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All the feelings you have as a new lawyer

02 June 2017 - By Katie Cowan

“Examine the lives of the best and most fruitful people and peoples and ask yourselves whether a tree that is supposed to grow to a proud height can dispense with bad weather and storms; whether misfortune and external resistance, some kinds of hatred, jealousy, stubbornness, mistrust, hardness, avarice, and violence do not belong among the favourable conditions without which any great growth even of virtue is scarcely possible.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Gay Science.

This column is a permission slip for feelings. Look out everyone, I’ve just quoted Nietzsche.

The transition to lawyerdom is fun in many ways, assuming you want to be there. New things are usually fun, because our brains like novelty and they like growth. Also, when you become a lawyer you join the ranks of an elite group whose mere designation denotes success and intellect. Handing out your new business card to attractive people you meet in bars in those first few months? There is nothing quite like it.

But the transition to lawyerdom is also hard, even if it is where you want to be, not just because you have to learn a whole lot of practical skills you never learned in academia. And not just because you are adjusting to working full days after the autonomy of law school. But also because you are forced to adjust to an identity shift you almost certainly didn’t think about before it happened: you are now a beginner.

At the end of law school, you are an expert: you know everything. If you are unlucky enough to have done Honours, you know even more than everything that the other law students know. You may even know everything about a subject nobody really wanted to know about.

What you are not, however, as a new lawyer, is a very good lawyer, even though you were a very good student. And the contrast can be stark and painful.

Most people I talk to got into law because they were good at English, and then persisted with law because they were good at that. If you are used to being good at things, being a beginner feels awful. It can feel unsafe, even. It brings up a lot of feelings, mostly ones you would prefer not to have.

Rare is the new lawyer who is ungracious about this. Intellectually I think we all knew going in that we were beginners again and we strap in accordingly. But it is a difficult shift, and can leave you feeling unsettled and out of sorts for months, even years, until you find your footing again. Heaven forbid this is your second career; the problem intensifies tenfold. And all of this on top of the practical difficulties of learning new things, of doing so within a demanding, perfectionist professional culture.

My point is not that it should not be hard. The experiences that grow you and make you better are usually hard as they are happening. My point is that if you do find it hard, if you are struggling a little, it is okay. That the transition is hard is not evidence that something is wrong or that you are failing in some way. It is just evidence that you have signed on for a hard thing, and the thing is now hard. You are allowed to feel that difficulty without judging the feeling itself.

Alain de Botton, interpreting Nietzsche and speaking obliquely about the experience of being a new lawyer, said, “... no one is able to produce a great work of art without experience, nor achieve a worldly position immediately, nor be a great lover at the first attempt; and in the interval between initial failure and subsequent success, in the gap between who we wish one day to be and who we are at present, must come pain, anxiety, envy and humiliation. We suffer because we cannot spontaneously master the ingredients of fulfillment.”

It is many things to be a new lawyer. It is exhilarating, it is fun, it is rewarding in any number of ways. But it can also be stressful, terrifying and humbling, in ways that can be hard to deal with, especially if there is an identity shift mixed in as well. But rest assured, that is okay. All the feelings are allowed. All the lawyers have felt them to varying degrees.

So please, take this permission slip: you can get on with getting better without worrying too much about the feelings that process provokes. Nietzsche, Alain and I say so.


Katie Cowan katie@symphonylaw.co.nz is the founder of Christchurch-based litigation services provider Symphony Law Ltd. She creates The New Lawyer fortnightly podcasts for new and prospective lawyers which aim to think in new ways about the practice and culture of law.

Last updated on the 1st December 2018