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Failure: Can I still be a lawyer?

Crying business man

Failing is hard. Whether it’s an assignment, an exam, or a whole subject, failing might make you think that you should never be a lawyer. Failure for some people could even mean not getting the high mark that they expected they would. Failure does not mean you cannot be a lawyer though, and here are some reasons why…

But I’ve failed something. It’s the end!

Law students pressure themselves to always achieve. Especially in this highly competitive market, we are prone to thinking that failing at something is a sign that we are not cut out for it.

Hands up if you’ve ever failed a contract assignment, for example, and thought, “I’ll never be a contract lawyer!” A historical hand up from Montagu Williams. In 1862, Montagu Williams said, after losing his first case as a barrister, "I shall never go into court again. I have mistaken my profession". But in 1888, he became a QC.

We often forget that our degree, and a good part of our career for that matter, is a learning experience. We’re meant to make mistakes, and even to fail at some stage. It’s part of learning and growing from the experience, and it is certainly no indication that you will not be a lawyer.

Failure means bad marks though!

Good news: your failures and bad marks are not truly indicative of your ability to practice law. Marks fluctuate up and down, even for the best of us. Depending on lots of variables, your marks could be sky high in first semester, and rock bottom in the next. I write from experience on this point!

One variable of particular note, at least for me anyway, is the type of assessment you’re being marked on. How many times have you taken a course and written brilliant research essays, only to do much worse in the final exam?

I know some incredible people that didn’t often get great results on exams. A friend of mine admits that her final marks were not sky high, but this was because exams were not her strength – she could write great essays with ease. She is now a junior in-house lawyer.

Marks are convenient shorthand for ranking students’ performance in particular tasks. Yes, they give some indication of your abilities, but they are not the final word on your overall ability to practice law.

Okay, so what does make a good lawyer?

There are no surprises here – fundamental people and work skills are crucial to being a lawyer, more so than your performance in any particular subject. Time and time again, we hear that lawyers need strong practical skills in order to succeed. Time management, file management, an understanding of legal practice as a business, and an ability to give practical advice rather than just legal advice, are skills that you need as a lawyer.

Most importantly, communication skills are essential. Regardless of how broad your knowledge of certain subject matter is, your clients and colleagues want direct and relevant answers, given clearly and simply. That is really the essence of legal practice.

What do I do if I failed?

If you have failed a subject, it’s not the end of the road. Take time to think constructively about what led to it. Think about how you can address that issue next time, or in your next class.

Lastly, remember that failing a subject does not necessarily mean that you lack the fundamental skills you need to be a good lawyer. Keep surviving, you will get there!

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