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I failed in law school and you can too

|Written By Ivan Mitchell Merrow
I failed in law school and you can too
Failing can lead to depression but Ivan Merrow used it as a learning tool.

Nobody is perfect. If you came to law school believing you were, chances are the first year gave you doubts. Every year, law school classrooms get filled with brilliant, hardworking, and competitive young professionals. Being just one in the heap can be a difficult adjustment, especially for those who came from places where they were considered exceptional.

It certainly was for me. I failed at more things in law school than any place I had before. Those failures helped me learn that missing the target is alright. I failed in law school and you can too.

For most of us, failure is felt quickly and often in law school. Anyone familiar with the grading system knows that actual Fs are uncommon, but ask any law student and the feeling of failure is rampant.

We often mentally assign ourselves Fs for failing to meet our own expectations. Whether it’s about grades, body image, career, extra-curriculars, or relationships, law students tend to have high expectations to live up to.

Law students’ monumental expectations start much earlier than 1L. They likely coincide with being asked to beat out thousands of applicants to be allowed to attend law school in the first place. Maybe our first acceptance package goes to our heads — we expect to be able to keep up the “top 10 to 20 per cent” pace indefinitely.

The tragedy is that once we join the top 10 to 20 per cent, our success is redefined as the top 10 per cent of that group. Comparing ourselves to others is a losing game; it can only end in disappointment.

Before I graduated, I fell into the “other law students” comparison trap many times. Early on, I spent most of my energy trying to be like the “others” out there. If you spoke to me about who I was measuring myself against, I would describe the group of law students who had it all: great relationships, lots of friends, supreme fitness, straight As, buckets of energy, and made law review. Whenever I dropped the ball in one (or all) of those areas, which I did frequently, I felt like I was way behind.

The problem was that group doesn’t really exist. If I had actually stopped and broken it down, it was actually an amalgamation of all the people in my class. I had magically combined many uniquely talented individuals into one person. In reality, nobody has it all figured out.

Job No. 1 for law students should be to drop unfair comparisons. They are a distraction.

Eventually I learned to measure myself against my own standard. For example, I had to learn the hard way that a heavy class schedule and multiple volunteer commitments did not leave enough time for a solid relationship.

I started noticing how much I needed to sleep, study, relax, and see my family to feel successful. I also started noticing that I learned better outside class and away from the library. Perhaps most importantly, I learned that relationships take steady work to stay strong.

I only started improving in law school after I started focusing on my own priorities. Avoiding social comparison during law school helped me focus on what really mattered for my success. Refusing to compare myself to others still takes constant work. These days I still set goals and push myself, but my goals are grounded in reality.

Learning to measure ourselves by our own standard is the first step to overcoming the feeling we are failures. Experiencing actual failure still feels terrible. It sounds clichéd but failing a few times in law school helped me create some of my best successes.

My first law school failure was an actual F on a mid-term. I attended class. I studied for the test. I read everything. Other people passed. I had no excuses. Even if it was not life-changing, it was a big deal. The first big deal in a legal career with many bigger deals ahead.

The real tragedy was what I did next: I avoided getting feedback. Instead, I ignored it and focused on the classes I thought I had a chance to improve in. At the time, that helped me avoid feeling like a failure. Later that year, I came up against the same professor’s exam. I struggled and felt awful. Facing my failure earlier may have made that second test much easier. More importantly it would have helped me grow into a better law student.

Getting used to the idea that we can fail is important. In law school tests are temporary. In law practice the consequences can last a lifetime. Turning away from failure means we risk making the same mistakes later on.

Failure intolerance makes us hesitate when we face challenging goals — the possibility that we could make a mistake is paralyzing. Procrastination is comforting because it prevents us from ever trying our very best, so we avoid true failure. Instead, if we make failure acceptable, we become free to do our very best and learn from mistakes as they happen.

It took me a long time, but I eventually built up the courage to acknowledge my failures head-on. That became critical during my legal job search. I was rejected from more than 100 jobs and positions in law school before I secured a job at a great firm.

The rejections were often impersonal. However, I also had rejections that felt devastatingly personal — after spending months networking and getting to know the recruiters and interviewers. My worst week started with multiple rounds of interviews, handshakes, and dinners at several first-class law firms, and ended with the emptiness of zero job offers.

The last thing I wanted to hear was how I personally lost such great opportunities. The failure was deeply painful. I actually tried my very best and did not measure up. On the advice of a career coach, I eventually got the courage to follow up with a well-known recruiter I respected very much. I asked how I could improve. She candidly shared several key weaknesses that had proven fatal. It was difficult to listen to, but it helped me mature immeasurably.

It is easy to walk away from failure with the belief that we bore no responsibility for the outcome. Instead I walked away with the very uncomfortable feeling that it was mostly my fault.

The upside was that owning my failure helped identify what I could control. Motivation to do better next time was still possible. The universe was not against me, nor was it 100-per-cent my fault. There were just some things I needed to improve before I could get where I wanted to be.

After picking myself up and getting back on the job hunt, I eventually landed a job at an excellent firm. A few rejections helped me improve enough to make a match. Learning to seek out and incorporate feedback helped me make my last semester in law school my best ever.

I wanted to write this because I thought I spent most of law school trying to succeed. In reality, I spent all of law school learning how to fail. And you can too.

Ivan Mitchell Merrow recently graduated from Queen's University's JD MBA program, soon to be articling with Devry Smith Frank LLP in Toronto. He also writes on and tweets as @CanadianLawGuy.

