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
Sandra Beaubrun is a recent graduate of Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University. She has always been motivated to become a lawyer because her parents are immigrants and were met with many barriers once they came into the country. She wanted to be able to help disadvantaged people, and law school seemed like the best way to be able to help people in similar circumstances as her parents. Right now her main goal is being able to both educate and protect individuals in a legal capacity. She is considering criminal prosecution, and can see herself becoming a teacher or a public official in the future.
Beaubrun wants to dedicate her career to helping others, but acknowledges the burden of student loans and their effect on her post-graduation decisions. Too often, she explains, students are met with a bill after graduation and they “end up losing the sole reason they went to law school.” As a first-generation law student, she wishes there was more transparency about the barriers to law school: that you not only have to pay for tuition, but bar prep and the bar exam itself. It can be difficult to focus on justice when you have so much debt, but she is determined to continue pursuing her goals: “I want to help individuals that look like me because I know the justice system is not fair to everyone. I know that the people in those positions come from communities and neighborhoods that look like mine, and I want to help effect change.” She believes that “all lawyers need to remember that we were given an opportunity… Don’t be selfish. Mentor somebody, take someone under your wing and give them the information that you wish that you had when you were in their shoes.” Since Beaubrun didn’t know any lawyers she could look up to, she had to make her way through law school using trial and error to figure out her own scholarships, outlines, and internships. Even while in undergrad, Beaubrun didn’t receive guidance on steps considered “common knowledge” for people in the legal profession, such as the fact that the LSAT is only offered a few times a year.
I was in my head constantly saying you can’t appear to be too ethnic.– Sandra Beaubrun
There were many cultural aspects of law school that surprised Beaubrun as well. Just walking the halls and seeing hardly any pictures of people of color on the walls would lead her, a Black woman, to wonder if she actually belonged there. She also felt there was an absence of support when it came to academics fueled by the competitiveness of students and strictness of professors: “Even if a teacher in law school is understanding of your struggles, it doesn’t impact the grade you’re going to get.” However, despite the fact that students are constantly competing with each other to be the best, Beaubrun admits she has made some great friends in law school who genuinely want to help each other. She is also thankful for the Black Law Students Association for giving her the opportunity to meet people who looked like her who practiced law. “It’s a constant reminder that there’s somebody that looks just like you and they probably had similar struggles. If they made it, you can too,” she says.
Being Black in law school was always on the back of Beaubrun’s mind. “I was in my head constantly saying you can’t appear to be too ethnic,” she says, explaining that she tried not to seem too passionate when she was speaking in class to avoid being called aggressive. She describes how she felt like she couldn’t always say what was on her mind: “I can’t appear to be the angry black person. It was as if I sometimes had to adopt the role of being inferior or just lowering my voice.” When she did speak up, she had the feeling that people would question how she got into her school and if she deserved to be there, or they would brush her off as being too sensitive. She has also experienced career counselors talking her down from applying for more competitive positions and pushing her towards public interest work since that is what is expected of her. “I learned that I’m going to have a voice because I was tired of getting talked over. Don’t force me into a position that I told you I didn’t want,” she said, and started researching her own job opportunities.
Another aspect of being a Black woman that has affected her experience in the legal profession is her hair. She has been told not to wear her hair in braids for interviews in case the interviewer is “distracted” by them or views them as unprofessional. To avoid this, she has to spend time and money on getting her hair done before the interview, when she could be preparing for it or studying for school. She explains how the process can interfere with her responsibilities as a student and employee: “When I was doing my interviews for DA’s offices and firms I had to think, ‘Okay, class ends at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, so I can’t get it done then. I have to get my hair done on Monday and make sure that I keep it for Wednesday because Wednesday night’s the interview,’ and I shouldn’t have to worry about that.” She believes that it helps to see people who look like her in interviews since they can understand the types of scrutiny she is under.
While Beaubrun is glad the discussion on diversity has been magnified in the past few months, she sees many efforts as insincere. Although practically every firm, business, and school has published a letter claiming that Black Lives Matter, she doesn’t see many real steps being taken to combat racism in the professional world. The pandemic has also highlighted the emptiness of institutions’ promises to keep students and employees safe. Beaubrun explains her frustrations with the handling of online classes and exams: “When we were forced to go online for classes, no one ever took the time to ask ‘Do you have reliable Internet at home? What is your living situation?’” Even as students prepare to take the bar exam online, she doesn’t feel like anyone is concerned about if she has a solid place to stay when taking the test, and says “they even suggested to rent out a hotel room to take the test in, but nobody is asking about your income situation and if you can actually afford that.” Despite the struggles she has faced, Beaubrun is determined to set a better example for future law students and help make a difference in the profession. She hopes that she can help prepare students who come from backgrounds like hers to better navigate the legal system.