Dr. Jaclyn L. Neo is an Assistant Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore (NUS). A graduate of the NUS Law Faculty, Jaclyn practiced litigation with WongPartnership before joining the faculty. She was awarded the NUS Overseas Graduate Scholarship to pursue her Masters of Law at Yale Law School and subsequently received another scholarship from NUS to pursue her Doctor of the Science of Law (J.S.D.), also at Yale Law School. Jaclyn spent much of her time as a law student wakeboarding but didn’t learn to swim till three years ago.
This Letter is addressed to her younger self at the start of the second semester in her first year of law school.
Law school can be an overwhelming experience. It’s your second semester here. You have basically spent the whole of the first semester in a bit of a blur. Making friends, navigating the social dynamics of the place, studying, and simply trying to catch up with your readings. There is so much to read! You kick yourself – you should have taken some humanities subjects to prepare yourself for the amount of reading and writing that you need to do in law school. You loved your science and math, but seriously, your ability to remember and apply formulas isn’t helping you get through law school. And the professors keep telling you there are no right answers!
Breathe. You will learn that the law has a certain logic to it, not unlike math or physics. It will take some time but you will imbibe this logic such that it becomes second nature to the way you think. It is true that there is no one right answer but that is not to say that the law (and hence our studying of it) is untethered. There is a range of plausible answers within the law. They are what would be considered reasonable as measured against the logic of the law.
You will also realize that learning the law is a little like learning math. You need to find out the right ‘formulas’, which are the controlling principles of every subject and every case. The difference is that instead of being told what these formulas are, you have to distil them for yourself.
But work aside, I want you to know that there is more to life than just law school. Discovering how to navigate that life is part of growing up.
Before I go, I thought I’d give you four reminders that will hopefully help through law school and beyond.
1. Be kind to yourself.
You will find the competitive nature of law school quite infectious. We are often our harshest critic and biggest taskmaster. Learn to accept yourself first, and others’ love and approval, a distant second. When you achieve some success, welcome it. When you fail, mourn it, but also learn from it. You must remember that failures and successes do define us but often not in the way it would seem. Your successes will spur you to do better, and will give you a bit of breathing room to relax. But they are temporary, and one success does not entitle you to a lifetime of accolades. Your failures may seem crippling, but they too are temporary and you can learn from them. For that, failures can be more precious in life than the successes.
2. Be kind to others.
You don’t know yet that this will happen but you will lose a good friend to a violent incident. If you knew this, you would appreciate her and all other friends more and take more effort after law school to keep in touch. Strive to be kinder to the people around you. You don’t know their circumstances, and why they may act the way they do. Endeavour to give them the benefit of doubt.
3. Be comfortable with yourself.
Life will take you to many places – to the height of the ivory towers of America and the depths of magical valleys in Peru. It will be crowded with friends at times and solitary at other times. You must grow into your own skin and be adaptable so that you can move easily not just between places and people, but also between the community and solitude.
4. Find your Happy Mix.
Finally, remember that happiness is a mix of acceptance and aspiration, built upon relationships and meaningful work. The exact proportions vary from person to person. You will need to find the balance that works best for you. You need acceptance to love yourself, whatever your strengths and weaknesses. You need aspirations to keep hoping and dreaming of the things you want to do and the experiences you want to have. You need relationships to ease some of the alienation and loneliness that comes with life, and to navigate this journey together. You need meaningful work to feel fulfilled, remembering of course that meaningful work come in many forms and may or may not coincide with what pays.
Lastly, “enjoy the power and beauty of your youth”, and its limitations – wear sunscreen.