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
B. Alvarez is a 3L at Loyola University School of Law. She is working at the ARDC (Illinois Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission) this summer, and intends to get a certificate in Compliance Studies with a focus in Privacy Law. After participating in The Border Studies Program while at Oberlin College, she saw the need for lawyers who were willing to help immigrants at the Mexican border and decided to go to law school. Although law school has opened her eyes to many different areas of the law, she still plans on contributing to pro bono efforts. She believes that lawyers have a responsibility to the public since they are so involved in enforcing and interpreting laws: “It’s important to remember that as soon as you pass the Bar Exam you’re incredibly privileged, and you can dedicate some time to taking on extra cases. I also think pro bono work can open people’s minds, because you don’t really know what’s out there until you get exposed to it.”
“As a Latina I have to behave a certain way because this field is still pretty old school.”B. Alvarez
As the first in her family to attend law school, Alvarez felt compelled to start a first-generation law student group because she felt there were so many things she hadn’t been made aware of going into law school that ended up being very important. She explains how she wishes she had known the competitive nature of law school and how important grades were, on top of a variety of other aspects of law school that you are expected to already know. “I wish I knew how expensive books were… and how reading supplements can actually make the difference between a B- and an A” she says. There’s also “a certain etiquette that comes with interviews and networking events, things that no one tells you going in… this field really revolves around networking, and if you don’t have people walking you through what that networking process looks like, you can get lost trying to figure it out on your own.”
Alvarez expressed disappointment that the competitiveness of law school creates an environment where “there are so many small things that matter but probably shouldn’t,” which makes it even more difficult for first-gen students. “As a Latina I have to behave a certain way because this field is still pretty old school,” she explains, saying that she often learns about these small etiquette rules too late, after not getting a job or to the next round of an interview. With Latinas making up less than 2% of the legal industry, the lack of diversity in the profession as a whole is definitely on her mind, but she doesn’t let it discourage her. “In some ways it makes me more confident because I know how valuable I am, and I know what kind of diverse perspective I have, not just being a brown woman, but a queer, first-gen student, who grew up in the inner-city of Chicago. All of those things influence my decision making processes in general.” While this can make her more confident at times, she says being in “situations where there are very little brown people in the room can put me outside of my comfort zone.” She sees the lack of diversity as a motivator: “It actually makes me want to be in the field more, because representation does matter. I think it’s also something that makes me want to be in areas in the legal industry that have even less people of color.”
However, Alvarez wants to be hired because she is qualified, not because a firm needs more diversity. “I don’t want to be a token brown person at a firm… but at the same time I do respect active efforts to make the environment more anti-racist.” But these efforts have to be meaningful, and not just for show: “If we have to say it’s better than nothing, then you are giving us nothing. There’s this internal compromise you have to face when you say things like that.”
The pandemic has made it more difficult for many students to include the diversity and culture of a firm into their job search. You sometimes have to take what you can get, and “you don’t have too much room to be picky because you have to get your foot in somehow.” Since a lot of summer opportunities and jobs got pulled so many people are just trying to get any job, and Alvarez believes that “a lot of people are more willing to compromise, and say to themselves ‘Okay, I want to go into this field, but I right now I just need to learn how to write complaints, and I just need a job’.” Alvarez hopes that the legal profession will be able to become more diverse since there has been more social pressure to do so, but there won’t be an influx of applicants from lower-income communities unless there is a significant change in the institutional structure of law schools. “I think there’s a problem with people being able to financially support themselves through law school and wanting to take out less loans, and I think that’s affecting if they choose to go,” she explains.
Despite the problems in the system, Alvarez doesn’t regret her decision to go to law school. “There are a lot of people in my family who are really proud,” she says. Even though she hasn’t graduated yet, she already feels empowered by her education: “Now that I’m in law school I know about a bunch of other resources, so when someone asks a legal question I can direct them to a clinic that I learned about or give them an article that they should read. I feel like I have this extra bit of knowledge that some people don’t.” As for advice she would give to anyone considering law school, she encourages you to “know why you want to do it, because there are going to be long nights, there are going to be days where you wonder why you are here… When things get hard you need to be able to go back to that reason.”