Trailblazing As A First-Generation Law Student

Trailblazing As A First-Generation Law StudentThis week we welcome new guest writer Zoila Sanchez to talk about her experience as a first generation law student.

You made it past the LSAT and now you are taking law classes! It seems like a dream come true as you have come so far as the first in your family and/or community to pursue a legal career journey. Maybe your journey has been especially challenging and you left your home country to pursue an LLM, or you are a non-traditional law student. Sometimes the initial excitement deflates at certain points in law school, when you are overwhelmed, struggling to keep up, and/or find students who come from a family of attorneys or have siblings that provided them with tips or outlines. Being a trailblazing law student can be discouraging at times. Here are encouraging tips to embrace being a leader in this respect:

1. You Belong

I remember feeling discouraged when I first started classes because of the resources my peers appeared to already have going into law school, whether they had outlines from a sibling or had their attorney parents proofread their paper, I was more painfully aware that I was the first in my family to achieve this level of education and pursue a law degree, and it was up to me to find the support to navigate this environment in the best way for myself.

What I learned early on, from an admissions counselor, is that many first-generation students doubt themselves and what she tells them is that “you belong.” Specifically, that their personal statement showed something valuable that was needed in the student body. If you are finding yourself doubting whether you belong, re-read your personal statement as an exercise, but from the perspective of an admissions officer. I am certain that you will see the unique perspective and life experience you bring into the classroom.

Remember that as much as you feel like people are steps ahead of you, you all made it to the same stop, and it is up to you, and totally in your hands to make the most of it.

Most importantly, be proud of how far you have come, and be confident in the fact you are a trailblazing law student!

2. Plug Into Your Support Group Or Create One

In my experience, so much of law school can be isolating, but it does not have to be. From experience, I recommend that you find your community. For example, join meetings for clubs and organizations that seem to be in line with your goals and interests. You may meet students in the same boat as you.

If no such club/organization exists, then I challenge you to look into building one. In my second year of law school, I started an organization, the Social Justice Alliance (SJA), which filled a gap to address social justice concerns. It turned out that the SJA “town halls” we led to convene students and have dialogue were successful and students expressed this was the kind of outlet they’d been looking for once they arrived to law school.

Starting an organization may not be the route you choose to take, and you can get the same support out of getting friends together to do something that inspires you on your journey. For example, “The Undocumented Lawyer,” is a film you can watch that touches on representation and navigating as an undocumented law graduate and attorney.

Through student involvement, you also get the chance to know your professors, who may serve as advisors and staff who are equipped with the resources to help you be successful. 

3. Be The Change

If you were hoping to have a more diverse student body or faculty, and/or have ideas for bringing more diversity into the school, there are mechanisms to share your perspective, and hopefully join a dialogue or start one, and be a part of long-term change for future classes. It is well-documented that of all law professors nationwide, women of color only account for only 7% of the profession. Take opportunities to make your voice and priorities heard about increasing both the recruitment and the retention of minority law faculty at your school.

For example, consider joining the law school student government, a law school fellowship program, or making a place for yourself at the decision-making table as a founder of a student club (see point number 2), or initiating meetings with law school leadership (i.e the Dean, the Dean of Students). In my school, and it may be the case at yours, the Dean had office hours that she opened up for students to meet with her and share their experience. Additionally, the Dean of Student Affairs engaged student leaders to join committees on matters such as diversity. Sometimes when a school is considering bringing in a new faculty member, the students can provide their input, or be invited to watch the candidate present.

Shifting your thinking to the impact you can make in the here and now can really help to navigate your own under representation while meeting and engaging like-minded students. This is one great way to grow community and to gain confidence.

Remember that as a trailblazer there is a big picture purpose for the challenges you face and overcome – they become a part of your story which becomes the blueprint for someone who will follow in your footsteps.


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About Zoila Sanchez

During law school, she served as a Legal Clerk with the federal government at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Counsel to the Inspector General in Washington, DC. Currently, she works for a health and business law firm. She enjoys spending down time mentoring students sitting for the bar exam through the American Bar Association Council on Legal Education Opportunity program and taking it easy with her three poodles.

Ms. Sanchez holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stony Brook University, a Master of Public Health from the University of Arizona and Juris Doctor from Hofstra University.

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