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Law Students: You’re Stronger Than You Probably Realize

Tim McCartney

Law Students: You’re Stronger Than You Probably Realize

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Nervous excitement grew as the first day of law school approached. There are many things for law students to be anxious about as they begin their first year. Generally, one of those would be navigating their school on the first day.

However, for me in August 2020, I was highly concerned about my technical ability in using Zoom. I’d never used Zoom before orientation, and all things considered, it went well.

Following orientation, the first week began. As expected, the reading assignments started coming in on the very first day. In undergrad, syllabus week was a time to settle in and prepare; it was highly unusual for professors to assign work. I quickly learned that law school was far different than undergrad and that law school professors dove into the material right out of the gate.

It felt unusual being in a virtual chat room for the most challenging academic endeavor of my life. There was no connection between the students and the professors. While we tried to communicate, the chat function on Zoom is just not the same as face-to-face communication.

After the first week, meeting remotely began to feel more natural as I settled into the semester and started becoming accustomed to the extreme workload. The cold calls from professors began and the reading assignments continued, but I began to get into the flow of law school.

A Devastating Meeting

The third week of the semester, my mother called to ask me to visit my family at my grandmother’s house. It’s like home base for our family, where we all get together. During high school, my parents had marital and other challenges that led me to move in with my grandmother when I was 14. My grandmother was easily my favorite person growing up and still is today.

As a first-generation law student, coming from a family where neither of my parents even went to college, the thought of law school seemed unreasonable. But my grandmother always made me feel like anything was possible if you put the work in to achieve your goal. I was excited to arrive and fill my family in on how the first few weeks of law school had been.

The visit went in a drastically different direction.

My family was standing in the kitchen, and I could tell by the somber attitude in the room that something was seriously wrong. Everyone had the same look of sorrow, except my grandmother, who had the cheerful look she always had. No matter what was going on in our lives, she always stayed positive and guided our family through it.

I walked up the stairs and sat down, ready for bad news. But nothing could have prepared me for the information I received. My mother, with tears in her eyes, told me that my grandmother had been diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer.

A million thoughts immediately raced through my mind, none about law school. Entering the house that day, all I was concerned with was doing well in in my first year and adjusting to school on Zoom. In an instant, those issues seemed trivial. All I was worried about now was my grandmother’s health.

I stayed with my family as they discussed the plan going forward and how the treatment schedule would be structured. While they all stood and talked and cried, I remained silent, staring at the wallpaper in my grandmother’s kitchen and thinking about what my grandmother would be going through in the coming months. A feeling of helplessness that I’d never experienced before rushed over me. I tried to think of what I could do to resolve the situation or how I could make it all go away.

After a couple of hours of sitting in silence, I said goodbye to my grandmother and quietly left. When I was finally alone in my car, I comprehended what I’d just been told.

I pulled over and cried. I have no idea how long I sat there—it could have been 15 minutes or 2 hours.

When I got home, all I could think of was my grandmother’s diagnosis, and I curled up in bed with my dog. My girlfriend of six years didn’t understand what had just happened, and I didn’t have the energy to tell her.

Back to School

The following day, I woke up for class and realized I’d neglected to do the assigned reading. In all honesty, I wasn’t concerned about it. I sat through torts and property without absorbing a bit of the lectures. Luckily, I avoided cold calls that day.

The week droned on, and my motivation for school was nonexistent. At the end of the week, I drove to visit my grandmother so I could talk to her alone. Even in the face of a deadly disease, her attitude was positive, and she was more concerned with me succeeding in law school than with her diagnosis. That’s the kind of person she has always been—more concerned with others than herself.

In that moment, I decided that law school success wasn’t for me anymore—I was doing it all for my grandmother. I stayed with her for a few hours. We talked, had dinner, and watched a movie together. I didn’t get home until late that night, but I had a great deal of work to do to compensate for my lack of motivation the previous week. I brewed a pot of coffee and settled in for a long night of reading and outlining cases. I believe I got to bed at around 6:30 a.m. the next day.

While law school is a choice every student makes for themselves, each person has a unique motivation for taking it on. Like me, perhaps they have a true fascination for the law and a zest for being involved in its administration. Others may be following a family tradition, or there may be a host of other possible reasons.

While I initially began the law school journey for personal reasons, it quickly became something I was doing not only for myself but for my grandmother. She was so proud that I was in law school and on the road to becoming an attorney that I couldn’t let her down when what she needed most was positive news.

As if that wasn’t enough additional stress during my 1L year, roughly two weeks after hearing the news about my grandmother, my relationship with my girlfriend ended devastatingly. Hell, when you’re on the receiving end of a breakup from a six-year relationship, it’s nearly always devastating, although, to me, my case seemed worse than the ordinary dumping.

Between the stress of starting law school, my favorite person in the world being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer, and a severe heartbreak, I spiraled into a deep depression.

I barely talked to anyone, drank more than I should have, and overall neglected to take care of myself.

Despite it all, I made sure I completed every assignment regardless of how inconsequential it may have seemed. I would succeed; I just had to.

The semester went on, difficulties with remote classrooms continued, and my grandmother’s cancer treatments began. As the first member of my family to go to law school, along with remote learning making it nearly impossible to connect with my peers, I felt a loneliness I’d never experienced before.

It wasn’t that my family members didn’t care or were disinterested in my law school situation; they simply didn’t truly understand the stress it can cause. That year was by far the most difficult of my life. By the time first semester finals rolled around, I felt burnt out and depleted.

Still, I wouldn’t let my grandmother down. That compelled me to study and adequately prepare and perform satisfactorily on finals.

You’ve Got This

This isn’t meant to be a sob story about how difficult my first year of law school was. My point is that you surely have difficulties of your own, and I’m here to tell you that perseverance in the face of adversity will get you through difficult times.

The road was without question long and challenging, but my grandmother’s treatments were successful, and she made a full recovery. I’d never been so thankful in my life. And going through that difficult first semester made everything else law school had to throw at me seem far less strenuous.

Once you go through something truly arduous and come out on the other end, the little things seem less important, and everyday problems become less stressful.

So if you find yourself in a difficult time during law school, keep going and don’t give up. When you get through whatever crisis you’re facing and ultimately succeed in law school, you’ll be better able to face whatever comes your way as you practice law and live your life.