During summer 2014 rising senior Andrea Johnson completed her third legal internship—this one at the United States Bankruptcy Court in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her reflections on her experience explore the relationship between doubts, misgivings, mistakes, professional and personal growth, and the freedom to fail.
From the very first day at this internship I made mistakes, and mistakes made me—though the truth of that second part took some convincing.
During my initial introduction to my supervisor, Matthew Harte ’07, I learned I had parked in the wrong parking lot. I feared I had made an embarrassment of myself as a directionally-challenged intern. It was not the first impression I had hoped to make. Matthew said it was a non-issue, though I felt like I had failed already, and it was only the first day.
Every endeavor I had undertaken in my life, from athletics to academics, had stressed that failure was not an option, nor could it be accommodated. Failure was a lack—lack of preparation or lack of will power or lack of both. It was the opposite of success in a polarized world—the (very) “wrong” road diametrically opposed to the one-and-only “right” path.
And, I believed, in order to prevent failure, one had to always be anticipating how one’s present choices and decisions would impact the future. In that way, one’s present and future are inextricably—and linearly— linked. Thus, foresight is essential to forego failure and continue moving forward toward future goals.
So, on this first day, nothing could have been more overwhelming to me than what I was told: mistakes were essential; mistakes were expected. What? It seemed counterintuitive to make mistakes since I wanted to make a good impression. I did not have to reflect long on my first mistake (the parking lot) when I made my second: I got lost returning to my apartment.
The perfectionist in me was rebelling against this notion of mistake-making. I am probably a typical K student in that way. Accepting the notion that failure is necessary is quite difficult for me. Even more challenging is trying to unlearn my constant need to know how every experience will affect my future. Failure is expected? Failure is normal? Were there “right” and “wrong” ways to fail? If so, then I wanted to fail properly.
In the first week, I made my third “mistake”: wearing pink in the courtroom. That neutral colors in such a setting is more of an implied rather than explicit rule in no way mitigated my embarrassment. I stood out like a pink jelly bean in a sea of black and grey. Interestingly, this mistake fueled my interest in understanding gendered appearance within the legal field. My Senior Individualized Project—“‘Forsake the Self or Forsake the Law:’ A Study of Women Lawyers and Subtle Gender Inequity in the Legal Field”—built off of some of my experiences, such as clothing expectations for women lawyers and other observations at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. While none of these small mistakes jeopardized my learning experiences, they forced me to reevaluate my definitions of failure and allow myself more room to grow.
After a few weeks I became accustomed to the basics of bankruptcy law and felt comfortable in my environment. The security guards recognized me by name. Judge Hopkins’ staff checked on my progress, and they were always willing to answer my questions. I could find cases and use Westlaw without major problems, and I knew the general schedule of the court. Basically, I felt comfortable enough to make microscopic mistakes.
However, when Matthew handed me a copy of a current case and requested I write a summary memo, I panicked—even though this exercise, like so many other rewarding experiences at the court, gave me the freedom to make mistakes. I could learn without the pressure of a “grade” or judgment. And yet I still didn’t feel at ease. Instead I looked for anything that could act as a guide or an example because I did not want to fail or disappoint people I respected. Ironically, the “right” way to do this assignment was to “fail” repeatedly, accept constructive criticism, and correct my mistakes. And, in doing so, I would be introduced to proper legal research, thinking, and judicial decision making.
In the two weeks that I researched and drafted that first memo, I had to confront my own expectations and accept that my first and subsequent drafts were not going to be perfect. After plunging me headfirst into the depths of legal research and writing, Matthew and Judge Hopkins spent a lot of time on the extensive editing process, teaching me the “treading water” phase of legal research and writing. I started to become more comfortable with the discomfort of not having a structured path to follow.
After at least four drafts, my initial memo was hardly my own, but that did not matter because I had completed my assignment and had kept my head above water. About a week later Matthew gave me a new memo assignment for a different judge. This memo became my main project for the remaining three weeks of the internship. Even though the topic was more complicated, the assignment was exponentially easier to complete because I had accepted that I would make mistakes. I crafted a stronger initial draft, one that I was proud to call my own. My final memo assignment taught me more about myself and the law through the countless drafts, checking Westlaw hundreds of times, working constructively with my supervisor and the Judge, and finally reaching a finished product worthy enough to be used as a decision of the court.
Researching and writing legal memos helped me confront my own fear of failure and making mistakes. I also had many other memories that made this internship both professionally and personally rewarding. From Judge Perlman’s rendition of “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” to stimulating conversations with women lawyers interested in my thesis topic, to running for coffee and Grater’s Ice Cream with Matthew and discussing our different K experiences, I learned and laughed more in six weeks than I ever thought possible.
By the end of the internship, the city of Cincinnati and the bankruptcy court felt like home. Through this experience, I had come to define “home” as a place where one is challenged, has room to grow and, most importantly, to make mistakes. The people at the court—Patricia Francis, Richard Jones, Matthew Harte and Judge Jeffery Hopkins—made my experience extraordinary because of their instructive and patient explanations and their insights about law and life. They helped make a welcoming and comfortable environment where I could thrive. I made many mistakes at the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and the mistakes made me…more competent, more confident, and “more free” to make more mistakes in the future.