When You Feel Like You’re Always Failing
I joked on instragram the other day about not letting a trial team’s account follow me because when I was in law school they would never let me on a team. Obviously, it was a joke and I promise I’m not upset by it (anymore!) but it was a good reminder of one of the more draining and frustrating experiences in my law school career. Basically, when I was in school aside from moot court and journals there was an elite trial team and I wanted nothing more to join them. I tried out my 1L and 2L year–and while 1L was a disaster–by 2L year, I had grown a lot in my skills and still think that if we viewed potential in POC the same way we do in others, I would have made the team and done well. But, that isn’t what happened and it sucked. It was just another reminder of many of how maybe I didn’t belong in this profession. It made me question my talents, ability, and even career choices.
Has that happened to you in school? Where you try for something and always seem to miss the mark? Maybe it’s grades or not being accepted into a clinic or fellowship program–all of that can feel like a punch in the gut. And to be clear, everyone usually has an experience like this, but for those of us that often feel othered and like we don’t belong, not making the mark underscores what it feels like everyone is implying–that law school was a wrong choice.
And before I get ways to move past this, I do want to highlight that implicit bias doesn’t just happen when you’re applying for jobs. When faculty (often adjunct) and other students are the ones deciding if other students have the potential to succeed in whatever you’re applying for, those biased views of who has potential, who has “natural talent,” and who can be trained all bubble up and surprise, surprise the ones that seem to have it all tend to look a certain way. oop. It isn’t your job to correct these wrongs, but if you’re school is talking a big game about teaching implicit bias correction, etc. you should definitely flag the way these in-school opportunities are doled out.
Anyways, in the here and now, you didn’t make the team or somehow are missing out on something you really wanted. What can you do so you can move one?
One. Find other ways to gain these skills. For me, I knew I wouldn’t get to increase my trial ad skills via a team, so I sought other opportunities. I took as many litigation based courses as I could to help strengthen those skills. Are there other journals you could attempt to write on? Is a professor working on research you could help with? Can you look for an internship in the same field even if it’s without the fancy fellowship title? What all of this may require is a little bit of swallowing your pride, but that’s ok. The goal is to feel secure in your abilities and that may mean gaining those skills in ways that you weren’t considering.
Two. Don’t take it as a value judgement. When it comes to success as an attorney the “winners” are those that put in the work and put in the hustle. “Natural” talent only helps so much, so regardless you were always going to have to work hard. What does it matter that you have to do it now? Often though we take these Nos and denials as a declaration of how bad we will be as an attorney. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Everything you’re doing in law school (other than the relationships you build) won’t matter much after two or three years of good, solid practice. So don’t mope (too much) about a missed opportunity or add more meaning to it than it deserves.
Three. Try, try again? It can hurt your pride to go into try-outs again as an upperclassman and if it’s only pride that’s stopping you then that’s not a good enough reason to not do it. However, sometimes you know the reality and whether it’s truly worth your time. I opted to not try out for moot court a second time, but couldn’t let the dream of the trial team go. So I went, fully prepared this time. I wore the right outfit, knew exactly how to do a cross and closing based on the semester long courses I had taken, knew where to stand, how to pause on my questions…but still, nothing. I will never forget getting an email from the director afterwards saying that he had been so impressed by my growth, but hoped I understood/no hard feelings that I didn’t make it to the next round… ouch! No, I didn’t understand even though going in I know my chances were slim. Why did I put myself through it? It just added more negative feelings to an already stressed out load. So, at some point you have to offer yourself a small mercy and stop chasing spaces that don’t want you. It takes discernment and honesty about the interactions you’ve experienced. I don’t want to provide false hope that if you try really hard, you’ll make it the second time around because that may not always be the case. Do what’s best for you–and give it your all, but also be aware if there are better ways to spend your time (see point one).
Ultimately, it sucks to miss out on something you really want and view as important. But law school has a way of humbling you in a way you may not have expected and a big portion of your work is the bounce back and figuring out ways to advance despite of setbacks. The sting will lessen over time and eventually you will find your way to the right opportunities and experiences.
Nubia, this spoke to my soul and this specific season of my life like you can’t understand. Thank you for sharing, for the encouragement and for the vulnerability.