I can still feel the phantom burden on my shoulders of the post-graduation choices I had to make when I was a 3L. Do I go back to the firm where I summered? Do I seek out an opportunity in public interest and advocate on behalf of the underrepresented while benefiting from the student loan forgiveness program? Do I look for a judicial clerkship and continue to "hone" my legal and writing skills in an environment where I will be exposed to a myriad of issues? I felt both immobilized by indecision and the need to execute the steps necessary to pursue each option during any given moment, on any given day, throughout the fall and spring semesters of my 3L year.
I entered law school as a nontraditional student. Since the age of 16, I had worked two jobs—at times, out of financial necessity and, at others, out of a pursuit of fulfillment. Over a period of 10 years, I completed my undergraduate degree in English and spent another three years obtaining my juris doctorate and master's degree in education with a certificate in disability studies from Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL).
Although the manner in which I expected I would apply my law and master's degrees changed throughout my law school career, the overarching goal of making the most of those three years never wavered. I formed meaningful relationships with my classmates, faculty, and administration. I competed in every oral advocacy competition that I was able to compete in, served as class president all three years, and invested in the community through service projects and pro bono work. I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity in a way I was not able to while pursuing my bachelor's degree, while also giving myself options after law school. As I entered my 3L year, I believed I had succeeded at both, but as I had heard with a significant degree of reliability, the legal field was one that was both saturated and highly competitive. I still doubted whether the "options" that I thought I had were ones that were actually within my control to choose among. Moreover, I was keenly aware of the need to determine my next steps.
Between finishing my classes, preparing for graduation and the bar exam, and managing my other extracurricular responsibilities, there were only so many hours left in the day to pursue what I considered to be my post-graduation "options." So I had to decide which path to pursue. Returning to the firm where I summered was the simplest solution, but I was not sure if it was the best fit for me.
The decision was daunting, in part, because I thought I was making a choice that would dictate the next 10 years of my life—or at least the next 1 to 2 years of my life—only to then require a decision about the next 10 years of my life. If I went the public interest route, I would need to stay in that field for at least 10 years to take advantage of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. If I went into private practice, I felt I needed to be at a firm where I would want to stay for at least 10 years—the time it generally takes to make partner—and some place where I would want to work with others as a partner. If I clerked—well, I would have a year or two of reprieve, only delaying the inevitable decision of eventually still needing to choose between private or public practice. Unbeknownst to me, I had unnecessarily limited my options.
What I could not fully understand then, and frankly what I am still learning today, is that there is not a single path to success in the law. The law, like life, is about building relationships, investing in people, and being "present" enough in your current circumstance to learn and grow from the people and situations you encounter. That presence necessarily informs, colors, and changes previously defined goals and the pursuit of those goals. You do not know what you do not know, and what is originally viewed as an end point may turn out to be just a pit stop along the way to another end point.
SUCOL runs an intercollegiate appellate competition, known as Mackenzie Hughes, each year. It was the only intercollegiate oral advocacy competition I was unable to participate in as an oralist during law school. Instead, I assisted with the administration of the competition as a member of the Moot Court Honor Society Board. Each year, several distinguished judges from state and federal bars judged the competition, including a SUCOL alum, the Honorable Theodore A. McKee, former chief judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals. After the competition, the board members and finalists had dinner with the judges and attorneys from the firm of Mackenzie Hughes, L.L.P.