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Thriving while Gen Z in law school

Generation Z Law Student

Welcome to law school, Gen Zer! We recruited you, promised you opportunities to make a difference for the causes and people you believed most in, and assured you that you’d find support and encouragement along the way from your faculty and administration. Although you’d be attending law school during the worst pandemic in United States history, we promised connection, personal attention, and an inclusive environment where all students would feel welcomed and have a sense of belonging. 

Now that you’re actually enrolled and are finding that the proverbial grass is not only a lot less green than you imagined, it’s actually brown in some places, it may be time to regroup and reflect.

You came to law school to make a difference for others—a need deeply connected to your internal motivations and desires—and you wanted more than anything to use your voice to stand up for what you believe in. You may have felt like those desires were sidelined if your law school didn’t provide advocacy opportunities for 1Ls, and instead, bogged you down with readings and assessments, and SO MANY legal writing papers, many of which had very little connection to the causes important to you. 

This may have felt demoralizing and discouraging at times, but here are a few tips to help you stay motivated during law school—to help you thrive while Gen Z.

First, let’s review the common characteristics of most Gen Zers (this list is not exhaustive, nor is it applicable to all Gen Zers). Gen Zers are characterized as being:

  • Born between 1995-2010
  • Nontraditional
  • Nonbinary
  • Diverse
  • Motivated by making a difference for others
  • Not motivated by competition with others
  • Inclusive
  • Vocal
  • Relentless

With this in mind, let’s talk about how you can survive 1L year, and indeed all three years of law school, while Gen Z.  

First, remember your “why”. Each of you entered law school with a dream, desire, or goal which motivated you to apply in the first place. The 1L year is designed to provide you with a general, foundational legal education and may not provide many opportunities to delve into your specific area of interest, yet. Given this, it’s important to spend time reflecting on your endgame. Create a vision board with the goals and dreams you have for yourself as a lawyer and set it as the wallpaper on your computer or phone so you see it daily. When the Rule Against Perpetuities gets you down, look at your board and remember what you are working toward. This too, shall pass.  

Second, map out your own advocacy opportunities. It’s never too early to start thinking about summer internships; search for all the organizations nearby that are doing the kind of work you are interested in and call them to discuss future opportunities. Knowing that you’ll soon have the chance to “put your hand to the plow” and get working in your desired field will help you stay motivated.

Third, connect with faculty members who share your passion and interests. These faculty members can have a powerful impact on your law school experience by serving as role models and mentors who can help make connections, and offer support during the year. Forging these relationships may be more difficult during the pandemic, but law professors love hearing from our students. Pull up the faculty directory at your law school and review the faculty bios to see if anyone is writing about topics that interest you. Then, send them an introductory email to set up a virtual meeting where you can ask questions, get advice, or just talk about your law school experience.  

Fourth, find comrades and friends who share your passions. Gen Zers are used to having diverse social circles and moving in spaces where there is inclusion and representation of diverse people; even as 1Ls, you have likely noticed that law schools aren’t very diverse.  This lack of representation of people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups can impact student perceptions, performance, as well as the retention of faculty of color who provide support to these students.  If you are a student of color or a member of an underrepresented group, this may be especially challenging, as psychological phenomena like stereotype threat and imposter syndrome are more prevalent where there are inadequate role models from specific identity groups. But there some things you can do. 

Joining student organizations like BLSANLLSA (also called HLSA at some schools), NALSANAPALSANDLSAOUTlaw, and others, will connect you with comrades, allies, and friends from similar backgrounds. If local chapters do not exist at your law school, joining at the national level may be an option, or consider starting a chapter at your institution. Either way, joining one of these student organizations is critical; these people will become your “people” and a lifeline for the next three years. Knowing that you are not alone in your struggles and that others are having similar experiences can help you gain confidence and remind you that you belong.

Fifth, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for what you need. Gen Zers desire transparency and opportunities to contribute their ideas to those in leadership. This may result in frustration when law schools seem uninterested or unresponsive to student input; nevertheless, keep sharing! The spring of 2020 showed us all how powerful student voices can be. When students mobilized following the repeated killings of Black men and women by police, and wrote letters to law school deans and college presidents demanding action and a tangible response, law schools listened. This shows us that student voices can and do make a difference, so keep speaking up about things that matter to you and that impact the culture of your individual law schools.  

Sixth and finally, remember to practice self-care. Gen Zers—whether because of social media, the rise of the influencer industry, or other such factors—are experiencing higher rates of stress, depression and anxiety than previous generations. These feelings have been intensified by the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic. Law school is an intensely stressful, high-stakes endeavor which may heighten those experiences; to prevent it taking its toll on your mental and physical health it is important to develop a self-care plan. 

Create a list of the activities and practices that bring you joy and that will be non-negotiables for you as a law student, and create a plan for how you will prioritize those activities during school. Is it running? What time will you need to wake up each morning to have time for that run before classes begin? Enjoy reading? What time will you need to wrap up your nightly studies to leave time to read or listen to that novel before bed? Are you an artist? What time must you finish reading for Torts on Friday to make it to your favorite art show in town? 

When you have the plan, write it in your planner, type it in your phone’s calendar, or whatever other accountability mechanism you use, and follow it! Also, be sure to include time with a mental health professional as part of your plan. If you do not have a therapist, or worry that you can’t afford one, check to see if your law school offers counseling services for law students as part of your state bar association. 

Law school may not be what you expected, but remember it is just three years of what can be a lifetime career of advocacy as a lawyer. Thriving in law school while Gen Z means keeping your eyes on the “prize” by learning all the legal skills you can, in order to reach your ultimate goal of changing the world by making a profound difference for others. It means remembering that your voice matters, and silence will ultimately not protect you. It means remembering that you must take care of yourself before you can care for others, so practice self-care early and often. And it also means remembering what drew you to law school in the first place—keeping that “why” centered and at the forefront of your mind.

Doing these things will put everything else in perspective, allowing you to truly thrive while Gen Z in law school.   

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Tiffany Atkins Tiffany D. Atkins is an Assistant Professor of Law at Elon University School of Law. She is a first-generation college and law student and is the first—but hopefully not the last—lawyer in her family. Prior to law teaching, Professor Atkins was a staff attorney with Legal Aid of North Carolina, where she practiced family law and public housing law, among other areas of civil litigation.