Envy in Law School (Or What I Learned From the Rock This Summer)

In the summer disaster movie, San Andreas, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s character scours earthquake-rocked California in a helicopter, plane and then speedboat to save his family members from fires and floods. We see him engage in feats of athletic prowess, but we also see him learn to talk about his feelings, and in particular the pain and regret he experienced following the death of his younger daughter. Lawyers at all stages of their careers may do well to follow the Rock’s example and practice talking more openly about their feelings, but this lesson may be particularly relevant for law students. Law school can be an emotionally evocative time in one’s life. Some of these emotions are positive: excitement, camaraderie and hope. Some are not. As students gear up for another year of law school, I want to offer some reflection on one of the difficult emotions that they are likely to encounter this coming year, envy. I don’t claim any authoritative answers on the topic, but I hope to open up some space for a discussion of envy, and the other emotions of law school.

Envy is the pain we experience when we learn of another’s success. It can range from a small pang in one’s stomach, to something more intense, and is usually accompanied by hostile feelings towards the successful peer. Underlying this hostility is anxiety about our own worthiness. We compare our (perceived) lack of success with our peer’s (perceived) abundance of it. We wonder if we are somehow defective. Envy is apt to be most intense when the successful peer is someone we consider a near equal, because the peer’s achievement is more likely to seem like something that should be in our reach.

Part of the pain of envy stems from the unfavourable comparisons we draw between ourselves and our successful peers, but envy is also painful because feeling envy is seen as a character flaw. Consider popular portrayals of envy, and you’ll come up with a list of pretty objectionable characters: the step mother in Snow White, the Italian composer Antonio Salieri, who was portrayed in the play-turned- film Amadeus as a man possessed by his dark envy of Mozart, or Tonya Harding, who was implicated in the 1994 attack on her figure skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. Envy is doubly painful: we wonder if we are defective, because we aren’t as successful as our peers, and we wonder if we are bad, because we are supposed to delight in the success of our colleagues, not respond with an unhappy cocktail of hostility and self-loathing.

The double painfulness of envy helps explain why we so rarely discuss our experiences of it. When we’re in the throes of envy, we may fear that if we give voice to our feelings, it may cue others to draw unfavourable comparisons between our successful peers and us. And a person who admits to feeling envy may be legitimately concerned that he or she will be perceived as a resentful villain, plotting the downfall of a more successful colleague. So we endure our envy in silence, waiting for the painful feeling to dissipate. This silence creates a negative feedback circle, because our reticence to discuss envy with one another can lead a person to believe that others are not having comparable moments of anguish, which makes one’s own experiences seem even more aberrant and shameful.

Law school can be a particularly unfriendly environment in to which to discuss any sort of feelings, especially stigmatized ones like envy. Law privileges reason over emotion, idealizing the unflappable, dispassionate advocate. Strong displays of emotion are labeled as unprofessional and perceived as a threat to one’s rational competence. Against this backdrop, law students may come to view their emotional experiences as a taboo topic.

At the same time, law school can be an especially envy-inducing environment. At law school, students are in close contact with a defined peer group, regularly competing for accolades that are presented as both highly desirable and finite in number: marks, awards, and ultimately articling positions, especially at large, prestigious firms. Add in a healthy dose of insecurity and law school can evoke crippling moments of envy.

These feelings of envy, if left unaddressed, can hamper students professionally. It can chill a person’s relationship with a successful colleague, foreclosing opportunities for collaboration. It can increase a person’s feelings of worthlessness or insecurity, which can have a paralyzing effect on one’s ability to do good work. It feeds into an unhelpful mindset, where we are prepared to believe that there is a limited amount of success, or happiness, or – my favourite metaphor – pie, to go around. We can become so preoccupied with competing for the limited amount of pie that we stop thinking of innovative ways of growing the pie. Or we might become so preoccupied with competing for a limited amount of pie that we forget to consider if we really want pie in the first place. It is very easy to buy into someone else’s definition of what success looks like, especially if you see others receiving praise and esteem for pursuing that definition. And this is tragic, because we end up envying other people for things that we do not even genuinely desire.

But envy can be productive, if examined. This process of examination starts with considering the trigger. When we find ourselves in the throes of envy, we need to clearly articulate why we feel envy – what the other person has that we want – and then honestly assess if we actually do want the same for ourselves. And it’s important to be realistic about our desires, recognizing that achievements come with trade offs – requiring time and energy. We have limited amounts of time and energy, and so we need to prioritize how we use it. Examining the cause of our envy may lead us to realize that we do not truly wish to be in the place of our successful peer, and this realization may act as an antidote to envy.

Alternatively, we may realize that we do genuinely desire similar achievements, and are willing to make the trade-offs necessary to realize them. This is also a valuable insight. At this point, we may wish to explore what lessons, if any, we can glean from this other person’s success. Consider them for a moment as a role model instead of a rival and ask what they are doing well that could be emulated. The envy can be an entry point to valuable self-reflection.

It pays to practice productive responses to envy during law school, because after graduation, when one’s peer group and the metrics of success become more amorphous, feelings of envy persist. Envy even makes an appearance in San Andreas. Near the start of the movie, the Rock’s character stews in envy while visiting his estranged wife at the beautiful LA-home of her new beau, a wealthy property developer. By the end of the movie, the new beau has been squashed by a shipping crate on the Golden Gate bridge, and the Rock’s character is reunited with his wife. Outside of the context of a disaster movie, we probably cannot expect a comparably dramatic resolution to our feelings of envy, instead we can practice productively engaging with the emotion.

For those who are interested in reading further on the topic of envy, many of the ideas presented above are developed more fully in the following works:

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1995)

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety (Toronto, ON: Penguin Canada, 2004)

Aristotle, The Rhetoric translated by W Rhys Roberts (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2004)

Anna Lund,
Lecturer at the University of Alberta, Faculty of Law,
Doctoral Candidate at Allard School of Law,
Member of the Alberta Bar

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