Facing Uncertainty after Graduating from Law School

This post is authored by Jessica Chinnadurai. Jessica is a recently-licensed attorney who graduated from the University of Missouri School of Law in 2018. Her hope is to increase transparency around mental health issues in the legal profession, and to spread light to those fighting battles no one can see. If you are a recent graduate who’d like to connect with Jessica, you can find her on LinkedIn.

I’ve heard a common sentiment out there that the universe is forcing us to take a “time-out” during this pandemic. Since a “time-out” is something we usually associate with badly behaved children, it almost seems synonymous to being punished in some way. I remember feeling “punished” after graduating from law school and not being able to find a job until a full year later. I ended up shifting my perspective during that phase and that shift was made possible by resources shared via the Lawyers Assistance Program in my state. Uncertain times no longer carry a negative connation for me; I like to think of them as opportunities to slow down and reflect.

While there are many aspects of life right now that are undeniably frustrating and scary, especially as you face the bar exam, I think there is a beauty to be found in having ample time to reflect. This could mean reflecting on your purpose, your short- and long-term career goals, or your relationship with yourself and others. It could also mean simply looking at how far you’ve come and commending yourself for your achievements. Reflecting allows for alignment, by checking-in with yourself and taking note of your values and goals, of where you are versus where you want to be when it comes to living and achieving them.

Here are a few things I turned my focus to during the downtime after graduation, and even continuing after the bar exam.

Establish a growth mindset, rather than a fixed one.

With the pressures of studying for the bar and looking for a job, and now the added anxiety of a global pandemic, I know it can feel like your current situation will never end. But even “this too, shall pass.” All things in life are temporary—both the good and bad—and even though we are uncertain of when this all will end, we can be certain that it will. You will take the bar exam, get your passing results, and find a job—it may just happen on a different timeline than the one you intended, or the one that’s undoubtedly preferred.

A growth mindset applies to each of us, as individuals, in terms of believing in our ability to grow our knowledge, experience and skill sets. For example, a law student with a fixed mindset is “likely to view setbacks, such as lower-than-expected grades, as a sign that they are incapable.” “On the other hand, students in a growth mindset who understand that abilities can be developed, tend to look at the inevitable setbacks differently. They view law school as a place that can provide them with opportunities to grow and learn. They actively seek feedback and strategies to tweak their approaches so that they achieve greater improvement and outcomes the next time around.”[1]

If we transpose that information to post-law school and the “real world,” the lesson remains: it’s all about our mindsets. Although considerably less “inevitable,” setbacks like the pandemic or a difficult job search are also opportunities for growth and learning. Our ability to grow internally, in mind and spirit, doesn’t have to be affected by our external circumstances. And if you find that it is, consider asking for help.[2]

Learn how to play golf.

The third day of Lawyer Well-Being Week, at the beginning of May,[3] was also National Golf Day. As part of reflecting on my “intellectual well-being” that day, I fondly remembered how my training in golf involved reading a book by Tiger Woods. A well-known quote attributed to Tiger is “No matter how good you get, you can always get better, and that’s the exciting part.” His words echo the importance of having a growth mindset in our careers. . . and lucky for us, Tiger’s job just happens to be a popular sport in the legal profession.

My mom always bugged me to pick up golf after I first expressed an interest in law school. It wasn’t until the summer after graduation that I started learning how to play. I didn’t think I’d use it as a break from studying, but it ended up serving that very useful purpose. Many of us are always looking for ways to decrease stress. With our options limited in a socially-distanced world now, golf still presents us with an opportunity to get outdoors and stay well over six feet away from other people. Golf is also an awesome exercise in mindfulness. The placement of the ball, the position of your feet and distance from the tee, the movements in your swing back and forward—each step of the process must be intentional in order to achieve desirable results (i.e. your ball not going into the water!). There’s almost a science behind understanding the land around each hole, the way it curves and dips in a way that either helps your shot or makes it more difficult. I’m not even close to an expert now and there will always be room for improving my strategies. As recent graduates, golf can be a good way to approach something academically . . . but unlike law school and the bar exam, it can be really fun!

Be intentional with your career choices.

The intentionality you learn while golfing may help you with your job search, too. Some of you went to law school knowing exactly what type of law you wanted to practice after graduating. Others may have been open to whatever piqued your interest in various classes or through internships. Perhaps those educational experiences changed your mind during your law school career, as they did for me. I started law school with an interest in employment law and eventually gravitated toward intellectual property. After graduation, as I reevaluated exactly what field of law I wanted to practice in, I also worked on several contract opportunities. Gaining some experience, rather than none at all, was important to me. One job, with a technology company, was researching towing regulations in states and cities across the country. Towing law is akin to font law—you don’t really realize it exists until suddenly, you do. This research gave me first-hand knowledge of government regulations and FOIA requests, something I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to explore otherwise. Another job was in document review. E-discovery provides great practical experience for reading through written protocols from clients and carrying out those instructions under enforced timelines. It may not have been the most interesting or challenging work, but it was certainly helpful in obtaining the job I have today.

I’m sure you’ve heard a story from one or two attorneys about landing in their positions by chance and staying in a certain practice area because it was a job that paid the bills. While it may feel like you’re destined for the same path, don’t be too quick to accept just any position. Even in a difficult job market, you still have choices. You can choose to think about the long-term consequences of accepting a job. You can choose to make sure it’s work that carries a significance for you and something you will enjoy doing, for at least a couple of years. Enjoying what we do is directly related to feeling like we have a purpose, which is a key aspect of our spiritual well-being.[4] “Work has ‘significance’ when we judge it as being worthwhile and important within our own value system.”[5] If law school detracted your ability to reflect on your value system, as it did for me, the downtime now can be used to focus on this. In the end, you’ll be in a better position to find a job that truly reflects your values and goals. As an added bonus, you’ll probably find out more about yourself – and your worth – outside of your work and career.

[1] https://abaforlawstudents.com/2017/09/12/growth-mindset-law-school-success/

[2] https://www.americanbar.org/groups/lawyer_assistance/resources/lap_programs_by_state/

[3] https://lawyerwellbeing.net/lawyer-well-being-week/

[4] Day two of Lawyer Well-Being Week focused on spiritual well-being. If you missed any of the week’s events, resources are still available here: https://lawyerwellbeing.net/well-being-week-resources/

[5] https://lawyerwellbeing.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Brafford_Judge-Well-Being-Meaningful-Work.pdf

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