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Aimless in Articling

  • January 01, 2015
  • Jeremy Martin

Grades, articling, hireback...what now?

Between landing their first job and completing their articles, most law students come down with an identity crisis as though it was the chicken pox; sooner or later, it seems, everyone’s going to get it. It’s an uncomfortable condition, and only a small minority of the population is naturally immune.

I’ve had the good fortune to mentor dozens of law students online and in person over the past few years, and every October, like clockwork, I begin to get e-mails from those students right after they have secured a job or started articling. The theme of these e-mails tends to be something like this:

“Now that I’ve got a job, I just can’t focus in school anymore. This isn’t like me at all.” 

“I’ve started to slack off at the firm and go home early. Right when I need motivation the most, I’ve become a completely different, lazy person. What’s going on?”

I’ve had several of these conversations now, and they all have one thing in common. These are incredibly motivated, ambitious people who are slowing down in the latter stages of their legal education not because they can afford to, but because they simply cannot muster the energy to go on.

These students feel like their lives have completely lost direction, and my response is always the same:

Yep, they sure have! 

For the most part, these students’ lives have been nothing but direction to this point: elementary and then high school grades, regional and then provincial sports championships, successive swimming badges, piano exams, and work promotions.  Scholarship submissions, university applications, internship competitions... At every stage in their lives, even before they have made the decision to pursue a legal career, these students have been brought up in an educational and extra-curricular system that purports to provide a number of hoops that must be jumped through on the path to success.

These students have never had any doubt as to which level of French proficiency they can qualify for next, what mark must be achieved to qualify for the advanced math class, or what position on the student council would be the next step up in the coming election cycle. Once they do decide to apply to law school, the LSAT and GPA targets for each school are made public well in advance.  An applicant can go online to receive feedback about her chances of acceptance, hire an LSAT tutor and tailor her course selection to meet the threshold set by her preferred school.

Law school itself is no different. Once a student is a journal reviewer, she can set her eye on becoming editor-in-chief. Once she succeeds at the school moot, she can audition for the national competition. While she’s there, why not compete for the top scholarship? The most auspicious internship? Those will surely also get her ‘ahead’.

And of course, throughout all of this, grades. Grades over everything.

Then, one day, these students are informed that they have succeeded. They’ve secured the job they wanted, maybe at a specialized government bureau, or a massive glass tower, or with a deserving non-profit or a famous criminal lawyer. After having jumped through every hoop set before them from the time they were scarcely able to hold a pencil, they can now see only one or two more ahead of them. 



It is at this point that these students begin to lose motivation. Once they become comfortable with the fact that their employment is likely secure, it’s no longer at all clear what milestone comes next. They have spent their entire lives knowing what they can be working on right now in order to improve their chances of future success.

Suddenly, though, the signposts are missing. The students begin to do the real work of lawyering and come to realize that the prize in this pie-eating contest, as they say, is more pie.  If they do more work, and at a better quality, then they will just receive more to do. Even partnership or promotion is little more than an increase in pay and responsibility. Even business development or fame just leads to more business.

The comfortable predictability of “highest grades, strongest extra-curriculars, most prestigious firm” evaporates, and these students are left to chart a career in a market where the possibilities are endless, rather than defined, and where “next steps” don’t exist. They are forced to evaluate success for themselves rather than having an outside authority point it out on a bell curve.

That is when these highly motivated individuals hit a crisis point and begin to defect from their employment in droves. In setting their own goals, often for the first time in their lives, the lack of structure can be overwhelming. It’s not uncommon for students to come to me wavering between a half-dozen completely different career options.

They might, for example, be keen on a large salary and convinced that they will stay on Bay Street. But then, they might be envious of the freedom and influence enjoyed by their friends working in-house. Or the enjoyment other friends get from working on public projects. Or the emotional fulfilment others earn from working in legal aid. Or the work/life balance enjoyed by their colleagues in smaller practices. “Success” becomes more and more of an unquantifiable concept.  It’s impossible for them to tell anymore who is doing “best” when there is no longer a system that claims to make that evaluation.

The best I can do is to tell these students that there’s nothing wrong with them. It happens to dozens, maybe hundreds, of students every year. They’re not alone. This is hard.  Life is messy.  It’s hard to accept that you have to come to your own definition of success, and to set your own goals in striving for it. It can be terrifying to reflect on whether all the work you have done to this point in your life has honestly made you a happier person, and if you should continue on the same path.

This self-analysis obviously comes as a serious blow to a student’s self-esteem. What if what they really want is something that isn’t going to be considered “successful” by their colleagues?  What if, for the first time in their lives, they choose to do something less than working their hardest? Would that betray all the sacrifices they had made to this point? Imagine all the people it would probably disappoint!

The closer students get to their Call, the more clearly they see the reality of the career they had idealized for so long. At what they believed to be the very pinnacle of the legal profession, they might find themselves a partner in a corner office with more money than Croesus, feared and respected within their firm and their niche practice area of 80 or so other specialists, having some say in the outcome of a significant social policy or business deal from time to time. Or perhaps they will become frustrated, overworked judges, making a difference every day but working longer hours than they ever did in practice for a third of the money. And in either event, they will never be famous. That’s about the most objectively “successful” they can hope to be.

For some people, that sounds like a fantastic deal! For many others, though, it’s a devastating realization that they come to a bit at a time – and the closer they come to understanding it, the harder it is for them to remain motivated and eager. It’s impossible to have good self-esteem if you’re not doing good work. It’s impossible to do good work without motivation. And it’s impossible to be motivated if you’re not sure what you’re attempting to do.

This has turned out to be the best advice I’m able to give: A lack of motivation at the end of law school isn’t sudden-onset slackerdom. You cease to work because it’s not clear anymore that homework is going to help you achieve your ambitions; and the ambitions themselves are getting muddier by the minute. It’s almost certain that your ambition at the end of law school bears no resemblance to the one you had at the beginning, so what makes you think that your new ambition is any more true to what you want out of life than your last one?

There’s no study tip for these tough semesters, no motivational techniques that will get you back to burning through your work at a familiar rate. 

Instead, you have to go through the painstaking work of asking yourself what you really want to be doing every day for the rest of your life, and how you want to feel while you’re doing it.  And once you’ve done that, it’s not a question of motivation. That will follow. It’s a question of courage.

Jeremy MartinAbout the Author

Jeremy Martin is an associate with Cassels Brock and Blackwell in Toronto.

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