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
Sudeep Dhanoa is a rising 2L at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. He enjoyed doing mock trial in high school, which sparked his interest in becoming a lawyer. While he momentarily wanted to be an engineer in college, he eventually decided on a major in Philosophy at UC Santa Barbara. He has enjoyed the work he has done so far with researching and analyzing cases, but looks forward to being able to talk face to face with people in a courtroom.
The only lawyers Dhanoa knew before going to law school were in their 50s, and they described to him an “older, much more strict and rough version of law schools.” However, when Dhanoa started law school he realized that its stringent professionalism was still very much present. This, along with curved grades, could sometimes make it difficult to enjoy learning in class. Dhanoa describes the stress of being a new law student knowing “that the enemy of all of your future is your 1L grades.” Despite this, he still loves hearing his professors teach and is grateful to be learning from people who are so passionate and intelligent. He sees his professors and older students as some of the best resources one can use to succeed in law school.
“It felt like I was that token character in the law school.”-Sudeep Dhanoa
Dhanoa was also somewhat surprised by the lack of diversity in law school, after going to a diverse school for undergrad in California and expecting a similar level of diversity in Chicago. He explains how it feels to be Indian and gay at Northwestern: “You know when you watch TV shows and movies and you always see like the token characters that they just toss in for the sake of diversity? It felt like I was that token character in the law school.” He says the straight, white, professionalism of the university caught him off-guard, and noticed how he started orienting himself with people who were like him, like the OutLaws group on campus. He hopes that law school will eventually follow the lead of undergraduate schools and other graduate programs in becoming more laid-back and collaborative: “The whole hyper-professionalism thing is very uncomfortable for me. And I know that for a lot of first-generation law students, it’s very uncomfortable for them too because it’s not something they’re used to. I think that’s part of the big dividers that make law school a difficult thing to adjust to for first-generation students.”
The aspect of imposter syndrome that comes along with being a token minority is also present in the workplace. Dhanoa explains how being one of the only people of color can make you wonder why you are there: “It kind of makes me worried that if I get in, it’s not going to be on my own merits, and that coworkers will perceive me that way in terms of giving me respect.” There can also be firms who are overly concerned with diversity, which can make Dhanoa just as uncomfortable. He says that sometimes they are so focused on just hiring more diverse employees that they’re “sheltering you from the realities of what working at that firm is like, in terms of workload and in terms of critiquing you.” He has been in interviews in which the interviewers constantly bring up diversity, when Dhanoa is more concerned with other factors of the job like burnout, pay, and the progress to becoming a partner. “It was a little bit demeaning, because it seemed to me that they thought, ‘Oh, diversity is the only thing he cares about’,” he says. No matter how firms go about it, Dhanoa describes a feeling of never feeling quite welcome: “It’s kind of hard to find the right match where you feel like you’re just a person there, where you’re not getting this weird treatment based on your diversity, where people aren’t either walking on eggshells around you or resenting you… it’s hard not to know what’s genuine and what’s them trying to just trying to just nab me because of the color of my skin or my sexual orientation.” However, he has felt that his current employer, Neil Gerber Eisenberg, has done a good job of fostering a normal and welcoming work environment.
The pandemic has added an extra stressor for law students to find summer employment, as well as jobs after graduation. Many summer programs were canceled, and summer OCI (On-Campus Interviews) has gotten pushed back since many law firms are uncertain about how many new attorneys they can hire. Dhanoa says that if he does OCI, he has to be willing to open up his search: “In terms of supply and demand, there’s a lot less demand and a lot more supply. And as part of the supply, I have to be a little bit less picky.” The issue of student debt is also very present in his mind, but he is trying to focus on the present and being able to practice law, which will make it worth it!