What inspires you?

When I was studying for the bar exam for the second time, I had already been practicing as an attorney for about two years. I was a new mom with a limited budget, so instead of signing up for the big, expensive review course that would have me in classes all day with people who were probably mostly not already attorneys, I signed up for the cheaper course that I could do at home. This one gave us weekly homework assignments to be scored by local practicing attorneys.

No matter how hard I worked on these assignments, I couldn’t improve my score. The first two, I put in moderate effort. I figured, well, I already passed one bar exam, I’ve been practicing law, I know how to think like a lawyer. I got 3/6. So for the third, I really busted my ass. I made sure I followed the correct legal writing format. I cited cases and statutes. I explored alternatives. I proofread multiple times. I got 3/6.

What was I missing? If I had handed in work to the attorneys I’d worked for that was 3/6 quality, I wouldn’t have lasted long at the law firm. I’d never been laughed out of the courtroom either. Why was my work considered competent enough to actually practice law, but when it came down to being judged to be allowed to practice law, I couldn’t make the cut? It made me want to give up. For the fourth assignment, I said screw it and just handed in what must have been vomit on a computer screen. I got 3/6. If my “grades” were not at all a reflection of the work I had done, what were they? (I should also note that the one grading my work never wrote what could be improved upon or what was good.)

At some point I contacted the person who had been grading my essays and asked her about something that I had confused me in the review material. It was something pretty trivial (I think it was about lesser included offenses or attempted crimes), but by this point my confidence had been so shaken that I didn’t trust myself to make sense of it. And she gave me the most useless advice or opinion I have ever received. It was something like, if I’m that worried about how I’ll do and asking these kind of questions, I’ll do fine on the exam. She didn’t even address my question, answering only that she practiced civil law and didn’t know.

Her response made me realize that these “grades” that I had been receiving were likely arbitrary and an attempt to convince me that I had been doing ok in my studies but that I should work harder if I wanted to past. Unfortunately for my mental health, they had the opposite effect. I wasn’t spurred to work harder when I got consistently lousy scores. I just stopped doing the assignments all together. I sunk into a depression and considered not even taking the test at all because the scores had convinced me that no matter how hard I try, I wouldn’t do well enough to pass.

So my question is, what inspires you? Does it inspire you to see that you have done poorly and need to improve? Or is it more inspirational to see that you are doing a good job already?

About emmawolf

I'm a freelance writer living in Baltimore with my husband, son, and two cats. I'm working on editing my first novel. I love reading, traveling, and the cello.
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9 Responses to What inspires you?

  1. sj says:

    Did you ever find out what was going on? Was anyone actually reading your assignments? If I can’t get some sort of positive reinforcement, I’m likely to give up.

    • emmawolf says:

      No, I didn’t ask. I didn’t think they would be forthcoming with “yeah, we don’t really care about the work you may or may not have put into these essays.” Instead, I got through bar prep by my husband making me watch Tim Allen from Galaxy Quest saying “Never give up! Never surrender!” over and over again.

  2. Muriel says:

    I remember receiving 0/8 points for an exercise in an exam once (I studied law, too) and not understanding why, so I wrote to the person who graded me, telling her that I thought I answered the question correctly and comprehensively. The exam was returned with a new grade on this exercis: 8/8.
    Made me wonder about their system, too…

  3. hey miss says:

    This is why I strive to find something positive to say to all of my students. Good post.

  4. rarasaur says:

    I recently started working with someone who told me they responded better to harsh critique and negative reinforcement. I’m not cut out for that as a manager… I’m more of a high five and sticker manager. Until he specifically said it, I didn’t even realize some people were motivated that way. Crazy!

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