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How to overcome challenges as a first-generation law student

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First Generation Law Students
Going through law school as a first-generation student can be challenging. Here's some advice to help you make it through.

First generation law students face a unique set of challenges. They are often navigating graduate school completely on their own without the network or support of some of their peers. Here, we acknowledge many of those demands and offer advice on how to overcome them to ensure that your law school experience is a fulfilling and successful endeavor.

What is a first-generation law student?

To begin, it may be helpful to define the concept of a “first-generation law student.”  Broadly speaking, a first-generation law student is a student who does not have a familial relationship to the legal field.  While there is no explicit definition, the phrase usually refers to those who are the first to attend law school in their immediate family.  However, depending on how an individual defines family and taking into account cultural differences, one may choose to not identify as a first-generation law school student if a close relative had attended law school.

College v. law school

First-generation law school students with college or non-college educated family members may find themselves explaining to those family members the many structural differences that exist between what they witnessed in undergrad and the expectations of law school (e.g., continual testing and assessing throughout the semester as opposed to one single final exam).  Similarly, most colleges classrooms are not grounded in the Socratic method; nor do college professors tend to cold call students. 

These simple differences are quite significant and indeed account for much of the anxiety that many, including non-first-generation law school students, experience.  Those who come from families that did not attend college at all are doubly taxed with having to navigate college, and then law school, alone.

However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone! Many first-generation law students have come before you and are likely in your class alongside you! In helping your family and friends to understand the demands of your new program, communication is key. Give them a copy of your schedule or academic calendar and explain that law school, unlike some undergraduate programs, demands much of your time as if it were a full-time job (plus overtime!). You may not be available on weekends, certain holidays, or before exams. Yet you can ensure them that once exams are done, you’ll be ready for break and excited to spend more time with them!

Financial considerations

Law school is expensive for all students, but the impact is often felt even more by first generation law students if they are less financially secure than their non-first-generation law school student counterparts.  Those with family members in the legal profession may be better suited to provide financial assistance to their law school student family member. Because of the financial commitment that law school demands, first-generation law school students may also have to contend with working through law school while their peers may spend that time in the library. 

Working during law school is sometimes a necessity. While you may miss out on study time, juggling a job and law school classes will help sharpen your time management skills. Remember that working to pay for law school does not require that you work in a legal field while in school. Any job you have that helps pay the bills is perfectly fine, and likely offers transferable skills to later working in the legal profession, whether you realize it or not.

While working is one option to support yourself, don’t forget that there are also many scholarships geared towards helping first-generation law schools. Inquire with your admissions office about any private awards they may have and do your own research into national scholarships as well!

Networking considerations

Networking events also present their own set of obstacles.  Law school students who come from a family familiar with the legal profession likely have some agility with the expected small talk that occurs at those events as well as a solid handle on the appropriate amounts of marinated olives and cheese that should be consumed.  Indeed, in some instances those networking events may feature parents and siblings of non-first-generation law school students.   

In these scenarios, it’s important to remember that you belong in that room just as much as everyone else! The events are for law students to meet attorneys and as a law student that’s what you’re there to do! Don’t shy away from sharing that you’re a first-generation law student with experienced attorneys. Not only will it make you stand out as more memorable (which is always a great thing at a networking event!) but it also says a lot about your character and perseverance that many employers will be impressed by!

Internships and jobs

Without any family members upon which to rely, first-generation law school students may find themselves fumbling through the job and internship process.  As noted above, those who are not first-generation may have come to law school with a set of professional connections who can help them land that summer associate position—in some cases, students attend law school to join the family firm.  This is another area in which a student’s law school can help. 

Many law schools offer student positions on campus, and one way to really learn the ins and outs of landing a job outside the school, is to get a job inside the school.  Reaching out to the folks in the career development office or the alumni affairs office is a great way to make money and to learn how to best position yourself for internships and jobs.   In fact, getting a job in any office in the law school can be a strategic way to build your network while also getting paid.  Many professors also offer research assistant positions that give you a flexible schedule of work, an opportunity to build a personal and more professional relationship with a professor, and the chance to learn more about a particular area of law!

While searching for summer positions outside of the law school, be sure to stay in tuned with everything your career services office schedules and provides. Meet with a career counselor early in your law school program and share with them the types of goals and interests you have. Ask for advice on what you should be doing and when and follow through by attending the various workshops they may have for students preparing to apply to jobs.

Sense of be(longing)

At some point during the first semester of 1L year, many students begin to question if they made the right decision.  This question can hit first-generation law school students in a very big way.  Potentially facing mounds of debt, foregoing an income, and studying in an often-stressful environment, first-generation law school students may wonder if the challenges of law school is worth it.  All of these feelings and related fears are totally normal!

One way that first-generation law students can ease this challenge is to develop their relationship with their law school’s alumni office and career development office from their first day of 1L.   Some law schools offer mentorship programs specifically for first-year law students where they connect you with an upperclassman and an alumni to help mentor you through the challenges of transitioning to law school.

Furthermore, remember that student organizations are a great way to connect with your law school peers. You can join organizations specifically for first-generation law schools and others rooted in specific identities or interest you may hold! Remember that although being a first-generation law student might make you different in some ways from your peers, they too bring varied backgrounds and experiences to the classroom that you may be able to relate to and can learn from as well.

Ultimately, law school is a difficult and challenging program for all law students irrespective of their background. Though there are unique challenges facing first-generation law students, it’s also important to recognize that you can overcome them all! Remain focused on what motivated you to attend law school in the first place and understand that your unique background adds value to the classroom, the law school, and ultimately the legal community.

Mary Ann C. Krisa from JD Advising authored this post. ABA law students can maximize their membership by taking advantage of exclusive discounts on JD Advising’s study aids, tutoring, and bar review courses.

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