Hannah Barton is a junior at Northwestern University and was a summer intern at the Institute for Inclusion in the Legal Profession. She is also considering a career as an attorney. In this series, Hannah interviewed 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
Radhika Sutherland is a 3L at Loyola University Chicago School of Law. She describes her path to law school as “winding and nontraditional” — she graduated college in 2011 with degrees in Molecular Biology and Psychology, and then after working for a few years she went to graduate school for a Masters in Clinical Therapy and Mental Health Counseling. After spending some time working in men’s prisons and juvenile detention centers, she felt constantly frustrated with the legal system and its focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation. She encountered judges and lawyers who didn’t acknowledge issues like drug addiction, trauma, and homelessness, and felt that she could use her background to make changes in the legal system as a lawyer.
“You feel like the conversations aren’t tailored – or even sensitive – to the fact that a woman of color exists in the room”-Radhika Sutherland
Sutherland was nervous at first to start law school in her early 30s when most of her classmates were in their early 20s, but she thinks her work and life experience give her an advantage in law school. She is able to more comfortably talk to professors and administrators and connect her work experiences to her classes. “I probably have a lot more success in law school now than I would have when I was younger” she says. Although she wishes she had started earlier since she loves it so much, she doesn’t think she would have had the same experience without working 10 years beforehand— even the years between 23 and 26 made such a huge difference. For a lot of people it was difficult to understand her decision to go to law school since she already had a master’s degree, and many brought up the fact that she would have to put off having kids for a few more years. Sutherland found this unfair, because she knows men don’t have to face those questions. “I have a classmate who just had a child and he’s a man, so his wife was the one giving birth. Even though he’s having a kid he’s still able to go through law school,” she says. Even though there are some women who get pregnant or have kids during school, she thinks law school in general is not a conducive environment for being pregnant.
Sutherland self-identifies as a “bleeding heart social justice warrior”, and was excited to have an opportunity like law school where she could make a change. She felt compelled to do something meaningful after the 2016 election, and hoped her classmates had the same urge to change the system as she did. However, she found that was not the case. “It was difficult to kind of modulate all of my thoughts and feelings in class. I came into law school expecting an open forum for discussion, where like-minded liberal intellectuals would be on the same page and coming up with the solutions to the world’s problems,” she confides. Instead she found herself debating topics on racial equality that seemed obvious to her. She noticed how many voices of color would often stay quiet in these conversations since there would be few other people of color present to back them up. “I had to figure out a way to make sure I was able to express my opinion and support my Black classmates. Law school is very white… and I found that was not conducive to open conversation,” she explains.
The legal profession as a whole is not reflective of American society, and Sutherland thinks that more representation in the industry could have a large impact on social change. “We can all see how broken our criminal justice system is, and how broken our judiciary and legislative and executive are. All levels of government are so full of lawyers that if law schools were more representative of American society, I think that would make a big difference in the government and the policies that are made as a result,” she explains. As someone who had experience working with Diversity and Inclusion efforts before entering law school, and as a research assistant for LUC’s Division of Diversity and Equity, she was prepared to actively seek out other women of color who would help her navigate the system, but it can be much more difficult for younger women. She brings up how “not only in the classrooms do you feel like the conversations aren’t tailored- or even sensitive- to the fact that a woman of color exists in the room, but I don’t think I’ve had a single professor of color.” While she has managed to have a fulfilling experience as a woman of color, she says she has had to “work very hard to get a diverse education outside of the classroom. The good thing about law school is that there are diverse perspectives in the building, you just have to seek them out.” In a field where networking is so important, having a mentor can make a big difference in your career.
Sutherland believes that both the pandemic and demonstrations for racial justice will have an impact on the future of law schools. On one hand, the uncertainty of online classes and in-person testing for both the LSAT and bar exams will probably lead to a slump in law school applications. On the other hand, increasing awareness of the injustices in the American legal system may encourage a large rise in students interested in becoming lawyers. Sutherland, along with many law students across the country, has been working with administrators at her school to increase the admittance of diverse students who would otherwise never consider law school as an option for them. “Everyone deserves a chance to be a lawyer,” Sutherland believes, and “the more people from those communities who become lawyers, the better society will be. But the big barrier is the LSAT. The LSAT is an outdated test… and that is a huge hurdle that many less privileged students have trouble getting over… I think it’s nonsense that law schools are eliminating entire swathes of potential attorneys from our society for something so arbitrary as the LSAT.” She hopes that if the efforts of student groups are fruitful, “down the line we will have as many admissions from Chicago State University, as we do from Loyola or Northwestern.”
Since law school can provide students with so many opportunities, Sutherland wishes it was a more common career option: “I feel like it’s kind of been a lofted elitist institution, and of course many people there are extremely educated and have accomplished great things, but this doesn’t mean it’s only for an elite subset of society.” This elitism that surrounds the law has prevented it from becoming a more welcoming space. “I urge my white peers to reflect on why your environment looks the way it does. I would really love for them to reflect on why it’s a more comfortable environment for them because so many faces look like theirs, and how marginalized people might feel in those situations,” says Sutherland. She reflects on how much law school has empowered her, and how she wishes others could have the same experience: “It gave me tools that other people find less easy to argue with and tear down. I feel like I’ve been able to sharpen my research skills and argumentative skills in everyday conversation.” No matter what she decides to use her law degree for, she thinks having a J.D. really bolsters people’s confidence in you. “I think especially for women and women of color, we have to have all the tools and weapons in our holster that we can, and that’s what I consider the J.D.”