By Lori AthertonMarch 24, 2014
"I'm a believer in the benign randomness of life."
As Michigan Supreme Court Justice and University of Michigan Law Lecturer Bridget McCormack pondered what she might impart to students during her informal Blue Jeans Lecture on March 21, she thought back to her own days as a student at New York University School of Law. What would have resonated with her twenty-something self if she were sitting in the seats listening to a seasoned professional offer her views on law and life? What Justice McCormack settled upon was sharing the three important life lessons that have served her well in a career spanning five years as a public defender, 17 years as a law professor, and almost two years as a judge: 1) Planning is overrated, 2) Be sure to fail, and 3) Don't overanalyze the work-life balance.
While planning is beneficial, Justice McCormack said, too much planning can be a bad thing, especially if people are intent on sticking to a career path or job that limits their options and provides little satisfaction. While she had a "little plan" for what she wanted to do professionally, Justice McCormack discovered that many of her career opportunities came about organically or in unexpected ways.
"It was certainly never a plan that I would be sitting on a court," she said of being elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 2012. "Happily ensconced" in her then Law School roles of associate dean for clinical affairs, clinical professor of law, and co-director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic, it was Justice McCormack's husband, Steve Croley—a Michigan Law professor and member of the Obama administration—who planted the idea following a reception for a colleague who had been elected to the Michigan Supreme Court. After much consideration, Justice McCormack determined that she did, indeed, want to throw her hat in the ring.
"I'm not proposing that you crawl through life blindly," Justice McCormack told the students, "but what's worked for me personally is investing completely in whatever it is I'm doing at the time, and keeping an open mind to new challenges and opportunities that might jump in front of me, so that I can fall into them when they do. My life so far—my career at least—has been an exercise in total randomness."
When opportunities do arise, McCormack said, it's important to "give yourself license to fail." Going into her judicial race, she noted, there was a steep learning curve about the political process and she had no idea what the outcome would be. Along the way, she was met with opponents who told her she'd never win.
"I thought they were wrong," she said of her detractors, "but I had no basis to be certain," and had prepared both victory and concession speeches for election night. But because she had the willingness to realize that she might not win, Justice McCormack discovered how "liberating [it was] to know that I didn't have control over my own destiny."
A mother to four teenagers involved in numerous activities, McCormack said it's important to "go with your gut" when making work-life decisions. "When something is off with your partner or your kids, you'll know it," she said, adding that she doesn't believe there is "a" work-life balance, but rather, different stages of work-life balances that change over time.
"It's helpful to be on the lookout for ways to combine both work and family," which can bring families closer together and offer lessons on success and failure, she said. As a youngster, she helped out in her father's jewelry store during the holidays and school breaks, and she and her husband used the Supreme Court campaign to educate their own kids about government and the political process. "We engaged them in the phone bank and putting signs on lawns," she said. "We still had to make sacrifices, but it wasn't an either/or situation."
Following her talk, Justice McCormack took questions from students, many of which focused on her judicial race and the various transitions she's made throughout her career.
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