If I could go back to September when I started this law degree, I’d tell myself a few things, which would have made life a whole lot easier. I can’t do that, but I can take stock and perhaps share a few things that might make life easier for others who follow on from me. This is the second post in what might become a series: please also see my post on humility.
This could also be called “things I wish I could figure out” and “things people have been telling me for years”. Yes, here, I am, indeed, a hypocrite.
As the meme that goes around says: University student. Enough sleep, good grades, social life. Pick two. I’ve never found that to be terribly true, until I started this degree. I’ve found the law degree to have, as previously noted, particularly difficult concepts in subjects I don’t always like and absolutely can’t avoid. Lots of reading, high workload. Add to that the pressures to participate in (and this may not be a complete list) debating, mooting, pro bono work, other voluntary work, student societies, CV/ career building activities, possibly part time work, developing commercial awareness, and/or networking? Oh my! (I’ll reiterate what I’ve said before: it is rewarding, very rewarding. But it’s also really hard work, and it’s difficult sometimes to know how to prioritise.)
But wait, there’s more. Legal education seems to attract a greater number of highly/ excessively motivated people, for good or ill. This is really aimed at them (and, yes, again, me).
Before I started my law degree last September, I’d already started reading and trying to get my head around things. Some things really helped, some things really didn’t. But I was putting an awful lot of pressure on myself that wasn’t really necessary. I was trying to read ahead, trying to read from multiple textbooks (where multiple does not mean “two”). In some ways it helped when I already had my head around the first few concepts when semester started. But in other ways, it was a terrible idea. I’d underestimated how much work the degree would be and hadn’t given myself enough down time before it started, and I didn’t give myself enough time off during much of first semester. Some of the books I was looking at were far more advanced than the course content I was being taught, and my standards were (in retrospect) way too high. People kept saying the word “burnout” to me with increasing frequency and urgency. And I was beginning to feel it: I was skipping both social life and enough sleep. But did I want to be a “bad” law student? What was I doing this for? The anxiety spiralled. One of the conversations I had which helped me the most was with one of my peers, a fellow mature age student, who asked me what I was trying to achieve. Did I really want to risk my health, destroy any love I might have for the law, for a particular grade classification? Eventually I did start to relax a little. Enough? Who knows?
I still struggle with work-life balance. When I did what was apparently quite a difficult pro bono case (particularly for a first one), I threw myself into it and almost lived at the clinic, invested myself far too much (I gather one gets over that over-investment with experience). I’m pretty sure I did burn out a bit during final exams (which were unusually tough compared to other exams I’ve sat because of circumstances surrounding them). I have started reading a bit for next year. I’m also working on a public profile with this blog and a Twitter account. Twitter is amazing for legal resources, by the way, but I have a reading list a mile long of all the things that interesting academics or practitioners share (and that’s on top of the probably 20 or so articles I am getting around to reading a day while I’m on holiday, most of which are on areas of law I haven’t studied so struggle to understand). I’m sure I need to focus, because I can’t know everything about everything (even though it seems to me that understanding the law and the way it’s practiced in lots of areas will help me when it comes to vacation scheme and training contract applications, which I’m trying not to worry about right now). But the anxiety about being good enough continues to linger…
In a heavy dose of “do as I say, not as I do” (yes, I do know I’m a hypocrite): don’t do this. Work hard, absolutely (my university recommends a 40 hour work week. I was doing in excess of that. Don’t do that). But you are (I am) human. There are only so many hours in the day, only so much you can do. Look after your health, including your mental health. Foster a love for the law (despite the frenetic way I can sometimes operate, one of the more rewarding things I can do is stand back, look at the big picture, and really appreciate what I know about the system, for good or ill). Work out where your priorities are. If in doubt about how hard you’re working, ask.
As always, please do comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is such a challenging topic. It’s one I suspect I’ll be grappling with for a long time to come.