It is time for Summer Series 2019. Truly my favorite time of the year! We are so lucky to kick it off with Gaby, a rising 2L at Yale, who shares her summer plans with us. But more than her summer plans (a summer in New Haven!) she shares the struggles that happen to many of us during 1L year and the courage it takes to pick your own path when law school pushes us to pick proximity to power over better options.
When I was preparing to start my 1L year at Yale, I was incredibly confident. I was sure that I would not be the one to end 1L year happy to have merely survived.
My confidence wasn’t totally misplaced. My paralegal coursework prepared me for my first semester classes and my work experience helped me establish strong faculty relationships from the start. But, I forgot about a very important factor of the law school experience: life.
I started my semester with strep throat and, due to a lot of traveling, fell into a cycle of colds and flus that I just couldn’t quite get over. This, along with health scares within my family, took a toll on my mental health, and I ended up feeling like I limped to the finish line.
Spring semester was better—I finally started therapy consistently, which helped me deal with another barrage of unexpected hurdles life threw at me. By the time finals rolled around, though, I still wasn’t at 100%. I had only just begun the work to take care of my health, and the thought of spending my summer away from all of my support systems (my therapist, my partner, my cats) kicked my anxiety into high gear.
Throughout the semester, I was listening to my classmates and friends excitedly discuss their summer plans at law firms, at public defenders’ offices, at state and city attorney’s offices, at prestigious civil rights organizations. Anytime I was asked where I would be this summer, I just froze.
Eventually, I spoke with my therapist. Everything else in my life was already weighing on me so much—how could I think about a summer job in New York (which I hate but would be close to my support system), in D.C. (which I love, but would be far from my support system), or even abroad? My doctor then asked me quite simply: “Do you have the opportunity to stay in New Haven this summer?”
I had no response. How had I not even considered this very simple solution? I was part of an immigrant’s rights clinic during the semester, and my supervisor had mentioned the possibility of continuing my work over the summer. So why had I not jumped on that offer?
Of course, I knew the answer—this wouldn’t be considered a “prestigious” summer job compared to what most of my classmates would be up to. It would be for a local legal services organization dealing with individual clients—no big impact litigation, no prestigious civil rights non-profit.
My therapist, my partner, and my family all had the same response: it’s a great opportunity, and it will allow you to continue the work you’ve started to take care of yourself. But, us law students are a little crazy when it comes to prestige and competition. We have to strive for the best, we have to seek out elite opportunities, we can’t afford to take a step back.
Except…we…can? And we should? As I was going through all of this, I realized that I would be getting the same, if not better, work experience as my classmates: representing clients in court, drafting briefs, researching legal issues. The only difference was that I could stay in the place that contained everything I needed to take care of my health. Far from being a step back, this was a huge step forward.
So, what’s the lesson? It’s easy to forget how important taking care of ourselves is in this field. But, we don’t have to sacrifice our career for our well-being. Once we set limits—I need x, y, z to be able to function as a healthy and happy human being, and that means not doing a, b, or c—it becomes easy to create a law school experience that supports rather than breaks down. Once we realize that the concept of a prestigious job is bullshit, and what matters is the experience you get and the connections you make with people doing the work you want to do, everything else is a piece of cake.
Bottom line: our health and happiness has to come first, always. That’s how we survive, but that’s also how we thrive.