How To Stop Worrying And Love Law School

under pressure david bowiePUSHING DOWN ON YOU, PUSHING DOWN ON ME
When I shadowed Charlie around UC Hastings’ San Francisco campus, it didn’t immediately strike me as a stressful place. The sun was shining on a colorful mural of a hand making the peace sign; people were chatting happily in the hallways; in the dining area, a group of students gathered around a piano and sang a cappella.
It took me a few seconds to notice that they were singing Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”
The thing about law school is that whether or not you like it, it doesn’t allow much time for anything else. “You’re charged with absorbing a tremendous amount of information and adopting a whole new mode of thinking,” Charlie says. People on the outside often can’t relate to what you’re going through. “The uniqueness of law school is that you’re on your own. You’re alone. You’re with the people of your law school, and that’s it.”
One of Charlie’s classmates confided that she goes months at a time without seeing her family and non-law school friends—and her family lives in Sacramento, a mere two-hour drive away.
Law school is also where Type A students go neck and neck. “They’re either drawn to it or they become that way from the process,” Charlie says. He’s got a devil-may-care attitude now, but during his first year, he had to make quite a few adjustments to get there. “It felt overwhelming,” he says. “It felt terrifying. I felt like a failure. I felt out of place, because everyone there is the smartest person in their high school or whatever, so you can feel intimidated.”
Parrish confirms his observations. “I do think that when we see anxiety disorders, those are often accompanied by perfectionism, and I think that those kinds of personality traits do lead to really competitive fields such as law,” she says. The pressure results in a lack of self-care, and sleep is often the first thing to go. Some students even use sleeplessness as a measure of worth. “I think at a certain point it becomes cool and kind of warrior status to one-up each other,” she adds.
One of the best antidotes to off-the-rails insanity is some good, old-fashioned perspective. Charlie says that the students who are most susceptible to stress are often 22- and 23-year-olds with minimal life experience, students who haven’t already overcome big challenges. Charlie, on the other hand, is done with his early twenties. He’s switched careers (and cities) enough to have a feel for what he can and can’t do.
He has also made peace with the fact that life—and school—isn’t fair. “Look, we live in a world dominated by the 1%, and their children are taken care of from kindergarten straight through law school,” he says frankly. “You can’t compete with that.”
Despite the uneven playing field, he has faith in the system and the world he’s chosen. “Irrespective of where you went to law school, no matter where you are in the class, no matter what you do, as long as you pass the bar, your lifetime earnings are multiple times higher than the average person’s, and you will never go hungry,” he says. “You will only be limited by your imagination and your ability to identify opportunities for yourself.”
Another student, Mike, has a quirkier take on putting law school in perspective. When I ask how he copes with stress, he cites the realization that it doesn’t take many resources to enjoy steak and red wine. “People who are Type A always have something that they’re chasing,” he says, “and then when they get it, they’re not very satisfied.” He calls Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs “bullshit like 80% of psychology,” insisting that constant anxiety about anything other than the basics is pointless.
Notably, Mike also has financials on his side. Before coming to law school, he worked as a “professional PoliSci shithead,” dipping his feet in journalism and political speechwriting. He lived cheap during that time, which has prevented him from relying entirely on loans. “I would never tell someone to go to Hastings and take out $200,000 in debt,” he says. “If you do that, you are a silly person.” He doesn’t have a job yet, but he has prospects and definite fallbacks, so he knows he’ll be okay.
Charlie is also all about making sure he has choices. That’s why he did an interview while having an offer in his back pocket. “You always have plan A and plan B,” he says. “You always pursue both simultaneously. You never put your eggs in one basket, and you always keep the ability to magnify your options, you know?”