February 17, 2020 Articles

Excellence Starts with Competence: The Practices of Virtue

A first-year associate discusses some of the virtues needed to achieve immediate competence—and strive for ultimate excellence.

By Madeline Flores

As all law school graduates are aware, there is pressure to be an excellent professional from day one. Indeed, the clichéd expectation for a successful career in law hinges on a wildly successful first year of law school, marked by the perfect (or near-perfect) GPA.

This desire to be excellent, if excellence is defined as perfection, can be self-defeating to a new practitioner. For instance, the newbie might be tempted to stay up all night researching an obscure issue of law, fearful of failing to provide the right answer, rather than reaching out to the partner for clarification of the assignment. Fear breeds anxiety, bitterness, and vice.

But excellence in year one need not be so narrowly defined. A Jesuit priest and former president of Jesuit High School of New Orleans, Father Raymond Fitzgerald, S.J., used to say to his new teachers: “In your first year of teaching, you are striving for competence.” Father Fitzgerald recognized the human desire to prove one’s worth on day one. He also recognized that the prideful nature of this desire might hinder, rather than nurture, one’s path to excellence. Father Fitzgerald therefore encouraged new professionals to approach the challenges of one’s career with the virtues of humility, perseverance, and temperance. Becoming competent means accepting your faults, asking for help, and persevering when you inevitably make mistakes.

Reflecting on my limited experience as a law student and law clerk, I can now see the fruits of virtue in my career.

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