Careers, Study and Well-being / Careers, Study and Well-being with Katie Cowan / Life

Engage with the Difficulty

Hello, incoming law students of 2019. No matter whether your interest in law starts and ends with LAWS101, carries right through to admission to the bar and the bench, or takes you somewhere completely unrelated, we are so very delighted to have you here. Today I wish to share with you a concept told to me in the early days of my law degree that helped me many times throughout law school and into my professional life. It’s not my idea, but I don’t think the original speaker will mind me spreading it for him.


I remember very little of LAWS101 except wishing I had never taken it. I found it to be slow and meandering, and it made me want to be a judge. I was a precocious 18-year-old but even I could see they weren’t going to make me a judge until I was at least, maybe, 25. I was frustrated and often bored, but I was a Good Girl and knew no option other than persistence. I passed the time doing sarcastic doodles in my notes.


What I do remember from LAWS101 was a message early on from our professor Richard Scragg. He took most of the course and we liked him because he brought a fancy tea cup full of tea to lectures. Richard Scragg and his tea cup made for a pleasing touch of whimsy of a Monday morning.


Richard Scragg’s central message to us law school babies was this: “engage with the difficulty”. I remember it because he said it several times in the space of a few minutes, and with such earnestness I stopped doodling and wrote down “e n g a g e w i t h d i f f i c u l t y”, underlining it three times.


His point was that law school was hard, would continue to be hard, and would require us to engage with its hardness in a deliberate way. He explained how we would come up against problems of logic and reasoning that confounded us. We would be forced to develop new skills and ways of thinking that were quite different to anything we had done up until that point. And we would have to do a lot of this on different fronts, all at once. It would be difficult. But we were to expect that difficulty, and when it came we were not to turn away, but instead to engage.


I needed to hear this then, and I have needed to repeat it to myself innumerable times since. I suspect the same is true for most new law students (hell, all humans), which is why Richard Scragg’s speech on the topic was an annual event for the incoming class.


Most hard things are off-putting to most people. We experience things as difficult because parts of our brains and bodies say, “No, no, not this; try anything else”. Feelings like unease and anxiety come up, and often self-criticism. But complex things take time and repeated engagement to learn. We all know this, because we have all done hard things, but it can help to know it is supposed to be like that; that all humans experience difficulty learning new things.


What I like about “engage with the difficulty” is it gives things permission to be hard. Without this idea, it can be easy to think that you are finding something difficult because of some flaw in you, or that if something you find something difficult that means it is not for you. “Engage with the difficulty” assumes that difficulty will be everywhere, regardless of you and your abilities. It confirms that your job is not to find a path without difficulty, but rather to choose the path you want to walk and then find your way through the difficulty that path serves to you. It is an invitation to find your way inside the fortress of any complex pursuit instead of being turned away when you can’t find the drawbridge.


And boy is it a wonderful way to engage with academic learning. If you can really get into it, you get the gorgeous rush of fun and joy that comes from breaking through difficulty and learning things at a deep conceptual level. I’m not being facetious here; my best memory from academic law school is the 72 hours I spent doing a deep dive on causation and remoteness in torts. You may well call me a nerd, reader, but you knuckle down with causation and remoteness for three days and then we’ll talk. Or join hands and jump up and down in excitement. You’ll see.


Two small caveats here.


First, lest you believe I was super cool and perfectly studious at law school, it is important you know I also believed a “friend” who told me you could get away with learning criminal procedure in the exam.  I believe this approach was a contributing factor that helped me really earn my B- in crimes.


Second: I offer this tool, via Richard Scragg, for application primarily to academic work. For me, the tool was less useful when it came to mental health, as it reinforced the idea that my brain should be making my life intolerable. But that’s ok! Tools can be inappropriate for one cause and wonderful for another; look at all the cool and uncool things you can do with fire.


So welcome, again, new law students. May you engage with the difficulty you find in your study, and as you get deeper into your law study may you be on the lookout for the types of difficulty that feel most delicious to break through. We can’t wait to see what you do.

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