That’s been my order at the Humble Lion café across from McGill University every morning for the last six months or so.
On this particular morning, watching the students heading to class, just as I had been doing for the last few years, a poignant realization set in: For the first time, at the beginning of the academic year, I was going in the opposite direction, toward the office. Having just been sworn in, this was my first month as a practising lawyer.
While waiting for my coffee, I continued philosophizing: “Finally,” I said to myself, “I’m free from the academic assembly line!” For the first time in my life, I felt truly in control of my destiny.
When you’re at school, you’re essentially defined by what year you’re in: grade five, junior high, first-year university, first-year law school, and then bar school.
But now, that was all over, and I was purely and simply a “lawyer” — in an excellent firm, no less, with a crack team of litigators considered one of the best, if not the best, in Quebec. I was now part of that team as a litigation lawyer, nothing more, nothing less.
I had the sense that my place in the world was now much more concrete.
Suddenly, there was a robust thump on my shoulder: “Hey, Julien, what’s up?”
A Robinson Crusoe lookalike was beaming at me with sparkling eyes. After an awkward pause, I recognized him — a former classmate who was now doing a master’s degree in law. He was sporting a beard so full and long I couldn’t place him at first. After a short conversation and a mutual vow to do lunch some time soon, Gandalf bid me goodbye.
Dumbledore and I had definitely gone down different paths. Nonetheless, I was sure that this brilliant academic hipster, a past master of all the subtleties of the Civil Code, was going to have a legal career as long and illustrious as his beard.
Caffeine fix now firmly in hand, I purposefully strode toward the office.
But step by step, my reverie again overtook me. The life of a law student, I mused, had very short-term horizons. Over the last few years, I had had only a series of short-term goals: get good marks, pass the bar, get an articling position in a good firm, get hired after my articles, ask Melissa out for a drink.
But now, I realized, I had no more short-term goals. It seemed I was finally at my destination. I had graduated law school, passed the bar, been hired after my articles and . . . Melissa had turned me down for that drink (can’t win them all!).
The next goal was partnership, but that wouldn’t happen for at least 10 years, if ever.
The elevator door opened and I walked leisurely toward my office, a smile on my face, greeting everyone I passed and thinking about what healthy lunch choice I should make today: quinoa salad? lentil stew?
I opened my office door and was confronted by the red light on my phone flashing accusingly: seven missed calls!! My heart started racing, and it wasn’t because of the coffee.
On my chair was a massive series of file folders, held together by the biggest elastic band I’d ever seen. I could have used it for a belt; I didn’t even know they made elastics that big. On the file was a Post-it note: “Call me,” it said. It wasn’t signed, but that didn’t matter, as I recognized the delicate handwriting of a tough-as-nails senior partner.
What followed was a frenetic month of intense work during which I ate at the office every night of the week — and sometimes on weekends — forgot to pay my rent, forgot to take out the garbage two weeks in a row, never saw any of my friends, and kept putting off a date I was supposed to go on, to the point where she no longer returned my calls (no big deal, it wasn’t Melissa).
I put on so much weight during those four weeks that the gigantic elastic around those file folders would have exploded if I’d used it as a belt. The upside, however, was that I’d suddenly become an expert in an area of the law I barely knew existed when I entered my office that fateful morning.
During that month, I realized that I was sorely mistaken in thinking I had no more short-term goals. For a first-year lawyer, every day brings new challenges and adventures. Going to court, calling a client or an expert, examining or cross-examining a witness, making an objection for the right reason and at the right time (I definitely need to work on this).
In other words, simply not screwing up is a constant challenge for a first-year lawyer, and chances are you’ll do so at least once during your first year. But that’s how we learn, so they tell us.
Not to mention less momentous first-year challenges such as maintaining work-life balance, keeping in touch with friends, and trying not to gain a gazillion pounds.
Oh, and I also realized to my chagrin that month that I was still defined by a number: I was a first-year lawyer, nothing more.