Nobody likes to fail. Drawing from my experiences during the past seven weeks of classes at NYU, I can wholeheartedly admit that I have failed. Let me clarify that I have not written any exams or midterms yet, and I certainly have not failed on a grand scale. My classmates can attest to my almost-impeccable attendance and participation record as well as my overall effort to adjust to the pitfalls and politics of a US law school. Where, you may ask, have I failed, then? It really boils down to how we define failure and how we deal with it.
In order to illustrate my point, I will use examples from two very different courses that I am taking this semester, both of which have already had a great impact on my way of thinking. The Colloquium on Law, Economics, and Politics with Professors John Ferejohn and Lewis Kornhauser as well as the Leadership for Lawyers Seminar with Professor Anthony Thompson have both redefined my understanding of the law and the role of a lawyer.
When I read the first paper for my colloquium, written by an acclaimed and eloquent law professor from Yale who is an undisputed expert in her field and has published numerous articles on the subject matter of immigration law (which I frankly had no expertise in whatsoever), I was almost paralyzed by the daunting task ahead of me. How was I supposed to comment on, let alone criticize this paper—a product of countless hours of research, theoretical analysis, and sophisticated legal reasoning?
Of course I was afraid to fail miserably and to be exposed to public ridicule. Among all the LLMs, I felt like the most unqualified person for the job, since many of my fellow students have already published brilliant papers and comments themselves. After a painful afternoon of reading, arranging my thoughts, writing and re-writing, I came up with a two-page response paper that seemed to elicit the least embarrassment for myself.
It is safe to say that I probably failed to understand some of the author’s arguments and conclusions. Maybe I also failed to write a concise and constructive critique. But this exercise has provided such a tremendous learning experience, and I hope everyone has those “a-ha” (aka light-bulb) moments in their law school career.
This leads me to a lesson derived from my Leadership for Lawyers Seminar. Since the very first day of class, Professor Thompson has challenged our perceptions of leadership. We talked about a broad range of topics, and I can assure you that this course is not just “fluffy talk.” There is some pretty convincing data out there that the best leaders are the ones who inspire others, overcome traditional thinking, and see failure as a huge opportunity for future success.
We, as lawyers and humans, hate to admit to failure. But in order to lead and to innovate in the legal field, we need to challenge ourselves constantly. I think taking a course that deals with an unfamiliar or seemingly unmarketable subject is a good start. Even though that might entail inevitable failure, it also gives you a valuable learning experience. Why not take full advantage of being in an environment where our mistakes do not cost our employer millions and ourselves our careers?