By September McCarthy, J.D. ’22
In Spring 2021, I got off the waitlist for the Democracy and the Rule of Law Clinic. I had heard the program was rigorous but one-hundred percent worth it; students were able to flex and stretch their research and writing skills, collaborate closely with real life practitioners, and work on absolutely cutting-edge projects. I seized the opportunity and ended up taking the clinic for four credits. It was one of the best decisions I made during my time here at HLS.
At the beginning of the semester, we were presented with a swath of interesting projects and had the opportunity to rank them. I was lucky enough to be put on two long-term projects that would run throughout the course of the semester. This gave me the opportunity to throw myself into my projects completely and really make the final work my own. While I would talk about the content of those projects, they are *so* cutting-edge that I can’t share that information! Rather, I’d like to share three lessons I learned from my time working in the Democracy and the Rule of Law Clinic.
- Trust your own conclusions
By far the most important lesson I learned in the clinic was to trust my own legal conclusions. As a 2L, this was not easy. Like many students, I was used to attending office hours and having nearly every question I asked answered by the professor. Here, however, my projects presented no easy answers—that is not what this clinic works on. The questions I asked literally had no answers, because they had never been researched before.
In the beginning of the semester, I would ask my project advisor: “what do you think about x or y? Does that sound right to you?” The answer, inevitably, was “I don’t know, you tell me!” At first, this was jarring. I had never been asked to rely so strongly on my own ideas and analysis. Usually, those conclusions were bolstered by analogous case law, law review articles, or textbook materials. Here, the lack of perfectly on-point material forced me to dig deep and make assertions with conviction. Throughout the semester, my self-assurance continued to grow, and by the end, I felt so proud of my final products knowing that the work and ideas were truly my own. Of course, I was supported throughout this process—my advisors were always there to cheer me on, lead me to potentially valuable resources, and provide me feedback on drafts. However, being left to “sink or swim” (in a safe way—my advisors were my buoys!) allowed me to really grow my confidence and meet my fullest potential. As a law student—and one who frequently suffers from imposter syndrome—building confidence in my own abilities was invaluable, and it translated to the rest of my law school experience.
2. Lean into primary resources
Because the projects we worked on were so novel, I was forced to get comfortable with finding and navigating resources that I had previously not had much experience utilizing. For instance, much of my work involved me digging in the Reconstruction-Era Congressional Record and reading hours of House and Senate debates. At first, this was incredibly intimidating. In addition to trying to figure out how the resources were organized, I had to figure out who was who and why they were important, how proposed amendments to bills reflected what representatives discussed privately in committee, and how the House and Senate fought back and forth with each other through new drafts and proposals. I also had to thread together weeks, months, and years of disjointed conversations between representatives to form a coherent narrative of legislative intent. However, once I leaned in, this task was no longer intimidating—it was fun. I became comfortable with the cast of characters and figured out who was popular and who was not. I got sucked into the dramatic speeches and diatribes. I was disgusted with some representatives’ commitment to inequality, but moved by others’ dedication to creating a more just nation. The research that scared me soon became research I enjoyed. The HLS librarians deserve a huge shoutout here—with their immense help with the resource pulling process, I was able to maximize my learning experience.
3. Recognize the Power of Compassionate Mentorship
My semester was not only challenging academically, but personally. In the middle of the semester, my entire family came down with COVID-19. I let my advisors know that I had to step into a caretaking role—there was literally nobody else around to help my family, and some members were fairly ill. I wasn’t sure what response to expect. I haven’t experienced much compassion from academic institutions in my 26 years, and I fully expected the response to be “too bad,” we cannot move deadlines. However, their response couldn’t have been further from that. My advisors were kind and thoughtful, checking in with me frequently and allowing me to slow the breaks a bit on my research and writing. When I later got COVID-19 myself, that compassion continued. I was able to get all my work done on time, in part because I didn’t feel the stress and panic that would’ve delayed my progress should the response have been different.
My advisors also mentored me through the clerkship process, allowing me to use my writing products as samples and working with me to get them in the best shape possible. They shared experiences from their own clerkships and gave general advice on how to navigate what can often feel like an incredibly stressful and unpredictable process. Even after the semester ended, that help continued. As a result of their excellent advice, kindness, and compassionate understanding of how hectic the process is, I was able to secure the clerkship of my dreams.
Overall, my semester in the Democracy and Rule of Law clinic was an excellent one, and I will take the skills and confidence I gained with me wherever I go.