From Layman to Lawyer

Some days, the law feels like a world of its own, complete with a “No non-lawyers allowed” sign. And on those days, I both feel like I haven’t earned my place in that posh, exclusive “lawyers” club but also feel like I’ve definitively left where I came from behind just to get this far. It’s a strange limbo where I don’t belong wholeheartedly in either the lawyer or non-lawyer community. And it isolates me in both. As a first gen, it’s a hard line to walk because not only are my lived experiences different from other attorneys’, but now they stand in stark contrast to my family’s as well. The venn diagram of my pre-law school community and my new lawyer community is two entirely separate circles that touch at only one tiny, minuscule, little point: me. 

The days that are hardest for first gens are the days when we feel like we’ve betrayed where we came from but look around and still find no place for us in the law. It’s the days when we feel like our identity is trapped between two mutually exclusive communities, but we’re somehow expected to balance them both on this tightrope… And. We. Just. Don’t. Know. How. 

One Seton Hall Law student, Class of 2020, recounts:

We were going over landlord tenant law. And surprise-surprise, there are some pretty unsavory landlords in the world. But it wasn’t the landlords that struck an odd nerve with me; it was the situations the tenants found themselves in. Holes in the wall. Winter months without heat. Lack of hot water. Sometimes— a lot of time—no electricity. Been there, done that. Each piece of the legal puzzle was tied to a personal memory that wasn’t always great.

    That made it a more difficult than usual to go to class. (And going to class is already an incredible drag if you have to sit in NJ commuter traffic.) I remember not wanting to talk during those classes. Insert Scarlet Letter reference here. I had a sensation that my personal life was on display and that, if I offered my opinion, it would either be apparent how deeply personal these topics were to me, or that I had too much knowledge of these circumstances, thus disclosing my difficult past. And the class discussions were strangely detached from the real-world. There was a superficiality to the whole thing. It was as if we could discuss these topics in nice little boxes, having expressed our despair and pity toward the plight of the super poor along the way, and then just moved on. It was an exercise, nothing else. And it was weird.

    I remember feeling a complete disconnect from both law school and my past. I felt a disconnect from law school because I couldn’t possibly hold the same detached vantage point toward these cases that necessarily prevails in a law school setting. Objectivity for most of our work is desperately necessary. And I could not be objective— at all. It hurt. It was confusing, and the helpless reality of the situations we were discussing—holes in the wall, no heat, no hot water, no electricity—was all I could focus on. I felt lost. And in an odd duality of human psychology and emotion I also felt immensely detached from my own past and my own family. There I sat, all 150 pounds of piss, vinegar, laughter and curiosity, in a really good law school with a bunch of really smart soon to be lawyers. And we were discussing what should be done in these situations. I realize there’s an inherent sense of condescension when engaging in policy discussions. I am not saying that is a good thing or a bad thing. Sometimes smart people need to fix problems. But as I sat in on these discussions, I felt that I was no longer that poor little white trash kid from the middle of nowhere. That now I was a haughty and well-educated law student, discussing the finer points of housing policy. And,to be honest, there is still a large part of me that loves that poor little white trash kid from the middle of nowhere.

And this tightrope balance isn’t a new one. Many first gens before us have walked that same precarious balance.

Deb Edwards, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Seton Hall Law recounts her experience with dual isolation: In law school, “my worlds were very separate, and I kept them separate.” On the one hand, she said, “my parents offered me was unconditional love and unconditional pride. I could not [have gotten] any more emotional support from my family. But they were not in a position to provide me with any vocational support during my law school journey. I was surrounded by people who care but really didn’t have the resources [to help me with my professional life.]” And on the other hand, her experience in school was isolating; “I was invisible. There were very few people who cared about my success. No one would notice if I wasn’t there, and it made me feel alone.” 

Those disconnects continued as a practicing attorney, creating distance between her and her family. “My family was employed in professions where when you clocked out, you clocked out. Work was over. But my job has literally always kept me from being as involved with my family as I would have liked. I was always busy with work and would, more often than not, bring my work home. My extended family is proud of me, but they’ve wondered where I’ve been all these years.” Asked if things have changed over time, Dean Edward says, “They love me, but sometimes I feel like they have moved on without me. They still invite me to events, but they know it can be difficult for me to participate.” 

Another Seton Hall Law student, Class of 2020, describes the disheartening experience when we burst with pride at our accomplishments only to deflate when our family doesn’t understand what we’re talking about or why it matters to us. 

With tears in my eyes and a quivering voice, I told my amá I made the Seton Hall Law Review. She knew it was a big deal by the way I spoke and my reaction, but she did not know why. I explained as best I could, but, in the process, I felt the excitement of telling her slowly drifting. As a first-generation student, this feeling was very familiar to me: achieving an accomplishment at school but not being able to explain it well to my amá. My amá— her support and encouragement— is one of the biggest reasons I entered college and then went onto law school. I felt alone in this feeling many times because most of my friends’ parents attended college; their parents did not need explaining regarding grades, honor societies, board nominations, scholarships, etc. I began downplaying my accomplishments to avoid the lengthy explanation I would owe to my amá.

And the intense validation when your family does understand.

But that changed when I knew I made Law Review. I wanted her to know and understand the achievement I had accomplished with her love and support.

     When I finally reached the “ah-ha!” moment with my amá, I felt affirmed and like my achievement was actually worth something. When she understood, I felt the weight of my entire family’s love and hard-work come to fruition in that moment. I realized explaining my realities and triumphs at school meant my amá’s dedication and hard-work was not for nothing, but for everything. We left our home many years ago to come to the US for a vision of a better life, and she needs to know that her sacrifices, woven into the fabric of my accomplishments, are paying off. I will stop feeling ashamed and discouraged when I explain my next accomplishment to my amá. Explaining means one thing: ¡sí se puede!

Professor Richard Winchester, a visiting professor at Seton Hall Law for ‘18-‘19 school year, recalls his experience as a first generation law student when other students casually threw around Latin terms he was yet unfamiliar with: “It takes a certain amount of fortitude and self-confidence to not allow those things to make you doubt yourself.” But, Professor Winchester reminds first gens: “If you made it through the admissions process, nobody is more entitled than you to be there [in law school.] The office of admissions has confidence in you. Your rightful place is in that classroom.” 

Further, Professor Winchester emphasizes that success is attainable for first generation law students, not only as an academically successful student, but also as a well-connected student. I— like many other first gens— felt at a disadvantage when I came to law school because I didn’t already have a well-developed network of professional relationships; it was intimidating. Professor Winchester, though, advises first gens can cultivate those relationships while in law school. “Network with other students so you have the opportunities. Put yourself out there with other students, even if you don’t have pre-law school connections.” Participate in school events, have lunch with classmates, and generally be around fellow students outside of the classroom. 

Dean Edwards also offers pearls of advice. First, she counsels, stay engaged with you families; “maintain ties with those who love you the most.” Second, “first gens should meet as many practicing attorneys as possible and learn from people who’ve been there before them. It’s important to find people like you, who can serve as mentors and role models and tell you what they learned about being an attorney.” Having those kinds of relationships, she says “would have bridged the gap between me and others who had friends and family who are attorneys.” 

Perhaps it is cold comfort, but I find reassurance in the knowledge that the tightrope feeling is disconcertingly common among other first gens. In our own ways, we all struggle to find a balance between our communities. And at times feel isolated in both. 

But you’re not alone. There’s a whole community of first gens— a community who have experienced these struggles, who see you walking your tightrope, and who will help turn that tightrope into a bridge. 

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