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Brooklyn Law School 3L, Sarah Francois, shares how her experiences in law school have helped her sharpen one of the most important skills a lawyer can have—learning when to say "no."
During one of my countless informational interviews as a law student, I often ask what skill I should be most focused on developing as I prepare to be a public defender.
A while back, I got an answer that really stuck with me: “Make time for your own health and wellbeing.”
There may have been a time when I’d have been confused, and even offended, by this advice. As a self-proclaimed work-a-holic and a child of immigrant parents, the idea of prioritizing anything not directly tied my goal to work hard to achieve the “American Dream” has often felt at odds with my own values. In fact, when I came to law school, I was determined to do it all—eager to prove my worthiness to myself and to my family. For me, this meant that it has taken a long time for me to grasp the concept that we as human beings have I inherent worth, regardless of what I can “produce.” But my law school experience has been a journey toward learning how important that interview advice really is, especially for someone like me.
“You can’t do everything.”
During my first year of law school, I was told that the only thing I need to focus on is grades. As a part-time evening student, this was already not necessarily accurate advice for me. But it may have meant that I could have said no to intense extracurricular activities to avoid burning out.
Did I? Nope.
Instead, inspired by a fellow student and mentor, I signed up to be a 1L Pro Bono Delegate for the Black Law Student Association (BLSA). Looking back on it, I was so focused on following in her footsteps, that it never even occurred to me that I should consider saying no to filling the role. This mindset persisted into my 2nd year, when I joined a secondary journal, while still juggling the Pro Bono Delegate position, working part-time, classes, and a myriad of other things I’d felt compelled to say “yes” to.
But in the midst of this, my health was failing.
One day, I sat across from one of my school’s deans and complained about my physical health. Her reply was prompt, “You have to drop something. You cannot do everything.” No one had ever suggested anything like this to me before. Would not being able to “do it all” make me a failure? But I took her advice and found something I was willing to take off of my plate.
At first, I was disheartened. This looked a lot to me like giving up, and I was no quitter. But I quickly realized that there is an amazing amount of relief that comes with protecting your wellbeing. It was my first lesson of many, coming to the realization that sometimes I have to surrender to win.
Coping with COVID
I would like to say that the rest of 2L went smoothly and I was super great at keeping track of my limits. But this wasn’t the case. When we were all sent home due to COVID-19, this once again caused whatever balance I was beginning to achieve to collapse.
Now, I was now answering calls from my boss at 10 pm on a Saturday night to troubleshoot tech issues. Being one of the two tech savvy people in my department meant automatically being assigned the additional responsibility of handling tech support overnight.
By the time school finally let out for summer break, I was exhausted, but I still got another part-time job doing transcription, while participating in my summer legal internship. I was going to take advantage of the lack of commute, and once again, I leaned hard into my natural inclination to “do it all.”
As you can imagine, this didn’t go so well. But this time, I was able to draw from my dean's advice and was able to put a new skill into practice. I knew that if I didn't watch it, I would say “yes” to everything, from volunteering at church and the socially-distanced picnics, to the Japanese conversation group and the brand ambassador gig.
Continuing to sharpen a new skill
I think everyone has gleaned deeper insights about themselves, within the context of our new reality. For me, I’ve learned that it is important to me to participate in this world, and show-up every way I possibly can. However, I need to protect myself from becoming, “human-doer” instead of a human being. To do so, establishing boundaries—and keeping them—is something I will have to practice every day. This involves asking myself tough questions, like: Do I need to do this now? If I don’t do it now, what will happen? Does it need to be done by me?
And other times, it is about reorganizing some of the most basic parts of life to protect time for myself, so that I can show up completely, and in a sustainable way. For example, protecting time for sleep has been a game changer. At a certain point each night, my phone is on “Do Not Disturb,” and people know not to expect a response before 5:30 am. Of course, not every night goes according to plan, and sometimes I find myself making some compromises, but just like any other skill I’m sharpening to be a better lawyer—I continue to practice saying “no” when it is necessary.
For sure, this has been one of the most important lessons of my law school career, and I know that I will be a better lawyer thanks to the wisdom gained from my experiences.