When I was little, my mom told me I was smart. She told me I was going to be the first female in the family to go to a university. And I was. As my college years passed, I began to feel lost. I’d always had a plan. A plan to go to college. But what was the plan for after college? No one ever told me what I was supposed to do next. If I was so smart, how could I possibly settle for “just” a Bachelor’s degree? If I was so smart, how could I possibly settle for “just” an ordinary job?
While I didn’t know what I wanted, I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want a “basic” job. I didn’t want to go to med school (blood – yuck!). I didn’t want to go to grad school as I felt like it would leave me just as directionless as I already was. So that left law school! It was perfect! A choice that led to a career path. Done! My whole life planned out. And it was my idea, right?
Well, after many years as a lawyer and many years of self-reflection, I’ve come to realize that law school was NOT my idea. It was something I may have thought of, but once I mentioned the idea, my parents would not let go of it. As a result, I felt like I could not let go of it either.
I told them I was taking a gap year. “OK, but you don’t want to lose your momentum…” (pressure, pressure, pressure). Ultimately, I took two years off. But I think my parents were secretly relieved when I went after that. Unfortunately, none of us had any idea what I was in for. Most law students graduate with mountains of debt and are stuck working in a field not of their choosing because of that debt. Most lawyers end up with anxiety and a high percentage have depression and/or addiction issues. How do we lawyers end up this way? Pressure.
For the students whose entire family is full of lawyers, those families hear their college student say, “maybe law school” and they immediately say:
It’s kinda hard to back down from that. You would essentially be saying, “No, I don’t want to be one of you.”
For the students who are one of the first in their family to seek higher education, law school is not just icing on the cake, it’s like the entire candy store on top. Parents are so proud. And again, once the words are said, you can’t take them back. To the proud parent, it’s a done deal!
Then there is the self-created pressure. You’ve always been the overachiever. The one who never gives up. Are you really going to stop at a Bachelor’s degree? It’s so ordinary, isn’t it? You want to be extraordinary! But you don’t know how. It’s hard to imagine becoming extraordinary by accepting an ordinary job out of college.
That’s the problem. Most of us never allow ourselves to try. You don’t need more education to become extraordinary. You need experience. An extraordinary person can turn an ordinary job into an extraordinary one. Or they can rise through the ranks and reach the extraordinary position.
Most students don’t even realize they have placed this pressure upon themselves. Or, they think of it as a positive push to greatness. But often, the result is counter to what they actually want out of life. Of course, at age 20, most people don’t actually know what they want out of life. And once those law loans are in place, there’s no money left to explore what you want out of life. You have too many bills to pay.
So what’s the answer? How do you escape this pressure cycle? It’s simple. Take some time to figure out who you are! Take time off before going to law school. Even if you are determined to go to law school — a little rest, a little work experience, can enhance your resume. If you take time off from school, you can save up some of your tuition and reduce the cost of attendance. You can rest your brain for a bit so you can handle all that studying that will come your way. And if that time off takes you on a new path, that’s OK! Law school will always be there.
I know what you are thinking; you already told people you were going, right? Well, pull up a few of those scary statistics from the American Bar Association on depression, anxiety, and addiction. Share those numbers. Tell people you are going to explore a career path that doesn’t have those numbers while you figure out how to not become one of those statistics. If you express concern for your mental health, backed by real numbers, some of that pressure is going to go away. And once again, you are looking pretty smart!
From my observations, the happiest lawyers are those who have less debt (and therefore more flexibility on whether they remain a lawyer and what area of law they practice) and attend law school after a break. I encourage you to be cautious before jumping into such an expensive path. It’s perfectly OK to say I had this thought, but after further research, I determined it was not the best path right now. You have years to attend law school; there’s no rush. But once you attend, that debt will keep you on that path, whether you still want it or not. So slow down! This is your life! Make it a happy one.
Jolene Blackbourn, Esq. is an attorney who left her senior-level position at a Fortune almost-100 company (106 to be exact) to become a full-time life counselor to pre-law students. She has been advising law students since she was one herself. She gives speeches to pre-law organizations whenever possible. If interested in having Jolene speak at your school or to take advantage of her free resources, feel free to visit her website: www.JoleneBlackbourn.com/prelaw