed lawyers face the early years of their career having experienced the stresses of law school, which may have exacerbated some unhealthy coping mechanisms. New lawyers may have spent the past three or four years powering through course after course, paying precious little attention to their emotional and physical well-being, hoping to land gainful employment with health insurance and an expense account.
First Five Years in the Field
Your law degree is hanging on the wall. Your bar card is in your wallet. The total you owe on your student debt is astronomical. You are looking for your first job and dreaming of your ideal legal career. What type of law interests you? Where did you hope to work when you started law school? What would be your ideal job now? Are the legal employers you are interested in working for interested in you?
Perhaps you landed the legal job of your dreams. You are pleased with telling others about your position, proud of your legal employer, and your student loan debt is going down quickly. You are working 60 to 80 hours a week. When you are not working, you are exhausted and feeling overwhelmed. You feel pressure from your employer to socialize with other employees when not working, and alcohol flows freely at these events.
You might be working in a small to medium-sized firm. You enjoy the cases you are working on and feel like you are putting your legal education to good use. You are glad to have mentors in your firm who show an interest in your professional development. They take time to teach you how to practice law and you can go to them with questions or concerns. One day, a managing partner stops by to share with you that you are not submitting enough billable hours. You feel pressured to bill more hours and bring in more lucrative cases.
Perhaps you have not yet found work with your new law license. You know your interests and you have applied to many positions, but employers have not been interested in interviewing you. This situation can lead to strong feelings of hopelessness. All is not lost. Many successful attorneys have been on this path before you.
What measures can you take to cope with the stresses of practicing law as a newly licensed lawyer? Will the habits you relied upon in law school serve you well in your first five years of practice? What do other new lawyers who appear to be emotionally healthy do to cope with their stress? How do they tend to their self-care, physically, financially, intellectually, and emotionally?
The competitive social environment of law school can lead law students and the lawyers they become to compare themselves to others and find themselves inferior. The law student or new lawyer feels compelled to hide this feeling from others, and put on a performance of appearing competent and self-confident. This accommodation can lead to the “imposter syndrome.” It can also lead to a fear of seeking professional help if the law student or lawyer is beginning to experience emotional or mental difficulties. It can even lead to the law student or new lawyer putting on a face of competence and confidence to their family members and close friends, the people to whom they would have turned for help.
Once a person has decided that they should not show weakness or need help. then all the other types of problems that happen for people become more dangerous. The simple truth is that everyone needs help from other people sometimes. It might be as simple as sitting down with a close friend who loves you no matter what career, bank account, or relationship you have. It might be as complicated as taking two weeks off of work to enter a treatment facility and seek the counsel of a multidisciplinary team to address some diagnoses that are causing you to not be able to work.
Recipe for Resilience
New lawyers need to manage their:
To do this, we must learn to set priorities, to say no, and to constantly assess whether our work circumstances are supporting our well-being. If we are working in a manner that leaves no time for friends and family, no money for health insurance, no stamina to deal with our emotions, and no ability to be honest with our primary care physician about our worries, concerns, and possible unhealthy habits then we are headed towards trouble.
In your first five years of practice, be a trailblazer. Make certain you have health insurance, whether from an employer or by purchasing your own policy. Choose and maintain a relationship with a primary care physician. Make time for exercise, good nutrition, friendships, your family members and coworkers. Find a mentor, someone who has been practicing law for decades, who will guide you in establishing your practice and your life as a lawyer. If the legal job of your dreams has not shown up yet, take whatever job you can secure. Many successful lawyers have worked in another field after being admitted to the bar. In time, they combine their first career or job into a legal job, and have interesting perspectives and life experiences that lead to success.
Our identity as lawyers is something very precious to each and every one of us. Yet it is no substitute for our identity as a human being in social connection to others.
About the Author
Tish Vincent is the director of the Lawyers & Judges Assistance Program of the State Bar of Michigan, and is a commissioner of the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs. Connect with her on Twitter @MIStateBar_LJAP.