To Law Students From Nontraditional Backgrounds: You Belong Here

Here’s to law students who are the first in their family to go to college. To law students who have long since grown tired of checking the box that says their parents don’t have degrees as if they aren’t the most brilliant people you’ll ever meet. To law students whose lingering guilt at leaving home has now become a familiar shadow that wars with their pride in doing something new and wonderful for their family. To law students who don’t gripe about long BigLaw hours because they learned hard work from the weariness in their mother’s bones when she went to her second shift after tucking her children into bed. You belong here.

Here’s to law students from blue collar families. To law students who smelled home in the traces of fast food oil still lingering in their father’s collar when he came home. To law students who worked with grease etched in the lines of their forehead and dirt caked around the calluses on their palms long before they ever heard of a 12(b)(6) motion. To law students who ate with their hands at a networking event they didn’t know the rules to because they’d never thought they could have been eating “wrong” for the last 20 years. You belong here. 

Here’s to law students from families who sometimes struggled to make ends meet. To law students who still remember the sharp bite of cold in winter, the rough scratch of dirt floors, and the fragility of dollar store toys. To law students who wore their mother’s hand-me-down, decades old business suit to their first moot court oral argument. To law students whose jaw hung gapingly wide open the first time they stepped into the plush opulence of a lavish BigLaw office. You belong here. 

Here’s to law students who support their families as children. To law students who haven’t always had the leisure of choosing their future path because testing the waters just to search for what they love is a luxury their family can ill afford. To law students who felt the weight of their family’s roof on their shoulders, pushing them to do more, study harder, achieve higher. To law students who know a dream deferred is a raisin in the sun but who will always hide how much that truth burns under their gratitude for their parents’ sacrifices. You belong here. 

Here’s to law students with immigrant roots. To law students from shithole countries that have been banned, bombed, and bastardized— and yet still we rise. To law students with beautiful names that sound too much like stones crashing through water to plummet under the waves when the wrong mouths turn their lilting syllables into harsh, clunky consonants every time the judge addresses them a question. To law students who don’t always have words in their native language to talk about legal theories, and so whose life is now in part indecipherable in their family’s tongue. You belong here.   

Here’s to law students who left home for this. To law students who can’t see the landmarks of their childhood in the skyline anymore, although they brought the twang with them. To law students who still feel like a tourist where they live but “I didn’t move halfway across the country to be mediocre.” To law students who had never ridden the subway before their first interview and got horridly lost their first day of work. You belong here.

Here’s to law students who came to the law later in life. To law students the same age as their professors and with classmates as young— and as immature— as their children. To law students who left behind a satisfying career to come to law school and who still have doubts parading around their mind that they shouldn’t have risked stability on this gamble. To law students interning for bosses three decades younger than them and carrying a hope beyond hope that it doesn’t mar their job prospects. You belong here.

Here’s to law students of color. To law students who were told— unsolicited— eight things by eight strangers about what to do with their hair for an interview. To law students who went into that interview with great confidence that shattered the moment the person across the table said, eyebrows raised and a trace of something coloring their voice, “Really, top of your class? How…. interesting.”  To law students who are always a hair darker than anyone else in the office, and several shades darker than their supervising attorney. You belong here. 

Here’s to law students in hijabs and yarmulkes. To law students who didn’t have a role model who looked like them when they submitted their application. To law students who weren’t entirely sure if they were allowed to ask for religious accommodations or holidays off. To law students who couldn’t quite shake the whispers of diversity hire trailing behind them in the hallways because the partner did say, rather disgruntled, that their clients “demand” diverse representation. You belong here. 

You belong here. Let me repeat: you belong here. You unmistakably, indubitably, absolutely belong here. You are not alone. You have every right to be where you are and to be there exactly as you already are. And you are as entitled as anyone else to pursue your career as an attorney. 

Do not forget that you are worthy— that your differences do not make you less deserving of your dreams: they are what makes you deserving of your dreams.  

Some days you will feel like you’re just playing a part— in fact, like you’re playing the wrong part. It will feel like someone handed you the wrong role from a pile of scripts without even really looking at you. And some days a voice will whisper in your ear that “they’ll all catch on very soon that you’re not supposed to be here”— because you’re not really the law student “type”— and then you’ll just be “Woman in Coffee Shop #3” again. 

But, remember that you were chosen for this. Someone— multiple someones, really— saw your application in a pile of hundreds more and thought this is precisely the place you needed to be. They chose you specifically to play this role. There is no one more qualified or more worthy of the spot you occupy. You belong here. 

And some days you will feel like you’re alone in this strange seemingly-double life you’re leading. Like there’s a brand emblazoned on your forehead signaling you’re different to the world, and every lawyer in a twenty block radius can see it like a perverse sort of bat signal. 

But even if there is such a bat signal brand (and I promise there’s not), you’re not the only one burning from it. You are not alone. Far from it. Each of us suffer from a sense of inadequacy at times; and, more importantly than that, there is a vibrant community of law students and attorneys with a background as nontraditional as yours. So wear it not as a brand, but as a badge of honor. 

It won’t be easy. There will be people who will tell you— sometimes explicitly— that something’s wrong with the background you come from or the identities you have. They will tell you that you don’t belong. But remember that your challenges— your badges— are really reminders. Reminders that you belong here.

You belong here. You belong here. You belong here.

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