Poppy Mulligan is a graduate of Glasgow University and Cornell Law School, who worked as a fellowship attorney representing death row inmates in South Carolina. She is currently a trainee solicitor at Pinsent Masons in Edinburgh
I moved to New York City at 20 years old because I didn’t know if I wanted to be a lawyer or not. I was offered a competitive study abroad placement and I jumped at the chance to move to a vibrant new city and figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
I was quickly swept up in the intense culture and ritual of public humiliation that is, American legal education. I sacrificed sleep to study throughout the night, all in preparation for the heart stopping moment when a professor would call my name and (of course) ask the question I wasn’t prepared to answer. To succeed in that world, I couldn’t afford to sit on the fence anymore. I had to decide whether I wanted to take this career path seriously or not, and with that, my competitive nature kicked in.
I was seduced by the American mantra that if I worked hard enough, I could achieve whatever I wanted. I returned to Scotland fueled with a newfound confidence and ambition. This attitude pulled me through a first-class law degree; graduating from an Ivy League Law School; and passing the New York Bar exam at 23 years old. I am grateful that I subscribed to that idealistic view during that stage of my life because I learned what I was capable of. But after I left education, I was exposed to a new reality.
Before returning to Edinburgh, I spent a year and a half working for criminal defendants on death row and juveniles facing life without parole sentences. This experience changed my entire worldview. My mantra worked for me because I have always had access to education, opportunities and a family who financially and emotionally support me - I didn’t have to fight through the same barriers that halt people with arguably more drive, talent and intelligence.
My belief in the American dream drove me to become a lawyer, but its dissolution is what will keep me in this profession. When I think back to the dilemma I faced at 20 years old, I’m embarrassed. I held the golden ticket and I spent my early twenties wondering what to do with it, ignorant to the fact that I should have celebrated that I had the choice.