The most profound choice in life is to either accept things as they exist or to accept the responsibility for changing them.
The Universal Traveler, page 41
You have just made a series of profound choices. There was something in your life that you didn’t accept as it existed, so you accepted the personal responsibility to change that situation, and ended up in (or at least considering) law school. Similarly, something in your life led you to pick up this book.
It may seem silly to even think about this, but it’s not. Many times we unconsciously and mistakenly “choose” to accept something the way it is when we really would rather have accepted the responsibility to change it. Those unconscious “acceptances” happen when we buy into assumptions.
Law school is full of underlying assumptions. Many of those underlying assumptions are promoted in the books I mentioned earlier. Your peers and professors will subtly reinforce many of these assumptions. Some are so subtle that you won’t even realize you have accepted the premise until much later. For example, many law students think the only way they will be successful and happy after law school is if they land a six-figure job at a big-name firm right after graduation. To do that, you have to be in the top 10% of your graduating class (don’t take my word for it, this requirement is right there on the interview sign-up sheets posted in the Career Services office) or at least be on the law review, moot-court board, or trial advocacy teams. To be sure, finishing in the top 10% of your class is a nice goal–and go for it if you can–but for the other 90% of you (us), defining success this way is going to lead to disappointment.
You don’t have to accept the underlying premise that the only way to be happy after law school is to work in a big firm. I’m here to tell you that happy lawyers are often the exception rather than the rule in large-firm practice. Did you know that many large firms expect new associates to bill 2,000 hours per year? Do you know the costs of billing that many hours? It could cost you your health, your relationships, and your emotional stability. It’s no wonder lawyers suffer from more mental health and substance abuse issues than the rest of society.
Of course, there are lots of lawyers who are happy at big firms and lots of young lawyers learn a great deal in those settings. My point is, the choice of career path is up to you. I never intended to work for a firm of any size. I planned to be a solo- or small-practice lawyer from the day I decided to accept my admission. That made it easier for me to reject the premise that the goal of law school is to land a job at a big firm, which, in turn, made it easier for me to set realistic goals about my grades.
You don’t have to accept the premise that being in the top 10% of the class is the only way to be happy and helpful after law school. Don’t get trapped into unconsciously accepting that notion. First and foremost, you decide what will make you happy after law school. Go ahead. Think about it. Write it down.
Do you feel better and in more control already? You are in control. Nobody else is going to accept the responsibility for your life.
That said, there are still lots of things you cannot control about law school – the first-year curriculum, grading on a curve, your professors, your classmates, the fact that one big final exam will determine your grade. No matter how much you complain, you will most likely have to just accept these aspects of your legal education. Nevertheless, you do have control over how you deal with these things. You can change your social and/or study groups, your level of involvement outside class, your second- and third-year schedules, and, most importantly, your outlook about life and law school.
The first step toward a balanced and healthy law school experience is to figure out what you want to get out of it. Once you have a clear picture of your personal goals for law school, it becomes easier to sift through the things you must accept and the things you accept responsibility to change.
I was raised in a strict, traditional Christian family where questioning any form of authority was discouraged, so it took me a while to start questioning the important areas of my life. For the past several years, I’ve been intensively studying both the Western and Eastern spiritual practices, because we all base our unconscious assumptions on these religious and cultural traditions. As I spent time peeling back layers of this savory onion of thought, it became apparent that Western traditions tend to teach a philosophy of “make it happen,” while the Eastern traditions tend to teach “let it happen.”
Movies including “What the Bleep Do We Know,” “The Secret,” and even “The Matrix,” “Star Wars,” and many others explore the concept that ideas are all of life. It’s what we do, or don’t do, with those ideas that matters. The Western idea of the law of attraction asks us to visualize what we want and let the universe manifest that vision as we act in our lives. This is a “make it happen” idea. The Eastern traditions say to step out of our visualization, empty our mind, and receive or “let it happen.”
While studying, journaling, and meditating (thinking & praying) on these topics, the words “surrender” and “receive” kept coming up. I have a hard time surrendering – I’m a “never give up” kind of guy. I grew up on a hog farm outside Gravity, Iowa. Yes, “Gravity.” (I achieved escape velocity.) Like many small boys in Iowa, I enjoyed wrestling and started pee-wee wrestling practice in second grade. One of the things my coach said has stuck with me: “Never surrender, never give up, you don’t even sleep on your back.” I still have a hard time sleeping on my back, and I still have a difficult time with the concept of surrender. So I went to the dictionary, which is something you’ll get used to in law school.
