All my life, I was told that I would be a lawyer or a politician because I could tell elaborate stories and capture an audience. I took that encouragement from my family and blazed ahead to this ultimate goal. If I knew today what I knew then, this path would have been much more fulfilling and less strenuous.
What Is a First-Generation Law Student?
A first-generation law student is generally defined as “a student who does not have a familial relationship to the legal field or someone who is the first to attend law school in their immediate family.” (See How to Overcome Challenges as a First Generation Law Student ) I am an African-American woman and a first-generation law graduate. My first experience, like most, with the law came from reading text in school about slavery, Jim Crow, and redlining laws that were put into place to keep African-Americans oppressed in America. I was encouraged to be a lawyer, but these historic texts invigorated me to become a lawyer who sought justice. Little did I know that while we have made strides forward, the profession was still very uninviting to a first-generation Black female attorney.
My Experiences as a First-Generation Law Student
My experiences in this profession have been rewarding in some instances, tiring in others, but overall eye-opening. In undergraduate school, the expectations as a first-generation student are great, but in law school, they are enormous. Law school presents several different teaching methods, such as the Socratic method, which leads to increased feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Moreover, the pressure of succeeding because you somehow represent every minority that will come after you or upholding a legacy of those before you exacerbates the pressures of law school.
The number of female attorneys makes up about 37 percent of the profession. While there was an overall increase in minority attorneys, African American attorneys only make up about 5 percent; of that, only 1 percent are African American women. (See Lawyers by Race & Ethnicity; “Female and minority lawyer representation in firms reaches historic highs, but gains are small”) More shocking, these numbers generally track with law schools, bar associations, and legal jobs.
Too many times, as a law student and even now as an attorney, I have struggled with the question: Did I make the right decision? Mostly because I did not feel like I belonged when students talked about their internships, jobs, or personal and professional connections they knew in the legal field. Similarly, law school events made me feel inadequate because I lacked networking skills—I struggled with small talk, which wine to drink, the appropriate amount of hors d’oeuvres to eat, or the utensils to use at dinners.
Finally, law school was a huge financial commitment. I had to work several jobs while in law school to cover the costs my student loans did not. I did this while maintaining being a student, serving on journals, arguing in oral advocacy competitions, and working internships. As a first-generation law student, I had no choice but to work during school as my family’s financial assistance was limited, and scholarships only covered so much. Overall, these experiences have equipped me to work and advocate for myself and my peers in the profession.
What Have I Learned?
I and others like me are good enough, and we belong here. I realized this through interactions with peers, professors, other legal professionals, and my family. It is important to have a network of people who will keep you motivated, including your naysayers.
Be okay with being uncomfortable and placed into new situations. It is the only way to learn and grow professionally.
Own and accept being a first-generation law student. I now consider it a badge of honor. If you are a first-generation law student, take pride in making it to law school, and remember you are not alone. Others alongside you share the same experiences, and others who came before you to help guide you. Similarly, lean on family. While they were not being cold-called in class, my mother, sister, and other family members received plenty of calls when I was struggling or felt alone and needed some encouragement. Most importantly, I became my own biggest advocate and sponsor. I had to go into spaces, talk about myself, seek help when I was struggling, find my mentors, and let it be known that I would be an attorney.
My Advice for First-Generation Law Students
First-generation law students belong in law school. If you are a first-generation law student or young lawyer, forge your path to becoming that amazing lawyer. Immerse yourself in law school and enjoy all the opportunities provided to you. Seek mentors and sponsors in professors and other legal professionals. You are not in this fight alone, and there are peers around you who are happy and willing to help you. Join school organizations and bar associations to network with professionals across the legal field. Give back to your communities and schools. Be proud that you are a first-generation law student, and don’t forget to help those that come after you. Remember, it is okay to be the first as long as you are not the last.