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Excellence Starts with Competence: The Practices of Virtue

Madeline Flores


  • Despite my ignorance when first starting out, I certainly gained an overview of federal courts by the end of the year as a result of the collective wisdom in chambers and my humility in asking questions.
  • Any lawyer who has taken the bar exam knows the virtue of perseverance.
  • In order to stay sharp and avoid burnout, I’ve found it beneficial to maintain a balanced lifestyle.
Excellence Starts with Competence: The Practices of Virtue
Abraham Gonzalez Fernandez via Getty Images

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.

Virtue No. 1: Humility

I’m a first-generation lawyer who knew just about nothing of the legal profession when I applied to law school. In law school, I reached out to senior students and professors for guidance about how to study for law school exams and how to apply for externships and jobs. It is certain that I would not have excelled in my first round of exams had I not benefited from the generosity and mentorship of my professors and fellow students. The value of mentorship and teamwork was also evident in my work with the law review. Long days and late nights spent cite checking obscure sources and marking up drafts would have been futile if we did not have each other to rely on—the extra set of eyes, the creative search, the witty comment, and the kind of humor that is only humorous after hours of editing. My humility laid the foundation for these relationships, in which I was the beneficiary of an abundance of generosity. These relationships were not just about getting ahead or producing something. These students and professors became my friends, enriching my life in a way that worldly success could not.

In my first year after law school, I clerked for a newly appointed U.S. district judge. In a sense, everyone in chambers was a newbie like me. Perhaps this situation gave me the guts to ask an abundance of questions, undoubtedly to the chagrin of my coclerk (“What’s a rearraignment? How do submission dates work?”) and even, to my embarrassment, of the judge (“What’s a pretrial order?”). Nevertheless, I knew that I needed to learn the basics, and I needed to learn them quickly. “Look in the local rules” was usually the answer (a response that sent me to Google the first time to ask, “What’s a local rule?”). While I knew that I was capable of reading a text to educate myself about a relevant topic, I inevitably struggled to know where to look for the right resource. For this dilemma, the librarians at the court of appeals library (conveniently across the street from chambers and on my direct dial) were wonderful resources and very pleasant people to work with. Unlike the search engine bar (staring blankly at you, with a mocking smirk), librarians had conversations with me about what I was looking for and for what purpose I needed it. They would suggest to me different kinds of resources that I had never known existed, such as pattern jury instructions from different jurisdictions or model jury instructions published by a bar association. Despite my ignorance when first starting out, I certainly gained an overview of federal courts by the end of the year as a result of the collective wisdom in chambers and my humility in asking questions.

Virtue No. 2: Perseverance

Any lawyer who has taken the bar exam knows the virtue of perseverance. Perseverance is often regarded as a kind of willpower. You’re master and commander; you’re a superhero! But the key to unlocking your potential to persevere might have less to do with your isolated, can-do attitude, and more to do with the relationships that inspire and enable you to actually persevere.

In the most challenging moments of my career, my friends and family were the catalysts behind my ability to persevere. When I was studying for the bar exam, for example, I had a few things going on. One of them was a little human scheduled to arrive a few weeks into studying, about a month shy of test week. She arrived a week late (there went the study schedule!), but no amount of rescheduled studying could prepare me for the total exhaustion of caring for a newborn. Amidst these difficulties and distractions, it would have been easy to become discouraged. But I found encouragement in my friends and family who were taking the bar alongside me. (Yes, I consider my family’s support coextensive with my own examination.) A few of my law school friends also had a newborn in the weeks before the bar. One of my best friends from law school had her child a few weeks before mine, and we were commiserating with each other about our new experiences and struggles. She was a comfort and inspiration to me when I was tempted to think that no one understood my plight. My parents and in-laws watched my daughter while I took practice exams. And, day in and day out, my husband would care for our child to ensure that I had dedicated study time. Even though preparation for the bar required perseverance in isolation, the effort was hardly mine alone.

Virtue No. 3: Temperance

There is no question that a law career demands intellectual endurance. In litigation, the workload can weigh heavily toward the many deadlines before trial. In order to stay sharp and avoid burnout, I’ve found it beneficial to maintain a balanced lifestyle.

This means devoting time to work and rest. Even when the to-do lists seem to run off the page, I know that consistently cutting out rest in favor of work will ultimately hurt me. Instead, I aim to prioritize both diligent work and conscious rest.

As with training for a distance race, daily efforts are the only way to achieve the goal of finally running the race. Unsurprisingly, a daily running routine is part of my lifestyle. In addition to making me feel less guilty about sitting in front of a computer all day, I am able to think more clearly post-run.

Writing is an art, and even legal writing requires a level of humanity. Winning over a jury or a judge requires a human connection that should come across on the page and in the courtroom. Understanding the narrative of a case demands both sympathy and scholarship. Accomplishing this requires the virtue of temperance.


So, what can you do to practice virtue in your career? To start, it’s helpful to reflect on the ways that virtue has already touched your life. For instance, who are the people who have helped you in your humble beginnings? Who has inspired you to persevere? How do you relax and feel refreshed? If you feel overwhelmed, I challenge you to look for simple ways to practice humility, perseverance, and temperance. Excellence begins with competence.