“Surrender” has a lot of meanings, not just “give up” or “capitulate.” It also means some very empowering things like give away, release, and let go. The breakthrough for me was understanding that I can surrender my anxiety without giving up my goals. You can too, even in law school. You’ve already begun to clarify your goals, which can greatly reduce your anxiety when it comes time to pick classes or sign up for interviews. But there’s more you can do to cope with the day-to-day pressures that wear on your ideals and your outlook. It’s possible to surrender or “release” that negative pressure.
The best way to work with surrender is to tie surrender with its polar concept: “receive.” We all like to receive. But sometimes we have a hard time receiving. I feel guilty when I receive. Letting someone else buy lunch or a round of drinks was uncomfortable to me. I had to move through that guilt and learn that surrendering and receiving are part of a cycle.
I work with a professional coach. In one coaching session, I was talking about how there wasn’t really a lot of stuff coming back to me. I wasn’t receiving a lot. I said, “I thought if you give a lot, you receive a lot.” My coach said, “It’s not necessarily that way.” I always give, give, give. It’s a very “masculine” orientation to have energy flowing out of me. So, my coach said, “You know what? You’ve got the conduit full of energy going out; you need to make some space for good stuff to come back.”
So I started saying, “Okay. What are the things I want to come back? What are the things I want to bring into my life?” And I made a list. That list is below on the “receive” side of the chart. I like to receive creativity. I like to receive respect. I like freedom. Wealth would be nice. Love. Wisdom. Harmony. Health. All those are on my list. Then I said, “Okay, what needs to empty out of this space so that something can come in. What is the duality of each of those things?”
Take a few minutes to make your own list. Seriously, start right now thinking of the things that you would like to receive and write them down. You’ve got big goals. That’s why you are in law school. You’ve also identified some things youcan and cannot change about the law school experience. Now focus on those things you CAN change. What do you want? What quality or experience do you want to receive in each of those areas? What do you need to surrender in order to receive what you want?
Here are some of the areas I recognized in my life:
Respect – Judgment
Freedom – Attachment
Wealth – Greed
Wisdom – Pride
Harmony – Envy
Creativity – Convention
I’ll explain the story behind a few of these couplets and explore how they may be relevant to your law school experience and legal career.
Respect & Judgment
To gain respect, I have to surrender judgment. By “surrender judgment” I do not mean stop using good judgment, but rather stop judging people or circumstances. I represent artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, and a lot of people that could be considered the “New Age spiritual fringe.” I have a wonderful client who makes a living channeling an archangel. Not every client can sit down with a lawyer and say they channel an archangel and feel comfortable. Did you roll your eyes? I can honestly say that I didn’t. I think I said something like “Cool!” Rolling your eyes is a judgment response. For me to be respected by this client, I couldn’t be sitting in judgment of her.
I have another client who wrote a great book about how her journey in life is part of a group reincarnation tied up with a very well known rock band. It really is a GREAT book, but again, not many lawyers today can suspend judgment and respect this client’s work.
The guy down the hall from my office handles bankruptcies, and I’m betting that before clients can build a respect for him, they have to know he’s not judging them or their situation. I’ll bet it’s the same with good divorce lawyers. I haven’t practiced in every area of law, but I’m positive that practicing lawyers will regain a lot of the respect that has been lost in the profession if we suspend our judgment of other folks (leave that to the people with the title “Judge”) and focus on earning their respect.
When you surrender judgment, you automatically open up to the possibility that the other person is worthy of respect. In turn, that makes it easier for the other person to open up to the possibility that you are worthy of respect. This is how the couplet works: to receive respect, you have to surrender judgment.
Freedom & Attachment
I love freedom. It’s part of the reason I’m self-employed. To receive the joy I find in the freedom of self-employment, I had to surrender attachment to a regular paycheck. Not everyone can do that, and I’m not preaching that you should, I just really enjoy freedom.
Sometimes we’re not even conscious of our attachments and I’m no exception. When I finished my undergraduate degree and got a job, the first thing on the list of to-do’s was to save up and buy a house. I did and started a series of unconscious attachments to the “security” of having a house, mortgage, lawnmower, garage, landscaping projects, etc. I didn’t even think about it. I finally woke up. I remember the moment vividly. My personal awakening on this subject happened on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in October.
