The Legal Beat
An Important Lesson For Law School Graduates: ‘Nobody Really Knows What They’re Doing. Nobody.’
Posted on Wednesday May 15, 2019
It’s that time of year again (and trust me, the years go faster and faster the older you get, right?) for law school graduations and bar exams. In other words, it’s freak-out season. This season is only dwarfed by the “waiting for bar results and landing that first job” paranoia, and we’ll get to that later in the year. Now, it’s advice time for graduates.
While not targeted specifically to law school grads, Wall Street Journal columnist Jason Gay shares “the secret that no one will tell you.” And what is that “secret”? Perhaps it’s a secret to graduates, but it’s no secret to anyone who has slogged at any job for even just a few years. As Gay puts it succinctly, “Nobody really knows what they’re doing. Nobody.” We are all making this up as we go along.
It’s true; we all flop around, fish out of water. Haven’t we all said to ourselves or to each other, “What is that person thinking? Why is that person doing this instead of that? Doesn’t that person know anything?” Even the people you admire, whom you think have their act together, really and truly don’t. Nice to know it’s not just you.
Everyone, says Gay, has doubts. Everyone, he says, and that includes Jeff Bezos, Oprah, and Warren Buffett. It is, in essence, the chaos theory, and rather than hide from it, embrace it, because that’s the world graduates are about to enter and that goes for law school graduates as well.
When I started practice, I schlepped the Evidence Code and every other book I thought I might need to court. I was terrified (in fact, everyone knew where I was before 8:30 calendar call: in the ladies’ room, and I won’t be any more descriptive than that).
I always feared that there was a case that opposing counsel would cite that I had never even heard of and the court would slap me silly. After court, talking with opposing counsel, I’d learn that they had the same fears, the same angst that I had. Anyone who tells you that she aced the bar exam, that her case is a “slam dunk,” and other similar comments is, for lack of a better term, full of you know what. That “slam dunk” turns to nothing when the star witness gets caught lying on the stand, or that star witness scampers before the subpoena is served.
Boastful and uninvited behavior is meant to intimidate, bewilder, and demean. Whatever adjective you choose, the result is the same, a feeling of insecurity, lack of confidence in your own abilities, and so on. Remember Gay’s mantra: “Nobody really knows what they are doing. Nobody.” Repeat after me and as often as needed.
Even after all these days, I can come across an issue that I’ve never seen before based on the facts presented. Even if you think you know what the law is, remember that courts do not hesitate to disabuse that notion, especially when appellate courts issue conflicting decisions and it takes the Supremes to slap them down and hopefully clarify conflicting interpretations. Remember: “Nobody really knows what they are doing. Nobody.”
As a sidebar of sorts, there are so many lawyers out and about who either self-describe or are described as “late bloomers.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever been called that or call yourself that. You didn’t launch when you thought you would, when you hoped you would, when you didn’t meet expectations, either internal or external. You didn’t make partner by the time you thought you should, you didn’t get the promotion you thought you’d get, you didn’t get the recognition you thought you deserved. Part of the issue with being a late bloomer is that we are a society that has no patience for patience. Not everyone excels at the same rate or at the same time, but those who don’t bloom early are looked at askance. Impatience is all around us.
The Wall Street Journal lists some people who have bloomed late: Tom Brady, Toni Morrison, J.K. Rowling, and Scott Kelly. In his book, “Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement,” Rich Karlgaard, a Forbes media executive, says that we need to cut people some slack, that late bloomers are everywhere if you know where to look for them. He says that early blooming is not a prerequisite to lifetime achievement.
I think all of us late bloomers can breathe a sigh of a relief, knowing that just because you haven’t done it all by the time you are 30 or so, your professional (and maybe even your personal life) is not over, kaput, history, toast. And if we all bloomed at the same time, our profession would be even more crowded than it is now.
Law schools are full of people who decided to change careers and who succeed mightily once in practice: from social worker to federal district court judge, from paralegal to appellate justice, from insurance adjuster to first-rate trial lawyer. Our profession is full of success stories, of people who were clueless about what they wanted to do, what they want to be, until an epiphany — in the form of a mentor or an slap upside the head — told them what they wanted to do and what they should be doing. This awakening doesn’t necessarily happen to all of us right after college. Some of us work at jobs for years that prompt us to think that “there’s got to be something better than this,” and there is if you are willing to work hard for it.
Always remember that “Nobody really knows what they’re doing. Nobody.” And if you remember that, then whenever you bloom will be the right time for you.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected].