Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on motherhood in the legal profession, in partnership with our friends at MothersEsquire. Welcome Eden Davis Stephens back to our pages. Clickhereif you’d like to donate to MothersEsquire.
Graduation season is upon us! Many of these graduates are entering the field of law, with some anticipating the 1L year on the horizon, while others are spending a stressful summer studying for the bar exam. As I make my daughter Lovey a matching cap and gown for her preschool graduation, thoughts of my own professional beginnings flood in.
The most common refrain when I told people I was going to law school was, “But … you’re too … NICE.” I thought I’d face challenges when I went to school, but I didn’t think my nature was going to be one of them. I also heard SEVERAL stories of why law school was the worst mistake they made, and the worst one I could make. Tales of ill-fits and regrets seemed to follow me the summer before my first year. Those weird responses would haunt me from my last year of law school until about four years ago, when I learned to lean into what now almost feels like destiny.
It turned out my biggest challenge in law school was the lack of study skills and any awareness of what learning style worked best for me. General immaturity was a close second. As a K-JD attendee who performed well on standardized tests, I floated through prior education programs with little resistance. Switching gears to reading and retaining many dry, punctuation-light cases went about as well as you’d expect. My ego suffered many blows each grading period as I seemingly hit my ceiling. By my third year, I was so depressed and filled with shame, I slept anytime my presence wasn’t required or I wasn’t pouring liquid distraction down my throat.
Failing the bar the first time didn’t build confidence that I belonged in the legal profession. I studied in a thicker blanket of shame, my back against the ghastly wall of student debt. A classmate (who will forever be a saint to me) connected me with a circuit court staff attorney position, and I eventually became a wide-eyed but determined public defender. In this office I found my stride, revealing what I had known (yet buried) all along — I was very much cut out to be a lawyer. I had several successful trials and discovered I was good at judging how sets of facts would come across to a jury and what practice methods would be effective with particular prosecutors.
But that wasn’t enough to dismantle the doubt I continued to feel of whether I belonged among esquires. I mentally catalogued stories of reformed lawyers who found they were meant to bake the world cupcakes, or build sand castles, or be on daytime TV shows marketed to women in the 30- to 55-year-old demographic. I took so many career and personality tests during this period. None of them produced my hidden essence, but all of them ranked “lawyer” as a top fit — up to and including my astrological chart. (Libra Ascendant reporting!)
Tired of feeling tired, I wondered if maybe … it was me? One relationship end showed that it wasn’t the partner or the relationship that was making me unhappy. That unhappiness followed me right into singledom. Perhaps it wasn’t the law that was making me miserable, but the lawyer herself. Law provides a lot of stress to blame, if you need a reliable scapegoat. As I had never released past insecurities of my wretched professional beginning, I didn’t make peace with it, even when I found a lot of success. I began using gratitude exercises, writing down the ways in which practicing law had positively affected others and myself. Where there was lack, I worked to change it. If there were elements I enjoyed (e.g., actual counseling of others), I sought opportunities that incorporated more of those elements. The more of my authentic self I put into it, the more I got back.
Four years and many therapy sessions later, the discomfort is not only gone, but I, at times, even feel EXCITED about being a lawyer. I still have many moments of tension, but I am figuring those out … slowly. I sometimes entertain the idea about making this a group discussion, but at the moment I am trying to figure out how to keep a mortar board on a stuffed duck’s head.
Eden Davis Stephens is the Deputy Executive Director of the Office of Administrative Hearings within Kentucky’s Public Protection Cabinet. Her parenting wish to not have boring children was granted. Her creative and headstrong daughters make her excited for their futures, but personally tired in the present. You can find her musings about practicing law while being her true self under the handle “Lawyering While Human” (@lawyering_while_human) on Instagram and possibly Facebook if she can get it together.