Here’s the scenario. You, a law student, are contemplating the idea of a break from study. You think you probably want to finish your degree, but you think that persisting right through the normal schedule would be bad. Maybe these thoughts are urgently knocking on your mind-door, demanding to be heard before things fall apart, or maybe they are half thoughts that waft in through your mind-window, phrased more with question marks than exclamation ones.
But now, hark, we hear the attendant voices. The voices of dissent. They do not like the sentiment of taking a break at all, whether it’s whispered on a mind-breeze or urged desperately from somewhere visceral within.
And so, you feel you should probably just keep going. Just get through it and then see what happens after that. After all, what if you took a break and never came back? What if you fell behind everyone else? What if future lawyers saw a big gap from June 2019 to July 2020 and refused even to let you in their doors? It’s all too much. Better to just keep grinding on as best you can, right?
I never took time off from university, but I wish I had. In truth the idea never seriously occurred to me, because I was leaning so far forward gunning for The Future that my face was almost on the ground. I now know, however, that I was managing high functioning anxiety, depression and trauma, and pushing myself single-mindedly to complete my degrees by an arbitrary deadline did little to help me come to terms with these illnesses and the life I might make with them in tow.
So, I am here to offer some arguments against the voices of dissent, in case they apply to you and elude you just now.
Before I do that, let me say: lots of people happily eat their whole degrees in one go, like a snake that can unhinge its jaw. Anyone who can consume their entire LLB-flavoured antelope with a smile on their face should feel free to do so.
But not everyone can be a jaw-unhinging snake. Some people have mental or physical illness, or encounter massive grief or other difficulty that wipes them out for a bit, and some people just require a more short burst-type approach to eating antelopes. They need to put bits of it in the fridge for later. Putting bits in the fridge for later can be a more realistic and sustainable approach to study for a lot of people, and the antelope still gets eaten in the end.
Let us return to the voices. I do understand the fear implicit in them, and the kernel of truth. It’s not that any of the voices are wrong; it’s just that their cases might be overstated in your particular case. You will have a sense of whether this is true.
Voice 1: “If I take time off I might never come back.”
This thought can arise when you are doing something you really don’t want to do, and you think the only way to make yourself keep doing it is by erecting ginormous walls of obligation and compliance around your life and never letting yourself peep through the cracks. It can also arise if you think you are a fundamentally lazy person, a thought a law student generally thinks when they have poor self worth, since the evidence suggests any person capable of getting through some semesters of law school is not inherently lazy (and “lazy” is not really a thing anyway). Finally, it can arise if you think at some fundamental level that you are not in control of where your life goes.
But you can be intentional about a break. You can take time off not for an indefinite hazy period filled with uncertainty and worried parental glances; you can take time off with intention, for a stated period of time. You can do it for a purpose, like earning some money, or engaging in proper therapy, or getting experience or trying something outside what might be possible after graduation. Breaks can be finite and purposeful, and you get to make the decisions around that. Making them at the outset sets your break up to be purposeful and effective, and helps with the mindset that you are coming back once the break is over. If, on the break, you realise that law was a fundamentally wrong path for you, then that’s useful information too.
Voice 2: “If I take time off I will be out of step with my contemporaries.”
This does not matter. It feels like it does. As someone who skipped a year of school and was always the youngest in the class, I know how viscerally this feels like it matters, but it doesn’t. Friends still hang out with you, and you make new friends. When you’re still back studying and everyone else is in grad work, you get feedback about where is good to work and where isn’t. In two years no-one cares. The alternative? Where you push yourself to desperation and burnout serving a value (“finishing with everyone else”) that is arbitrary and doesn’t matter? That is a hurt that does matter.
Voice 3: “If I take time off I will look bad to future employers.”
There are bad employers who will care about your time off in a bad way. If you are someone who sometimes needs time off to care for yourself in some way, these employers were never your employers to begin with. In my view they shouldn’t be anyone’s employers, but no-one lets me take control of the system like I want.
Everyone else – and I suspect it’s most people – understand reasonable explanations of things, especially if you claim ownership of them. People, including employers, like people who know what they’re about, including when what they’re about is outside the norm. “My dad died, so I took some time off to grieve and recover with my family, which led me to be really certain law was the right path for me.” Do you know how compelling that is? Sign me up right now.
My point is that the voices of dissent, while trying to protect you, are missing the bigger picture. That is, a break, assuming you do it with intention and care, is often no big deal in the timeline of study and career. It also misses the even bigger picture that not taking break can be a huge deal, especially if you are dealing with stuff bigger than you can handle at the same time as study. Taking the proper time to care for yourself might even save your study, since it’s hard to get good grades when you’re struggling with big stuff. But most importantly, in the long term, it might save your life.
Listen to the first voices; antelopes can keep.
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Katie Cowan is a former commercial litigator who now runs a legal consulting and coaching practice, as well as writing for the Law Society’s “Law Talk” magazine and presenting her own podcast, The New Lawyer, available at thenewlawyer.co.nz. Check out her website for more details at: symphonylaw.co.nz. Katie’s recommendations and opinions are her own, do not represent the views of LexisNexis or its affiliates and are of a general nature. None of Katie, Symphony Law Limited or LexisNexis are responsible for any loss or damage suffered by a party as the result of following this advice, so please seek independent professional advice before relying on it. Please click here for full website terms and conditions.