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
Ashley Thorpe is a rising 3L at Western New England School of Law. She says she has known she wanted to be a lawyer since she was 8 years old. Her interests have always been social justice work and helping marginalized people, and law has seemed like the best way to help this community. This has led her to to pursue a career involving litigation and prosecution. “Lawyers have the ability to really make an impact in communities of color, especially prosecutors, who decide what to charge someone with. Our country has a lot of people in the prison system, and lawyers have an ability to combat that and rehabilitate people in order to help them instead of punish them,” she says.
Thorpe was the first in her family to graduate college, and the choice to go to law school was a large decision. She views the commitment as a long-term investment in her future, which will allow her to be successful and help her community in the future. The change from undergrad to law school was difficult at first, but she loved being around people who had the same focus and determination as she did. Although there was a lot of competition, she was able to adapt to the new learning style: “I wish I knew the amount of independence that you have to have. What I mean by that is you can’t rely on a study group, you can’t rely on your professors, it’s all on you. You can obviously contact your professors for help if you have questions, but it’s definitely a different type of learning than in college. You have to kind of rework your brain to work alone so much, but you get used to it.”
“It definitely can be hard to go into a field where there aren’t many people who look like you”– Ashley Thorpe
On campus, Thorpe is the president of her school’s Black Law Students Association, vice president of the Student Bar Association, and also attends meetings from other groups such as OutLaw, women’s group meetings, and Latinx meetings. Thorpe thinks that it is good to show support for these communities because “it does create a positive network and shows that everyone comes together.” She feels that Western New England has given her a good community to grow and learn: “I think it’s really important to choose a law school that has more of a community and where everyone is not so combative and competitive with each other. My law school definitely feels like a family and people are generally willing to help each other out.” Law school is stressful enough, she says, why make it an unwelcoming environment as well?
Thorpe believes that if the legal community was more racially diverse then the justice system would function a lot better. As a Black woman in law school, she has put in the effort to form relationships with other people who identify as minorities. ”I definitely try to find people like that, whether it’s race or sexual orientation, and try to work together because it definitely can be hard to go into a field where there aren’t many people who look like you,” she explains. The lack of diversity in the legal profession means that Thorpe often finds that she is the only woman of color in the room. When in these situations, she says “I try to remember in my head that that’s unfortunately how life is in America and there aren’t going to be many spaces where there are a lot of people that look like me. I think it’s important to recognize that because it also helps you navigate it around the people that you work with, for instance recognizing implicit bias and microaggressions.” When there is someone else in the room who can understand your experiences, Thorpe says she feels much more comfortable. This can apply to the overall culture of a firm: “I’ve had interviews at internships where the paralegal looks scared, and she just looks nervous. That’s a red flag for me because if your paralegal is nervous, that means the hierarchy is not well.” The environment of a firm can have a large impact on the success of its employees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a large impact on how Thorpe thinks about law, and has realized how much of an impact it is having on the criminal justice system. She explains how a few months ago she was watching a trial online, in which the defendant chose to exercise his 6th amendment right to confront his witness over Zoom. “What happened was that he kept cutting in and out, which really upset me,” she says. “You have this 6th amendment right to confront your witness and have a jury trial. But because he decided to exercise it through Zoom, he missed half of what his witness was saying.” It was really frustrating for her to see that not everyone has been taken care of when it comes to simple things like access to the internet. She hopes that the pandemic and the ongoing racial justice movement will have an impact on the profession, but is sad that it took so long to happen. She believes that “it shows that we do need to have diversity and we need to have more acceptance of one another,” which is what keeps her motivated to continue to strive for justice in her career.