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

A list of advice to graduates

By Katie Cowan

A year ago LexisNexis asked me to spend a year answering questions and offering insight into how to get the most out of a life in law.  It remains a stupendous privilege.  In this last column, in the vein of a graduation commencement speech, I thought I would offer a list of final quick-fire tips and tricks for health, happiness and success while studying and working in law.  Following these simple tips should set you up to maximise every area of your life and ensure you will never have problems again.

Just kidding.  It should come as no shock that I am not a fan of “simple tricks to do complex and difficult thing”-type lists.

If there is any single takeaway from the last 26 columns it should be that things like life and careers and happiness are complex, nonlinear, sometimes unknowable things that take place over time.  Things that work for some people are destructive to others. Complete answers that apply to everyone do not exist.  Time changes everything.  To pretend otherwise is to wander a long way down a path that is actually painted, Wile E. Coyote-style, on the air over a canyon. 

Listeners to the podcast will know how I regularly say how much I hate the idea of advice, usually before giving some myself.  (I have accepted this dichotomy within myself because we all contain multitudes.)  I do believe, however, that we can learn from each other, and in fact that’s where meaningful connection and development often comes from.  To that end, instead of offering any more advice to you, I will instead offer advice to myself, circa 2010, namely the advice I needed or wish I had known at that time.  May some of it help you now. 

  1. To address your primary concern: yes you can have both a lovely career and ongoing mental health issues.  Many many lawyers do.  Your best bet for balancing the two is choosing a mental health-informed workplace where your strengths are valued, and getting a great therapist.
  2. Watch Crazy Ex Girlfriend as soon as you first hear about it.  Do not be put off for two years by its title.  You need a feminist musical comedy about a lawyer with mental health issues.  Everyone needs that.
  3. Be mindful of how motivated you are by being impressive and conforming to traditional ideas of success instead of the things that interest you and matter to you.  A life built on impressiveness and status will eventually sink into the centre of the earth.  One built on your values and interests and people you like to be around every day will be like a 14th century French church: able to take knocks and changes in climate while only getting more resilient and sought out.
  4. Please cultivate an internal kindness toward yourself.  That voice telling you that you are aggressively inadequate is a big dumb dumb.  Enoughness isn’t something you have to earn.
  5. You don’t have to have a big plan for your life and career all figured out from day one.  In fact, you are better not to.  Your life and career happens over time, and you need the new information from each new bit to navigate to the next bit.  You will feel intimidated by all the high achievers who know exactly where they are going, but what is good for them may not be good for you (and may not even be good for them).  You can trust yourself on what is good for you, and you can trust yourself to figure things out as you go along.
  6. Check all emails fully before sending externally, even though it’s tedious.  This is specific, but there will be a time in 2011 where you forward a client an email that accidentally includes a chain of discussion between your colleagues about the client’s case being misguided and untenable.  Do not send this email.
  7. Once you start work, do not feel you have to enter charity runs just because all your colleagues are.  You have hated running since school cross country and will continue to hate it until sports bra technology really gets where it needs to be.  Live your truth and feel no shame about it.  You can join in on the trivia nights instead.
  8. Please erect giant electric fence-type boundaries around fun and leisure time.  Your mental health demands that you regularly do late night karaoke with theatre friends and read comedy books about cadavers.   
  9. Try not to be discouraged when you do not see yourself represented in the law or your concerns about representation or access to justice are minimised by others.  The law is a large, slow-moving thing, but it needs the people who see the need for change in order for change to occur.  You are 100% not alone in your desire to see a shift in the culture.  Joining with others who feel similarly will help with the frustration, plus there will probably be snacks. 
  10. If you can, choose jobs on the basis of who you will be working with and for as much as what work you will be doing and what you will be paid.  The people who populate your working life will contribute as much to your wellbeing (or lack thereof) as almost anything else.  One good red flag to look for is any employer who claims a right to large chunks of your time that they do not pay for.  This will be almost all employers for a while, and you will receive the message from all corners that it is normal.  Remember that it is not and that it is ok that you feel so mad about it.
  11. You are an intensely creative person and will need amateur creative outlets outside of work, preferably with other people.  Periods where you don’t have that will feel particularly dark and strange.
  12. The world is much much bigger than law, but it can feel from inside the legal world that the legal world is all there is for you.  This is a mirage.  A powerful and persistent one, but a mirage nonetheless.  You can take any level of legal experience into work outside of law and make a wonderful life. 
  13. You are right to think you can speak up and start your own projects and podcasts and initiatives and networks to change the things you want to see changed.  You can pick yourself, and you can do it way earlier than most people would have you believe.  You will be most effective and the thing will be most sustainable when you do the version of it that is best done by you. 
  14. Your friends who are not lawyers will be especially important the longer you work in law.  They will be the ones that remind you of (12), above, and also let you know when you are doing too many puns.  
  15. Remember, to parahphrase Annie Dillard, that the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives.  You will be tempted to navigate by milestones, but you are allowed to navigate instead by what makes your days feel full of richness and colour, and what fits that description is allowed to change. 
  16. Related to (15), for every job opportunity you take up, do your best to find success and make it work, but know that some of them will not work.  Importantly, do not spend too long trying to make a situation that makes you miserable work.  What “too long” means will be subjective and annoyingly unclear.  Trusting yourself and your own judgement should help you to know when it’s time to make a change.
  17. And finally, in your fifth year of practice and your 23rd year since starting school, it will become important to know that 360 divided by 12 equals 30, and not 3.  Keep that in mind to avoid the most excruciating conversation of your career.

And with that, I’m off.  I give all of you my love and my esteem.  As always, I am rooting for your happiness and success, and look forward to the legal industry you make together. 

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