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
Ishani Chokshi is a rising 2L at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. She studied visual arts at Brown University, while also organizing and participating in equality and diversity efforts on campus. Realizing that she wanted to do political work in the legal field, she decided to go to law school. Upon graduating, Chokshi hopes to open a legal clinic with other trans girls. She plans that the clinic will also operate as a cannabis shop, art gallery, nightclub, and cafe, with the intention of “breaking down the barrier of professionality in the field”, which she says “really does scare off a lot of my community members from even approaching legal offices for help until it’s far too late.”
Although in general law school has only cemented Chokshi’s misgivings about the legal profession, she admits that she has met a lot of great people at school. However, she wishes she had realized just how restrictive the culture of professionalism would be. “I’m the first and only out trans person at my school, and a trans woman of color at that. And it was a harrowing experience my first year. Despite all the people being good, the culture of the place is so hostile towards the lives and the truths in the ways that my community members and I speak and share our experiences,” she says. The culture was so resistant to change, and she wishes she knew that “law school was not a place to really find out how we can make the system work for us, but just really understand the ways that the culture and the rules in place actually affect us.” However, Chokshi does appreciate the willingness of professors and students from different sides of the political aisle to discuss and argue about issues, especially in a political climate that has polarized so many topics.
Lawyers are public servants, we take an oath, and yet, we’ve forgotten it.– Ishani Chokshi
While Chokshi has a great core group of friends and has really connected with some professors, the overall culture at her school has not been the most welcoming or accommodating. After being mistreated by a professor, it took a month of gathering support, during which she says “I had to really single handedly rally people and fight for my rights against someone who was really manipulating the situation to maintain their own power.” The situation was not handled well, and the dean at the time ended up stepping down. Chokshi feels misguided by the school’s claims that everyone is welcome there, when their actions clearly demonstrated to her that she didn’t belong. “All they will do is tell you that you’re accepted and invited, but they won’t move further than that. And I wish I saw through that at first,” she says.
Chokshi agrees that it is a step in the right direction that schools and firms are starting to worry more about diversity. However, part of the issue is that ‘diversity’ is starting to dominate the conversation, when change is dependent on so much more than just increasing the numbers of diverse lawyers. For example, hiring more women attorneys does not mean more women are becoming partners. “I don’t see many women leaders, and it’s because these cultures are terrified of a woman yelling at them. They can’t handle it and will freak out. My professors freak out, and I think ‘You tolerate this from everyone else, we are lawyers, lawyers are known for yelling, and yet you won’t allow it when it’s coming from a woman of color’,” Chokshi explains. She says that even as someone who used to be on Brown University’s diversity oversight committee, she doesn’t focus on diversity in her work: “I’ve been pretty good at going into spaces where I’m the only brown person or trans person in the room… I have found that the real issue is including people, and really having a sense of inclusivity in the school and culture. And that, more than the lack of diversity, is what has been brutal to me.” It’s not that Chokshi doesn’t feel better when there’s another trans person or brown person in the room, but what is really missing are people who “understand the situation and who are willing to shift and accommodate just like they do with any other student.”
The way the legal profession has handled the current protests for racial justice has disappointed Chokshi. “Lawyers are public servants, we take an oath, and yet, we’ve forgotten it,” she says. There has been no real action to address the demands of the protesters: “The legal profession, behind closed doors, has started thinking about how can we increase policing, how can we systematically start cracking down on these protesters even harder, because they’re scared.” Chokshi, along with other Northwestern law students, drafted a letter of support for CPAC (Civilian Police Accountability Council) and the Defund the Police movement in an attempt to start a conversation at Northwestern about defunding the police, yet beyond that, there has been very little response from the community. “I’m very confused about it because these are the top intellectual minds in the country, but people are flailing and faltering at even talking about it. There’s a lot of fear,” Chokshi says. While she hopes that the protests will spur change, she observes that “right now there’s still a big wall, and the George Floyd protests have only made the legal community sink their heels in deeper.”
On the other hand, Northwestern has been very responsive to the COVID pandemic. Since safety precautions have been deemed top priority, many other initiatives, including diversity and inclusion, have been put on the wayside. “Honestly I think it’s a cop out,” Chokshi says. One reason for this is that law students aren’t the ones who need protecting: “People at Northwestern law school are some of the most privileged people in the country, we are not going to be the ones most affected by COVID. But the people who are going to be cleaning our desks and tables, the ones the university is going to be relying on to keep us safe, those are going to be the people who are getting sick.” Chokshi also believes it is likely that COVID won’t even be the worst disaster to hit the country within the next few years. “If this is the thing that makes the university turn insular and start cutting away our duties as public servants to actually help our country heal divides and do social justice work, then what is the point of the university?” she worries.
After only one year in law school, Chokshi is weary of the legal world and hopes to find work in which she won’t be swallowed up by the corporate bureaucracy. “A lot of lawyers start to lose a sense of self when going deeper into the legal profession after only being surrounded by lawyers, and they really lose their connection as human beings to their roots and families,” she says, and believes that “the work is not worth losing yourself for.” The work of a lawyer can often be consuming, and Chokshi thinks it is important to find work “that you consume, instead of having it consume you.” She advises to “work somewhere where you can still be connected to an outside, deeper reality. Where everyone is not just theorizing about some fancy legal concept, but actually talking about what hurts their hearts, and joy and laughing together, and cooking together.”