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
Chundzom Lopez graduated from Rutgers Law School in the Class of 2020. She didn’t always know she wanted to be a lawyer, and started college as a film major. She then began to think about major questions regarding equality in the film industry, which led her to study philosophy. During this time, she identified common themes in the “need for lawyers, and people who understand the law, present in bodies of oppressed people”. Since the law has such a large impact on how society functions, she realized there needed to be better representation of marginalized people in the legal system. Lopez explains that since most court cases are contentious, and therefore their outcomes can vary heavily depending on the personal experiences of the lawyers and judges involved in the case, attorneys can have a large amount of control on how laws impact daily life. “Every individual lawyer may not have power, but collectively, the law has an immense amount of influence over everyone’s life,” she says, hoping that she can be a small part of the change.
After interning with DA’s offices, Lopez has become interested in prosecuting. Although prosecution can often be the problem in the system, she realizes the amount of control prosecutors can have in certain communities, and she hopes to “change the way that they function around case work around individual’s lives and look at community issues as a whole.” While in law school, she enjoyed being a member of the Muslim Student Association, as well as the Association of Black Law Students, which allowed her to participate in community initiatives like food drives and child advocacy work. These experiences allowed her to see firsthand the community she is going to serve. “I think that’s very important, no matter what area of law you go into, to know and understand the people that you’re going to be serving,” she explains.
We have panels solely to discuss what women should wear to interviews.– Chundzom Lopez
Lopez describes how law school “allows you to see the incredible power you have”, and how graduating was a great moment of pride for her friends and family. As a Black, Asian, and Muslim woman, she explains how she and her friends have “come from situations and environments where we haven’t seen many of our peers do these things,” making representation all the more important. Lopez acknowledges how many aspects of the legal profession, such as dress standards, have not adapted to a more diverse group of attorneys, who often have to endure more restrictions in order to fit into the legal culture. “We have panels solely to discuss what women should wear to interviews, and it goes down to the very specific details, like you have to wear either a pointy or round heel, you have to wear stockings… your hair can’t be curly because if it’s curly you aren’t seen as professional or refined. There’s a lot of discriminatory issues that are very negative towards people of color, who may not have the same financial ability to buy clothes that fit into these criteria, or whose hair doesn’t meet the requirements by the natural way it grows.”
Lopez doesn’t let these restrictions prevent her from pursuing her career goals. One more person who joins the profession is one more person who can make a difference, but she acknowledges that there are still powerful people in the profession who are used to things being a certain way. You have to be prepared to work with the ‘old guard’, because “in a lot of cases these are your bosses, these are the people who hired you, and who decide if you are advancing in whatever position you’re in.” Lopez says that “showing them the reasonableness of what you are asking” will help lead to decisions that benefit everyone.
When asked about how she would feel going into a firm with low diversity, she explains that “there are two different schools of thought. One is that someone has to open the door, and we need someone to go into those jobs to be the ones that make it more diverse because they are qualified.” But not everyone feels comfortable changing the system from within: “You have to know what your personal happiness level is to be a productive person: some people need a diverse and inclusive environment to feel like they can function well,” especially if there is historically low retention at a firm. When a firm hires people of color but has no diversity in positions of power, Lopez thinks it definitely raises questions such as “Is this intentional in some way?… Is the firm subliminally making them feel unwelcome? … Do they just hire people of color to the associate class to show diversity?” These are questions that many members of diverse groups find themselves asking, on top of the normal anxieties any new lawyer feels when interviewing for a job.
The rigidity present in the legal profession may find its roots in law schools. Lopez explains how the environment of law schools is often tense and unwelcoming, not just because of the academic difficulty. The curve places you in a “situation where your grade automatically impacts someone else’s grade either positively or negatively. However poorly you do, someone else does better,” which leads to constant competition. Although she feels that Rutgers provided a more wholesome experience than some other schools, Lopez thinks that “there’s this underlying network in law schools that is very unhealthy for students,” which can often bring out the worst in people and create a mentality that can stay with lawyers throughout their careers.
However, Lopez doesn’t think this should discourage people who want to have a good impact on society. “If you like the idea of not only making changes in society, but also being around a group of people who are always critically thinking about things, you should definitely do it,” she says about law school. Before making the decision, she advises, “you should do everything in your power to make yourself the most confident you can be, the most well-rounded and well-balanced you can be, because I think in many ways it is a mostly ‘sink or swim’ environment. No matter what background they come from, people are either thrilled by that, and they are ready to be a shark and cut everyone else down, or they are disgusted by it and it can have an impact on their well-being.” Lopez emphasizes the importance of knowing what makes you happy in life. While it is great to want to make a difference in the world and money isn’t everything, “if you need to earn a living that’s more than what public interest can afford to give you, it’s not a crime to try to do a firm route or do in-house counsel.”
As final words of advice, Lopez stresses to “find out what you need in your personal life as well as what you want to give to society, and find a balance between those two things. You are not encumbered upon one path in your lifetime.” Although many aspects of law school are not ideal, “there are factors of your experience that you can control… you can choose the people you want to be around, control if you’re a good person or not, and you can control if you contribute to the betterment of that school. Good people can find good people and make good decisions about their life.” Words that everyone, lawyer or not, should live by.