Hannah Barton is a rising junior at Northwestern University and an intern at the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. She is also considering a career as an attorney. In this series, Hannah will interview a diverse cross-section of law students about their law school expectations, experiences and aspirations. Has the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the legal profession’s reactions and responses altered their perceptions about the practice of law? Will patterns emerge in the subjects’ responses? Will their thoughts align with your assumptions about law students? Read “What Do Law Students Think?” to find out.
By Hannah Barton
The law student participating in this interview is a rising 2L working as summer associate at a Big Law firm. They are a disabled trans person of color. Because of this mix of attributes and the uncertainty of how this would affect them at the beginning of their career, the student has requested that their identity be kept anonymous. “I am just starting out my career, and I don’t know what consequences there would be for talking about this kind of stuff. I don’t see a lot of people who have my mix of experiences in Big Law… I still don’t know if I’m going to try to pass*. I haven’t thought about it super intently yet, but I want to leave it open in case clients have a problem,” they explain.
When I see that I’m the only person who’s X, or Y, or Z, it makes me second-guess myselfAnonymous
However, fear of discrimination is not the main reason for this request for anonymity: there is also a worry that if all of the student’s identities are widely known, they will only be seen as a diversity hire. “I don’t want people to think I got the job I got because I’m diverse, I want them to think I’m actually a qualified person, and that’s one issue with these diversity rules and affirmative action is that people question if you should be there, and I question whether I should be there,” they say, adding that “when I see that I’m the only person who’s X, or Y, or Z, it makes me second-guess myself even though I know I have better scores and education than a lot of other people in my class.”
The shift from undergraduate to law school was not difficult academically, but the student identifies a clear cultural change. The student feels like they stand out in this very white community, and has trouble finding the kinds of people they were friends with in undergrad, even in the LGBTQ student group on campus. “I didn’t realize that in undergrad, being different is a lot more celebrated than in law school,” they say, explaining that “the culture feels a lot more sterile, people are much more concerned with appearance and how they look, they’re concerned about what people think of them and they’re competing against each other because of the curved grades. It’s not about how well you do in an absolute sense, it’s about how well you do in a relative sense, and I think that that permeates the culture of law schools.” This is a factor that can make unique students feel out of place or unwelcome.
The student also admits that much of law school seems unnecessary, and that it could probably be completed in one to two years at a much lower cost. The student explains that they “feel like law schools can be big money makers for universities depending on their financial structure, and that is probably one of the reasons why they want to make law school three years. But when you talk to 2Ls and 3Ls, they’re done, they aren’t really getting much extra out of those two years but they’re paying a lot of money and going into a lot of debt for it…. It’s pretty apparent that working for a few weeks at a law firm teaches you a lot more than a year of being in class.” The student describes how medical schools gain prestige by being very difficult to be accepted into, but since law schools have fewer requirements, they gain prestige and set up barriers by “making people spend money that’s not necessary.”
However, the student is cautiously optimistic about their future in the legal profession, saying they don’t think it was a terrible decision. They do say that they wish they had “explored more before setting on this path,” and taken different classes they had no experience in. “Getting into law school is really easy, but life as a lawyer is really not,” and since many (but not all) lawyers are very unhappy, the student points out that “you have to think about if you are willing to give up a lot of your life to do this kind of work,” so there is definitely value in exploring all of your options.
When asked about how to best find information about a future career in law, the student addresses another flaw in the legal profession: “The best way to learn about anything is connections, and that’s something that is really unfortunate when you’re not a really rich white dude whose dad is a partner at a really big law firm.” The student expresses frustration when seeing less qualified peers obtain highly competitive internships because of their family connections, which keeps many areas of the legal profession from becoming more diverse.
Regarding the job search, the student definitely considers it a red flag when there is a glaring lack of diversity. However, they don’t only look at the diversity stats, but also the culture, stating that a firm whose atmosphere is very cutthroat can also be unfriendly to people who are diverse. They also pay attention to diversity in practice areas, and how different groups interact with each other. For example, when there are mostly men in a presentation who keep talking over the women in the meeting, the student usually sees it as a bad sign. ”There’s a lot of focus on the numbers, and that’s really not enough. It’s not enough to have a lot of diverse people in the firm if those people feel like the firm is a terrible environment for them,” they explain. Due to the pandemic, they are also staying away from firms that have cut associate pay or have had a large amount of layoffs, as well as making sure a firm has a good handle on technology.
The student is a member of many student organizations, including their school’s Law Review, which they say is a time consuming, yet important activity. “I think it’s really important for minorities to be on Law Review and to get those accolades, because otherwise, I don’t think people take minorities as seriously in law. You don’t see people of color who are partner. The 1st year associate class is relatively diverse, but a lot of people don’t stay in the big law firms and there aren’t as many who make partner,” they explain. “I think the more good things on a résumé that people of color can have, the better chance they have of getting a shot at a Big Law firm.” Hopefully, due to a more widespread conversation on race, the legal profession will start viewing diverse lawyers as assets instead of people who need to prove they belong.
*Passing refers to the ability of a trans person to be correctly recognized as the gender they identify with, and therefore not immediately identified as trans by strangers. Those with passing privilege can have protection from trans discrimination and harassment, and many feel more comfortable being easily identified as their true gender. However, many trans people do not have access to the resources required to pass, not every trans person wants to conform to a strict gender binary, and some do not wish to hide their trans background.