Failing Forward

Victor Cedeno

This essay is part of a student-led, first-person writing project called Bridges. Learn more about the program and read other essays in the series.

People always hear what they want to hear—especially when it’s something negative about themselves. This year, I entered the Law School’s Hinton Moot Court Competition, and when I didn’t advance to the semi-final round, the word I heard was “failure.” It was especially crushing because I had prioritized the competition above all else. I checked the results email multiple times, sure my name was there somewhere. Once I was certain there wasn’t a mistake, the doom and gloom set in.

The moot court competition was the activity in law school where I wanted to excel above all others. I’m a married student, and we were expecting our first child. Law school can be a black hole: if you allow it to, it will consume all of your time and energy. As I juggled doing extra chores with my wife Allie struggling through her pregnancy, while also preparing for our baby, I didn’t have the luxury to pull all-nighters on school work every week. I had to be very careful where I went “all-out.” That competition was it. And I failed.

The problem was not that I was disappointed with not making the cut. The problem was the way that disappointment quickly—though briefly—poisoned every other aspect of my law school experience. Can I cut it in BigLaw? Is there anywhere in law school I’ll excel? Did I even make the right choice to attend law school? Thankfully, I caught myself before further spiraling.

“Don’t believe everything you think,” I told myself.

I called my good friend and shared the news. He reacted as though I had just been dumped by someone he knew was wrong all along: “They messed up, those judges don’t know what they are doing, you are a boss and you’ll show them.” (I’m paraphrasing and using toned-down language). That’s when I realized that there was something funky about the image of myself I was conjuring. True, I had not achieved my goal. But that was hardly the first time. The dean had yet to call me to inform me that I was no longer welcome at the law school.

I asked myself: What would I tell a good friend who had just failed to reach a goal?

I would ask that person to take a step back and be more objective. I would point out that he had yet to fail a class, and in fact had done rather well academically. (And the truth is, I have done well, and I’m proud of this). I would remind him that he already has great job prospects. (I’m excited to work for a wonderful law firm this summer). I would point out that being at the University of Chicago Law School is itself an accomplishment—there is a stack of rejections many times larger than the class of incredible people in the hallways. (My classmates truly are some of the most impressive people I’ve ever met). I would remind him that balancing law school and a family without losing your mind is cause for celebration. (My wife and I welcomed our son three weeks before finals, and I still did fine!).

Failure is part of growth, as are missteps and embarrassments. The problem most law school students face is that we overemphasize failure and quickly forget our accomplishments. It sometimes feels as though life started at law school, when in reality, our success as attorneys and professionals will depend on everything we did before, during, and after these three years. We shouldn’t fall prey to negative confirmation bias.

I can only become a great attorney by challenging myself. I’ve committed to participating in the moot court competition again and taking on challenging clinics and classes. I expect this will not be my last disappointment while in law school, or as a lawyer. However, next time I find myself looking for my faults, I’ll think what a rational friend would tell me, put things in perspective, and get back to work.