  • Thank you

    Thank you. It is comforting when I feel extermely disappointed about how I have performed in a law exam.
  • Law Librarian

    Amy Kaufman
    Hi Ivan. What a wonderful article. So genuine, smart and thoughtful - just like you were in law school. Best of luck with articling! Amy
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    Churchill defined success as "going from one failure to the next to the next with no loss of enthusiasm". The Japanese say: Fall down seven times, get up eight. Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Whatever it is you fear most is what you must do next" and "No-one can make you feel inferior without your consent." Kipling regarded triumph and tragedy as twin imposters. E.g., during the overtime when Canada beat the US for the men's gold in Vancouver, Scott Niedermeyer gave the puck away in his own zone. If the startled Roberto Luongo had not made the save, Niedermeyer would be remembered as the goat, Crosby would not be remembered as the hero, and the whole team would be regarded as failures, not champions. Thin margins. JK Rowling says that courage is the most important character trait because all others flow from it. Courage is what helps you overcome failure. Michael Caine was rejected at his first 76 auditions. This list of so-called failures who later achieved greatness is very long indeed.
  • Great examples

    Ivan Mitchell Merrow
    Bradley, thanks for these examples. I think you nailed the key takeaway for any law student or lawyer reading this article.
  • PR

    Michel Pilon
    I'm wondering about the wisdom of describing the fact that you applied to 100 firms before being hired at your firm and then naming that firm in the same article.

    I also question the wisdom of publicly associating yourself with failure, although your message is more nuanced. Prospective clients will presumably be googling your name eventually. There is of course merit to your message, however I hope you thoroughly analysed the potential downsides to publicly making it.

    I also question the merit of ceasing to compare yourself to your peer group. In the end, all that matters is properly doing your work, but if you truly want to excel you will need to beat out your peers. It also doesn't seem like you failed, rather you struggled and then succeeded. Failure would have been to give up.
  • Transparency and competition

    Ivan Mitchell Merrow

    1. Yes, students in today’s market seek employment from hundreds of law firms. Interviews are a learning process, and students have a better idea about the type of law they want to practice after each one. Similarly, firms each have their own ideal student qualities. Such a unique match is worth celebrating whether it’s the student (or firm)’s 1st, 100th, or 1,000th interview.

    2. As for search results, I tried searching for your profile on Google to use as an exemplar but could not find it. I plan to be similarly candid and forthright with my future clients. Pretending we do not make mistakes is unfair to our clients and stifles professional development.

    3. Competition is real in law school, as it is in law practice. However, the article’s theme is that true improvement happens when we focus inward. The idea we have to “beat out” our peers also ignores how critical it is to work as a team to move clients' files forward.
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    Speaking of brilliant students, undoubtedly there are many of them in law school. It is also true that many excellent lawyers had poor marks. But at Carleton and Ottawa U, and it may be supposed elsewhere, 38% of all undergraduate marks are in the A range. That makes a B a slightly below, and makes determining what constitutes a brilliant student rather difficult. Further, graduating far more lawyers than needed is bad for the public. If a huge increase in the number of lawyers per capita resulted in a reduction in the cost of legal services, then the US would have the lowest cost legal services in history because they have the highest number of lawyers per capita in history. Instead, at incalculable cost to the public, they have the highest cost legal services in history. What's more, conveyancing was ripped away from the bar by temporary predatory pricing and now the poor Americans have very high-cost conveyancing coupled with very poor service - an example of ABS in action.
  • Adjunct Prof

    Jim Wilson
    Good article with some sage advice. I would differ only with your characterization of law classrooms as being filled with 'brilliant' people. In my years of teaching law school, I may have encountered one student who might qualify. The vast majority of my students have major issues with writing, research and basic critical thinking. I wonder how many of them passed undergraduate courses. Sadly, very few of them have the fortitude to do what you describe and incorporate feedback.

    Canadian students seem to be far worse than American ones in this regard; my students at a top Ivy league school have far better skills and drive, and even the ones at public law schools work harder.
  • Feedback opportunities

    Ivan Mitchell Merrow
    Jim, thanks for engaging with the article.

    Have you been able to test students multiple times after giving feedback? In my experience, most law classes are still graded on a single exam. Perhaps your students improve long after taking your class. It takes time.

    If you are frustrated about your students' abilities, I really hope you offer opportunities for growth. That's all you can do.

    Coincidentally, Professor David Freedman (the comment author above) offers multiple assignment and feedback opportunities in his civil procedure class. If you’re interested you should contact him as a resource.
  • Lawyer

    Bradley Wright
    I feel for the students of the last 20 years. When my articling principal went through law school, one-third of his first year classmates were gone by January. When I went through, 25% of my classmates did not graduate with me. Ever since Bob Rae cut medical school enrolment and the universities reacted by keeping their law schools fully populated by ending the early culling, virtually every law student graduates and is called into an economy that cannot absorb them all. Temporarily failing a course is nothing compared to failing law school entirely. That is what the pre-1995 students faced. Now the students face only the temporary failure of a course but with a virtual guarantee of graduating and being called. Some students see ABS as a panacea. If we adopt ABS, the ever reducing number of cartelizing giant entities will cut the number of their minion lawyers to the bone in order to please the bean-counters at the remote head offices of the new corporate paymasters. Good luck.
  • Lawyer

    Snarky Lawyer
    Law school failures? What failures? When I was in law school, as far as we were able to determine, there were only a few percentage points in grade difference between the top 25 percent and the bottom 25 percent. The bottom dwellers are, for the most part, turned out to be very good lawyers and may have had a better work-0life balance right from the beginning. Some, I think, are now members of the judiciary.
  • Thanks

    Ivan Mitchell Merrow
    Thanks for that, SL. We don’t hear those stories often enough in law school.
  • Prof.

    David Freedman
    Now just a minute. I taught you and you were anything but a failing student. Good article Ivan. A+!
  • Thanks

    Ivan Mitchell Merrow
    Thanks Professor Freedman, I appreciate it!