An Experience in Liminality: Alyson’s Story

Design Your Delta No.3

In the next posts, Cat and I reflect on our training as lawyers, and how those experiences motivate our work with the Delta Model

I got my first visible tattoo during law school, a tattoo that reminded me--and implicitly told others--I did not want to pursue a traditional law school career path.  It may have been immature at the time, but I needed something bold to pull me out of my obsession with being at the top of my class, doing journal, being offered an interview in OCI, and the potential of landing a job in big law. I had always been a little type A and done well in school, but these particular metrics had little significance to my career goals.

You see, I didn’t go to law school to become a lawyer.

I wanted the degree to further establish my nascent career in dispute resolution. And yet, there I was, falling into the same trap as most law students; using an external measure of success to define my own. 

In a previous post, we described law school as a period of liminality, marked by rituals through which law students navigate the transformation of becoming a lawyer. Unfortunately, the rituals in law school are one size fits all; and the size didn’t fit me.

This one size fits all approach to law school doesn’t work for a lot of individuals. It's not just me, and it’s not just those like me pursuing “alternative” careers. I often speak to students who are trapped by the limiting notion of success born of becoming an associate in a large law firm. One student I spoke to last week was emerging from a bout of depression after being told her resume didn’t fit the big law mold. They implied her poor fit in big law relegated her to a career in public interest, defining a dichotomous relationship between public interest and big law--as if those are the only two options--and that public interest law is the lesser of the two. 

I’ve previously written about this unfair characterization of certain careers, specifically ADR, as somehow “lesser than.” In an attempt to disprove any notion that young professionals are “relegated” to careers outside of big law, or lack success because they chose an “alternative” career, I launched a video blog featuring stories of individuals who, like me, successfully pursued dispute resolution early in their career--and thrived.

Too many mentors told me I must establish myself first as a litigator or better yet, a sitting judge, before returning to my career in dispute resolution. In fact, not doing so, would limit me to lower status, lower-paying, and less satisfying work.  That’s ridiculous. 

I recognize I was fortunate enough to graduate without massive student loans and could choose a position that matched my motivations and wants, even if it meant making less than 50% of my peers. But I made this choice knowingly, intentionally, after considering all the variables. When advising students, I ask them to reflect on their motivations, their needs, their wants, and their financial considerations.

Students define their meaning of success.

We should present the myriad of career paths available to law students, whether that is across sectors such as corporate, non-profit, or government; or roles such as litigators, clerks, transactional attorneys; and yes, those roles that are sometimes called “alternative” careers or “allied” professions such as legal operations, knowledge management, and dispute resolution.

Students have choice.

In its initial conception, we designed the Delta Model to recognize the growing role technology plays in the delivery of legal services without losing sight of the personal effectiveness skills necessary to be that trusted advisor to our clients. As the model developed, I realized that it was so much more. By simply shifting the visual midpoint of the model, we could depict the depth of skills needed for all kinds of different and distinct career paths.

As I reflect on my own experience in liminality, as well as observe the experiences of my students, this dynamic feature of the Delta Model seems to be a major driving force beyond my passion for its development.

I want to give students a tool that recognizes they have career choices; to support and guide them in this experience of liminality; where any and all career paths can be mapped onto the model, without judgment

-Alyson (and Cat)

2 April 2021