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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Looking at the Challenges Facing First-Generation Law Students (and How to Address Them)

Dawn K Young and Ricardo Santiago

Looking at the Challenges Facing First-Generation Law Students (and How to Address Them)

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Being a law student is one of the most challenging and stressful times during the path toward the practice of law.  Law students embark on a journey that is vastly different from what they have encountered during their undergraduate years.  The academic rigor of law school courses, the vast of amounts of reading (thousands of pages of cases and statutes), and the never-ending deadlines are things that all law students encounter.  In addition, the race for top grades and competition for jobs are also a source of stress for law students.

For first-generation law students, however, law school presents additional hurdles on their path toward a career in law. 

What Is a “First-Generation Law Student”?

Coupled with the day-to-day tasks that every law student experiences, first-generation law students often lack the social, cultural, and financial capital to adapt to new environments. In other words, first-generation law students must learn how to adapt to unfamiliar situations with little to no previous guidance. In recent years, law schools have taken a greater interest in this “hidden minority” as first-generation law students exhibit life experiences, work ethics, and interdependent life skills—strengths that add to the diversity of the law school community.

But who exactly is a “first-generation law student”? Although there isn’t a universal standard describing the term, students who were first-generation in college are often considered first-generation in law school. This is not surprising, considering that many challenges facing first-generation college students persist throughout law school.

The basic definition of first-generation college students is those individuals who are the first in their immediate family to attend college. The federal definition, which most institutions use (often to determine students’ eligibility for TRIO programs and Pell Grants) states that first-generation college students are individuals whose parents have never earned a four-year college degree. (Federal TRIO Programs (TRIO) are Federal outreach and student services programs designed to identify and provide services for individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Federal Pell Grants usually are awarded to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree.)

In recent years, other interpretations of the term have emerged, including those individuals whose parents do not have a professional job and those whose parents may have completed a bachelor’s degree, but at an institution outside of the United States. With varying definitions and nuances of the term, what remains true is the commonalities of these students’ experiences—most first-generation law students find themselves with gaps in knowledge, resources, and support. They often experience social, cultural, and financial challenges distinct from their more traditional law student peers.

First-Generation Law Student Challenges

Most of the research on first-generation student challenges has centered on college students' experiences. However, at least one survey, the 2014 Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) from the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, has revealed some statistics on first-generation college students who have enrolled to law school.

Socio-Economic Challenges

Socioeconomically, most first-generation law students come from lower-income families. Thus, they usually have lower levels of familial financial support when compared to their traditional law student peers. These financial challenges often lead to other challenges, such as not being able to afford an upcoming semester’s tuition or required course materials. 

Moreover, first-generation law students use financial aid resources more than their peers. According to the LSSSE, 93 percent of first-generation law students reported having incurred student loan debt, compared to 84 percent of their more traditional peers. In addition, some first-generation law students have reported difficulty navigating various financial aid forms—often lacking the financial literacy needed to make fully informed decisions about student loans and other financial matters.

Lower Engagement in Law School Activities and On-Campus Resources

Virtually all law schools provide their students with various on-campus resources, such as academic support, career advising services, mentoring, and health resources. Law schools also provide students with opportunities to participate in various law school activities, such as student organizations and affinity groups, student-run journals, clinics and externships, moot court, trial team, and various public interest/community service projects. 

Unfortunately, many of these on-campus support networks are used less frequently by first-generation law students in relation to their peers. These differences may exist for a number of reasons, and not because these students are not interested in these offerings, but because they often lack the time. Data from the LSSSE reveals that first-generation law students have reported spending about 8 percent more time studying and 25 percent more time working for pay than their peers, which means they often have less time to participate in law school activities. Some may also have familial or other obligations which place them at a disadvantage.

Social and Cultural Challenges

Some first-generation law students also experience challenges overcoming deficits in exposure to social and cultural norms. Some may have a lack of acculturation to expectations in professional settings, a lack of familiarity with terminology, or a lack of exposure to certain environments. As such, many first-generation law students have reported having “imposter syndrome” as they maneuver a new law school identity. Some have felt isolated as they lack the encouragement and support from family and friends who may not understand the pressures of law school. 

Thus, first-generation law students may feel abandoned without the encouragement they may need to stay on the course.

Organizations Supporting First-Generation Law Students

Despite many of the challenges that first-generation law students face, first-generation law students satisfied the necessary requirements for admission to law school (e.g., a bachelor’s degree, LSAT scores, etc.). As such, one would expect first-generation law students to have an equal chance of success as the rest of their classmates.

However, while first-generation law students may possess the cognitive tools and abilities to succeed in law school, their success does not depend solely on their academic abilities. Success in law school requires many layers of additional support and resources, which, as previously stated, first-generation law students often lack.

