What Do Law Students Think? Part 8

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

The law student participating in this interview is a rising 2L at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. At first, he thought he wanted to be a teacher. However, he realized he wanted to pursue a career in law after working as a paralegal at an immigration law firm in Chicago. He is most interested in the mix of problem solving and client communication involved in law, and hopes to use those skills in a corporate setting. 

Growing up lower middle class, the student found the culture of law school a bit intimidating at first. “It’s cliche, but I think I was very stressed out my first semester. I don’t come from a family of lawyers or doctors or anything like that. So for me, law school was a really big deal for my family.” While it was both a large academic and cultural transition, he says the new environment pushed him to work harder and remain diligent throughout the semester, which helped his grades. This was fueled by the emphasis on how much first year grades mattered, which are almost completely dependent on the final exam. 

“It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more representation among the faculty and among leadership at the school”

– Anonymous

Working at a firm before going to law school allowed the student to gain many valuable insights into the legal profession, and felt supported in his decision to go to law school. Having some firm experience introduced him to what he liked about law. His time there especially helped him realize the differences between certain law schools and how much value can be placed on where you go to law school. He realized “the kind of the hierarchy in the law, and that in the legal profession where you go to school matters, rightly or wrongly,” which encouraged him to apply to Northwestern. 

However, the student acknowledges the inequalities in the system. After doing a research project focused on the lack of diversity in BigLaw firms, he found that “although there was a lot of effort in getting diverse candidates in the door, there wasn’t enough mentoring throughout their stay at the firm.” This leads to a huge gap of diverse associates leaving firms. He sees these firms as only making partial effort in order to increase their diversity numbers, which shows they either don’t want to, or are unaware of the need for, putting in the effort of “mentoring and fostering a generation of diverse partners.” This stems from the leadership of firms: the student believes that unless partners become more diverse, “the firms are going to stay largely the same, because you have to have more representation at the top in order to really have substantive change.” 

In terms of his experience at Northwestern, he is glad to see that a good amount of his professors are female, yet there is a noticeable lack of racially diverse faculty. He has hope in Northwestern’s efforts to make a change, but is unsure of its timing. “In terms of my classmates, I’ve thankfully made some good friends who are diverse. But it’s unfortunate that there isn’t more representation among the faculty and among leadership at the school. And I think that it’s not unique to Northwestern,” he says. He also connects this to wider problems of race and segregation in Chicago, and how it shouldn’t be so hard in a city that is so diverse to hire qualified people. 

These are issues the student also considers when looking at potential future employers. The culture of a firm can be very important even as a white man, and although he is motivated to get the best job possible, he is also looking for “a firm that is consistent with [his] values and a place that values diversity and inclusion.” If a firm clearly does not have this kind of environment, the student says “I take a step back and really evaluate whether this firm is worth pursuing.” While it is important for a firm to have a Diversity and Inclusion department and a pro bono program, these shouldn’t be the only areas of the firm that pay attention to these issues. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the increase in the ability to work from home, the student predicts that a large number of attorneys will choose to move to smaller cities where the cost of living is lower, which could affect markets like Chicago or New York. There is more of a focus on finding places with more space that will be accommodating to remote work even after the pandemic ends. He believes that the racial justice demonstrations sparked after the death of George Floyd will have an even larger impact on the legal profession. Many of his classmates are very passionate about racial justice, and firms will have to start answering questions about their diversity rates. Firms are also realizing that diversity is something to prioritize, in contrast to the financial crisis in 2008, during which “one of the biggest casualties in the legal profession were diversity and inclusion programs and diverse attorneys,” so hopefully they won’t make the same mistake twice. 

To anyone considering law school, the student recommends to really think about if it’s something you want to do, and then maximize your potential in terms of where you go to school and scholarships you receive. He also advises to keep an open mind about which areas of law you want to practice, as well as to “just try to focus on being great at what you do in the immediate future” without worrying about outside pressures.