What Do Law Students Think? Part 5

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

Chief Coleman is a rising 2L at USC Gould School of Law. When describing why he wanted to become a lawyer, he remembers a key moment his last year of high school when he attended the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention. Although he was surrounded by many key players in the city, “they kept referring to the lawyers, on if they could implement the policy and implement change.” He decided that if he really wanted to make a difference, law school would give him the best tools to do so: “I believe that one of the best ways to make a difference is to know the law and then be able to apply it to enact change.” Although he is not yet sure what area of the law he will go into, he says the complexity of his current work on securities litigation matters is very interesting to him, but he also loves politics, and works with economic inclusion think tanks in his free time. No matter what area of law you are in, Coleman believes that the most important thing a lawyer does is advocate for their clients. “I am of the firm belief that everyone deserves a lawyer, and that everyone should be entitled to good representation,” he says. 

“Just because there’s no one else like me doesn’t mean that I won’t excel here.”

Chief Coleman

Since Coleman went directly from undergrad to law school, he was able to clearly see the difference between them, and says he wishes he had realized this earlier on. The academic difficulty can be a lot to handle, but once he realized that everyone else was struggling too, he felt more confident and willing to participate in class. Coleman says “you have to know that it’s okay that you’re not the top of your class, you’re still smart and competent.” Being surrounded by so many intelligent people can be intimidating, but it is also Coleman’s favorite part of law school: he loves being able to have interesting conversations with his classmates on any topic and hear from people who have so much knowledge on such a wide variety of issues. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed a lot about how law students are thinking about their future. For example, former 1Ls like Coleman still only have one semester of grades due to the fact that many universities went pass/fail in the spring, making it difficult to apply to clerkships and other opportunities. And although Coleman doesn’t think there will necessarily be a large change in what areas students will want to practice in, there is definitely a shift in their perspectives. People who wanted to do public interest before now really want to do it because the pandemic has highlighted the many injustices in the system, while “people who want to go to larger firms are now thinking about what type of matters their firm handles, and how a firm needs to show it’s a little more resilient and has a more diverse client base.” While he is lucky to be working in a firm who has a lot of clients in the tech industry, many of his friends have started thinking about how they can find work that is “pandemic proof.” 

The pandemic is also changing how we interact with each other. As president of one of the largest student orgs on campus, the Public Interest Law Foundation, and Co-Professional Development Chair of the First Generation Professional Program, Coleman describes how he is “changing how I think about how we organize and bring a group together.” He wants to make sure “the public interest folks, especially the 1Ls, know they have a community here and make sure they know that community supports them.” He explains how it will be difficult to give them opportunities to get involved in public interest when you can’t go into communities and meet with clients face-to-face.  

The racial justice movement occurring throughout the country is another factor that can potentially make a change in the legal profession. As a Black man, the fact that the legal profession is not very racially diverse is something that Coleman has to face often. “There are so many times that I go into a space where many lawyers are and there’s no one in the room who looks like me,” he says. Even though law schools are graduating more diverse classes every year, the fact that this change in applicants isn’t appearing at the partner level shows that more work needs to be done. Coleman believes that “diversity isn’t only something that helps on a pamphlet, it helps with business, because when you have more diverse thoughts, you have better outcomes. You have better ears and eyes on the situations because people have different backgrounds.” 

When asked about interviewing at a firm with low diversity, Coleman says “sometimes it does make me feel uncomfortable to go into spaces like that, but I think it’s important to have confidence in myself and knowing that I am competent, and I am smart, and I can do the work, it’s just a matter of showing that I can.” If there aren’t people who look like you at higher levels of a firm, it can make you wonder if you yourself would be able to elevate your career in that space. However, Coleman tries to look at it from this perspective: “Just because there’s no one else like me doesn’t mean that I won’t excel here, because if that was the way everyone looked at things there would never be civil rights activists, there would never be any ‘firsts’. So I think it’s very important to be comfortable and willing to be the first.”

Coleman is cautiously optimistic about change in the legal profession due to racial justice demonstrations, but realizes that there is also a pandemic happening, which can cause financial barriers to that change. He explains that “on one side you have a social movement that is immensely important and on the other side there’s not a lot of availability for firms to hire new associates.” In terms of law school applications, Coleman says: 

In the law school perspective, whenever you have a giant movement, you see different shifts of people entering law school. After the 2008 recession and the 2016 election you saw a spike in people going to law school, and so this could be one of those movements that creates a spike. With that, I think it’s important that law schools focus on that diversity component and don’t just accept the same type of students. Once again, diversity means a lot; its inclusion in diversity of thought, diversity of space, color, of sexual orientation, of religious background, and I think it’s very important that schools focus on that because I really think it impacts the classroom experience for everyone.

When asked if he had any advice for law students, he remembers how one of his professors told students to keep on reading the newspaper: “I didn’t realize how much law impacted current events until I went to law school, and it’s cool to see what different cities and districts are doing.” He also recommends law school to anyone who thinks they are interested. “Law school is hard but it’s also rewarding. Those long nights pay off,” he says, and if you’re thinking about going to law school, especially if you’re from a diverse background, you should do it because there is a need for good lawyers with different perspectives.