Fortunately, considerable help exists to help first-generation law students bridge the gap they face in relation to their peers. Who can take action to provide resources and support for first-generation law students? Law schools, non-profits, law firms, and first-generation law students themselves.

Law Schools

Law schools have recently taken an active role in providing opportunities and incentives for first-generation law students. For example, Yale Law School’s First Generation Professionals successfully lobbied their law school to gather additional data on incoming first-generation law students. Others, like the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law offer peer mentorship, networking opportunities, and informational seminars to their first-generation students. And other schools take their commitment to these students a step further, such as the New York University School of Law and the University of California-Berkeley School of Law, which provide an opportunity for law students to apply for scholarships available only to them—including full-tuition scholarships.

Non-Profit Organizations

Non-profit organizations also recognize the value and need of first-generation law students and young lawyers. Many of them have created programs to help students overcome unique challenges posed by their first-generation status. The Diversity Scholarship Foundation (DSF), composed of attorneys, judges, and legal professionals, is one such organization. DSF provides an array of opportunities for diverse and underrepresented minorities in the legal industry, who for the most part tend to be first-generation law students.

Some of the DSF’s efforts to support law students include various scholarships, mentoring,and tutoring, awarding funds to law schools that actively promote diversity, and investing in programs that educate middle and high school students to encourage their participation in the legal profession. More specifically, the DSF provides a First-Generation Mentor-Mentee program “designed to introduce first-generation law students to attorneys and judges who will provide them with guidance to navigate law school and beyond.”

Bar associations also engage with law schools and law students to provide advice and mentorship to first-generation law students. The Chinese American Bar Association of Greater Chicago, for example, has collaborated with Loyola University Chicago School of Law’s Asian Pacific American Law Student Association Chapter by providing interview and other career related advice to law students. The Hispanic Lawyers Association of Illinois (HLAI) offers a mentorship program which provides three-person mentor groups, i.e., a practicing attorney, a law student, and a college student. In addition, the American Muslim Bar Association offers mentorship programs geared toward pre-law students, first-year law students, upper-class law students, and new attorneys.

Other Organizations

Law firms and other organizations also recognize and support underrepresented first-generation law students and young lawyers. PracticePro is a company that helps law students bridge the gap between law school and law practice. For example, PracticePro offers two career coaching programs to members of racial, ethnic, and gender groups which have been historically underrepresented in the legal profession—groups that frequently have traits, characteristics, common concerns, and challenges shared by first-generation law students. Latham & Watkins offers an affinity group, the First Generation Professionals, for young attorneys who are first in their families to graduate from college, university, or a professional school, or come from low-income or working-class families.

Building Their Own Support Networks

Notwithstanding law schools, bar associations, law firm groups, and other entities’ support and initiatives, first-generation law students are doers by nature and often pursue initiatives of their own to help other similarly situated students. Take, for example, the First-Generation Law Student Association at Chicago-Kent College of Law (FGLSA). Christian Sanchez, a first-generation law student, founded FGLSA in the fall semester of 2020, only weeks after transferring to Chicago-Kent—and at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. FGLSA went from being a new student organization with a handful of members to a well-recognized and active student organization at the end of the spring semester in 2021, hosting multiple events throughout the school year.

In that year, FGLSA grew its membership to match that of other well-established student organizations, started a successful peer-mentorship program, and held several panel and networking events with first-generation attorneys and judges as keynote speakers. Currently in its second year, FGLSA continues to build on the programs it initiated in 2020—adding a pipeline program to reach undergraduate students interested in pursuing a legal career, collaborating with other first-generation law student associations at local schools in the Chicago area, and starting an alumni mentorship program for current Chicago-Kent students.

Creating a Student Organization at Your School

If you are a first-generation law student attending a law school that does not have a first-generation student organization, start one! 

While the process for creating a new student organization will vary by school, the following steps should help get you started:

  • Step 1. First, identify the need for the organization. Are there enough networking events or panels that first-generation law students can take advantage of? Are there sufficient resources, offices, or departments where first-generation law students can ask questions?
  • Step 2. Second, write down your mission statement. Your mission statement should address the needs that you identified in step one. Steps one and two will be invaluable for successfully achieving step three.
  • Step 3. Third, seek out your team. Find other students who are as passionate as yourself about providing support to other first-generation students and recruit them to help you.
  • Step 4. Find an advisor. Many schools require student organizations to have a faculty advisor to operate. A faculty advisor will help you navigate the founding of the organization and advocate on your behalf to the administration. But even if your law school does not require that you have a faculty advisor, an experienced professor or mentor can be a sounding board and provide valuable advice as you develop and grow your organization.
  • Step 5. Finally, deliver. Always keep your mission statement in mind, make sure that your events reflect that mission statement, and address the need you identified in step one.