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First Generation Law Student/Lawyer

When I started law school nearly twenty years ago, I had a different background than most of my classmates. Unlike many of them (as far as I could tell), I was a first-generation law student who knew what it was like to experience poverty, trauma* and chaos from an early age. When I was born, my father was a 22-year-old truck driver and my 20-year-old mother remained at home. When I was five, they separated, and my mom moved me and my younger brothers to a small village in another province. While we had never been wealthy when our parents were together, from that point on we spent our early childhood years surrounded by poverty and dysfunction. When I was seven, my mother disclosed abuse that she had experienced as a child, which triggered a series of chaotic events resulting in a month-long hospitalization for her and years of unstable living situations for us. For the next several years, we bounced back and forth between our parents and other relatives, at the mercy of their ever-changing, precarious and unstable living situations and lifestyle-challenges. Throughout our childhood, our mother relied on social assistance, while our father, when he was employed, worked as a drywaller. We subsequently had a stepmother who initially was a waitress in a bar and years later earned income by offering childcare to a few children at a time in our home. As a result of my upbringing, I not only lacked an understanding of what it was like to grow up with wealth and powerful social connections, I also knew what it was like to fear that my basic needs might not be met. I had even experienced what it was like not to have a stable and reliable place to live. While we usually had some kind of home, there were a couple occasions when we were functionally homeless, living in a tent with our mother in unhealthy communal living situations on the island to which she had moved. Despite the instability and poverty of my childhood, one thing I almost always excelled at was school. When I finished high school, I won the award for the top academic average in my graduating class. As I progressed through university, I never felt like I didn’t belong academically. When I attended law school, however, in a program that was known for its diversity and inclusion efforts, I encountered an astonishing culture of privilege and entitlement. In itself, that wasn’t entirely new to me. Most of my classmates from grade school to graduate school had seemed to come from more stable and socioeconomically privileged backgrounds than I had. But for the first time in law school, I lost my naivete about how much of a difference my lack of connections would make in my ability to advance in my chosen profession. Even worse for me, there seemed to be an assumption in law school that we all came from similar backgrounds or else we couldn’t have made it there. The apparent belief that people with my background (or other backgrounds that didn’t “fit” the prevailing image of a future lawyer) were inherently different from the people in the classroom and profession pervaded our discussions of legal topics. As someone with a history of childhood poverty and personal trauma (as a child and young adult), I was not prepared for how I would feel hearing those issues discussed as if they happened to an entirely “other” class of people. Not only were there obstacles in the way of people like me making it as far as law school, we were erased from view once we got there. To fit in, it seemed, we had to adopt the shared voice of the classroom (and thereafter the profession) by speaking of the problems of the marginalized as something alien, rather than something we may have experienced ourselves and about which we may have valuable personal insight. In addition to my general sense of not fitting in, I was also struggling with active (but then undiagnosed) PTSD at the time from events in my past. Any advice I provide should be taken with the caveat that my law school experience was shaped by my personal history, my state of health, my unique strengths, skills, limits and coping mechanisms, and the fact that it happened nearly two decades ago. With that caveat in mind, here’s my advice about how to survive as a law student and member of this profession if you too feel a lack of fit. First, if it feels safe and comfortable to do so, acknowledge your feelings. They are valid. There is a very good chance that it’s not you that’s the problem--it’s the law school environment and/or the legal profession. Unfortunately, the profession and the system that feeds it are not as inclusive as they should be. Second, if there are ways to safely and comfortably find support, then consider doing so. You may wish to explore your university’s counselling services (however, some of these offerings may suffer from the same failings as the system itself, so if they’re not a fit for you, it’s okay to steer clear after weighing the option, as I did). Perhaps you could get to know some of the other students who may also be feeling a lack of fit, for similar or other reasons as you are. Maybe you can support and advocate for each other and create a sense of community. Or perhaps the best way to feel a sense of belonging may be to find and connect with a community outside the law school environment in which you feel more at home. I did this by volunteering at a local animal shelter (which sometimes involved last-minute studying for law school exams from inside the dog enclosures). But if all else fails, as it sometimes does in flawed environments no matter how hard we try to do things as we “should,” then my advice is don’t feel bad about doing whatever works for you to get through it as strategically as you can. For me, that meant skipping almost all my classes and spending time with the dogs and cats at the shelter, where I could find a sense of purpose, belonging, meaning and solace that law school failed to offer me. It entailed accepting that my grades would not be excellent but just “good enough” to get me through. I decided early on that I did not care to strive to be near the top of my class. I just needed to get through it and move on. The markers of excellence that everyone embraced in an environment that did not seem to include me lost their allure for me. I could prove my worth later if I decided to become part of the profession. Law school simply became an obstacle for me to get through and I ultimately accepted that was all it could be for me. As I’ve joked many times since, I had an “allergic reaction” to law school which shaped my perspective on it. By approaching it that way, I lost out on the ability to feel like I belonged there. But I was able to keep my sense of who I was, which felt more important to me. That said, there are likely better ways of doing so, and I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to surrender their aspiration to excel and belong. I think it will be possible to find that sense of belonging and rise to the top for many first-generation lawyers, including those who feel a profound sense of not fitting in as I did. I also think it’s entirely possible for people to fit in while unapologetically refusing to be anything but themselves. It just didn’t work that way for me, and I chose to be okay with that. Instead of offering advice on how to excel, I’m suggesting that even if it doesn’t work out perfectly, or you don’t feel safe or comfortable trying to fit within the existing culture, or you struggle to fit but worry you are failing, that’s okay too. Law school isn’t your career. You can struggle in law school and find a sense of belonging in the profession later. You can become an amazing lawyer (if that’s still what you want) even if you worry that you don’t belong in law school or in the profession at first. So rather than give any particular advice about how to survive and thrive, I will simply suggest that you give yourself permission to do whatever works for you. As for whether you belong here and deserve to be a lawyer, my view is that the very things that may make you fear that you don’t belong are likely all the more reason that this profession needs you. You are what we’ve been missing. And I’m so glad you are here. *Note, I have not included any recounting of the trauma I was exposed to and experienced, since I have so far opted not to share those details of my life.

*This was originally posted to another blog site (of mine) on September 5, 2020.

An image of mountains, a lake and clouds

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