The nightmare is finally over. You know the one: It’s the first day of law-school exams, and you realize that not only have you have slept through your alarm, you have also forgotten to attend class — throughout the entire semester. You wake up as you burst into the exam room, where your classmates have just finished typing their final answers.
You have failed. You’ll never be an attorney.
Actually, the shadow of this nightmare was my constant companion throughout law school, hanging over me in every large group lecture, study group and exam. I felt its darkening presence every time I incorrectly answered a cold-call question, was shown a color-coded 90-page outline prepared by a peer (seriously, who are these people?), or found myself completely winging an exam question. But this is all over now. I graduated one year ago from the UW Law School.
I am an attorney — a personal injury attorney.
Unlike the transitional worlds of college and law school, where the end goal was simply making it to the exit door, my new world is the one in which I will remain. Reflecting on my first year, I realize my time was spent growing in three indispensable ways — building familiarity with the fundamentals of a personal-injury practice, understanding what it means to be a young women in this field and breaking down my overly idealistic perceptions of the legal community.
It began with recognizing that there are certain things I don’t know how to do. This included reading “foreign languages”, e.g., Pt c/o HA’s & pain in LUE, post-MVA. Ibuprofen & f/u prn. I also learned I can’t yet decode insurance policies, or tap into an in-depth understanding of human anatomy or the footwear needed for surveying the contours of a crumbling driveway (4-inch heels are not a smart choice). To my great surprise and dismay, Torts I and Torts II didn’t prepare me for any of this. But if a libel claim ever comes my way, man, am I ready!
The great advantage to discovering what I don’t know is the wealth of opportunities it brings me to learn about completely foreign subjects, whether it’s the engineering of a boat dock, the mechanics of a fall in Wal-Mart, the topography of a golf course, the effects of a stroke on the brain — the list goes on.
The second way in which I grew came about more unexpectedly. As a millennial, raised by a strong, independent woman, I believed the era of unequal treatment of women in professional realms had ended long before I entered law school. A magistrate judge quickly dispelled this illusion during my first couple of months on the job. During a status conference, I was told to go back to my firm and ask the ‘big boys ‘ to make a decision. Experiences like that, combined with frequent clients’, court reporters’ and witnesses’ frequent remarks to the effect that I “look awfully young to be an attorney,” have shown me that my youth and sex make it necessary for me to fight to be recognized as an equal of both male attorneys and older attorneys in general.
Luckily, I have that same independent woman, as well as incredible male mentors, to look to for advice on how to be seen as the J.D.-toting attorney that I am. There is also the women’s caucus legal-support group, where I have found myself rooting for female power in ways I never before thought necessary.
It has been a great comfort to know that unlike the — at times — brutally competitive world of law school, I am surrounded here by friends and colleagues who provide much-needed support, never hesitating to share their valuable experiences and fruits of their work. My law school colleague with the 90-page outline … not so much.
Lastly, I have learned something about the very high pedestal that I had formally placed anyone who had obtained the title “attorney” on during my legal education. Having now earned that title myself, I see that I did not enter a perfectly cooperative and professional world. These attorneys are human beings, albeit with law degrees. They are the people whom I must both practice with and oppose — human beings with emotions, biases, and the ability to absolutely lose it.
The humanness portion of this has, admittedly, been difficult for me to grasp at times. I have learned to master the art of concealing my disgust during depositions, when clients are routinely asked whether they took vacations after they lost a child or suffered a debilitating injury. But this behavior has also supplied motivation. Most importantly, it has solidified my confidence that I belong on this side of the fence and wouldn’t have it any other way.
This is my dream — and it is just beginning.
Rachel Bradley is an associate attorney at Strang Bradley LLC, Madison, and a member of the Wisconsin Association for Justice.