My house had five, thirty-year-old cottonwood trees on a one-third-acre lot. These are huge, wonderful trees, with great shade, but they dropped way too many leaves. I hate raking leaves. I really hated spending five or six of the most beautiful Saturdays each fall raking leaves and the next day being sore from raking leaves. Compound that by the fact that I live in one of the most beautiful natural areas in the world and have a wonderful wife and three great kids. Compound it even more by the fact I’m a college football fan and live in a college town. The leaves were stealing my life. My wife was sick of maintenance too, so we decided to sell the house, move outside of town and rent a house. Yes, we took a hit financially, but our quality of life – measured by “freedom” – went shooting off the scale. My Saturdays in the fall no longer involve raking leaves. I had to give up my unconscious attachment to owning a house and understand that this “surrender” was simply the thing to do before I could “receive” the freedom to live the life I want to live. I’m not saying you shouldn’t own a house. I’m just saying you should make conscious choices about the attachments you hold.
Law students are used to being highly successful in almost every area of their lives. We received top grades as kids and in our undergraduate programs. We were leaders on campus or in our careers prior to law school. Entering law school is a bit like going to the pros after playing minor league ball, because now you’re working with and against the best of the best. Sometimes you’ll be on top and those will be great days. Sometimes you’ll be lower on the chart and that will take some adjustment. Accept, right now, that you will not always be at the top of the list, maybe for the first time in your life, and there’s no shame in that.
I knew I wanted one of my areas of practice to be copyright law. I really enjoyed copyright class, and I focused extra energy on the course and on studying for the exam. That course was one where I set my goal to be in the top 5% of the class. I didn’t make it. I was a bit upset, so I went to the professor after the exam and asked what I could have done better. She simply (and wisely) allowed me to read the top exam. I was humbled. Our exams were handwritten in blue-books and this student had written at least three times as much as I had during the exam, completing full analysis on even the sub-points that I just couldn’t physically write in the three-hour exam period. That’s when I realized that there really are mutants that live among us and there was a speed-writing mutant in my copyright class. I thanked my professor for the grade I had received and walked out of her office knowing that I had done very well by comparison, that I knew my stuff just as well, but had been out-paced in an area that mattered in the grading, but wouldn’t matter in practice.
You will meet mutants too; recognizing them is more difficult. When you accept that you don’t have to be the best every time, it will give you a great sense of freedom and balance. It will make it easier for you to get out of the law school building and enjoy your life.You’ll have a chance to build wonderful friendships that last well beyond your days on campus. Surrender your attachment to be on top all the time and you will receive the freedom to be happy with yourself during your law school experience.
Wisdom & Pride
This is a classic couplet for students of law and students of life. It doesn’t take a lot of prose to say that if you’re so proud that you think you know everything, you’ll never receive any wisdom.
To receive wisdom you have to surrender your pride and admit that there are things you don’t know. Simple.
There’s a great little esoteric book published in 1908 called The Kybalion. Two of my favorite sayings in the book are, “Where fall the footsteps of the Master, the ears of those ready for his Teaching open wide.” And, “When the ears of the student are ready to hear, then cometh the lips to fill them with wisdom.” In other words, you have to be open (surrender) in order to learn (receive).
Law school has plenty of areas that need improvement, but one of the things every law school does well is offer students a chance to gain wisdom. Obviously, you can gain wisdom from your professors. Usually it’s easy to give up your pride relative to unfamiliar subject matter or charismatic professors in order to let their wisdom into your life. It’s more difficult to give up your pride and let the wisdom of your classmates into your life. Look around you. These are smart men and women. Some have more life experience than you, some have less. Each of them has some wisdom for you if you simply surrender your pride and receive the gifts they can offer–whether they know they are teaching you or not.
* * *
The pairs of concepts, items, and emotions that we can receive and surrender are endless. What are your couplets? One of my friends said that, for her, “love” didn’t go with “guilt.” It went with “shame.” Each of the couplets should be meaningful to you.
Take a few minutes and write out some of your couplets, don’t worry about perfection, just start making the list. Think about those things you accept the responsibility to change. What do you want? What do you need to let go of in order to get what you want? Have fun and by the time you’re done, the page will look like some kind of weird matching test from grade school. (Wouldn’t it be great if they gave matching tests in law school!)
The word “accept” embodies the spirit of both “receive” (getting something) and “surrender” (letting things be). There are lots of things about law school you must simply accept because you cannot change them. But there are also many things you can change because you control your outlook, your goals, and your choices. To maintain balance in law school, you must first identify what you are willing to accept and what you are willing to accept the responsibility for changing. Then, identify what you must surrender in order to receive the change you want.
Consciously Accept. (Or Not)
It’s the first guiding value.