Law schools must do more to retain first-generation students

For equity-minded undergraduate institutions, careful attention to recruiting, supporting, and retaining first-generation students is essential. But it is equally important for graduate schools to understand and empower these scholars as they progress to higher degrees.

This is especially true for law school leaders, who introduce students to an ancient and traditionally exclusive craft characterized by hierarchy and countless written and unwritten rules.

Imagine a student stepping into this sacred space who is the first in their family to graduate with a four-year degree — ignoring the concepts of outlines, cold calls, or folders. Knowing who to trust – and who to ask for help without judgment – becomes a piece of cake.

Without a ready-made network of support and guidance, the nuances of law school are all the more daunting for her.

Compare that with the expertise carried by a former student with a deep family history in education and law: grandparents and parents who received advanced degrees, including a federal judge. Steeped in the profession, this student arrives at his father’s alma mater with a head start – a knowledge of networking, study groups and Law Review – which helps propel him to the deanship of a another law school in 19 years.

These divergent experiences are our own, illustrating that near inevitability in one case – success in law school – was far from certain in the other. Unless they close this gap, law schools risk leaving first-generation students without the tools and opportunities to get the most out of themselves – and the justice system – through their education and beyond.

Find ways to support continued success

It is not enough simply to admit students who are the first in their families to attend law school or who were the first in their families to attend university; we also need to find mechanisms to support their continued success once they are here and in their careers to come.

Why is this important? Certainly, if we profess to want an inclusive and equitable education system, efforts must be made to equip first-generation students with the knowledge that their peers glean from their college-educated parents so that all are equally able to perform at their best. . to the best of their ability as law students.

More important, however, is the need to ensure that law schools produce first-generation graduates who can join the legal profession. Lawyers with such backgrounds bring a set of skills and perspectives essential to the practice of law, whether it’s the ability to connect with clients who have not attended college or different views on certain disputes or transactions.

Among lawyers who become judges, the perspective of first-generation students is critical, given the wide range of people who appear in court for fair justice.

This is why we must work to create pathways to legal education for first generation students. This means outreach efforts that inform them of the possibility of attending law school and why it might be a good choice. And that means providing support and education to first-generation students throughout the application process.

Such support could be, for example, a partnership between undergraduate pre-law advisers, law schools and organizations such as the Law School Admissions Council and AccessLex, both of which have programs to help broaden the access to law school for students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Navigating Law School Life

Once these students are enrolled, we need to help them navigate the gauntlet of law school life. This can be done through informal or formal mentorship programs, additional courses, or affinity groups, such as the William & Mary Law School First Generation Student Alliance, which bring these students together to know they are not alone.

The school’s leadership felt that launching such a support system — which is in place at several other law schools — should be a priority following the push for social justice that characterized the summer. 2020. Fortunately, there were students who felt the same way. , and their efforts led to the founding of the Alliance.

Started in fall 2020 as students returned to a mix of in-person and distance learning, the Alliance provides first-generation college students with an online chat platform to talk freely about their difficulties and questions. Nearly 100 students this semester are engaged with the platform, discussing everything from student loans to journal competitions.

The online conversations helped the alliance pursue three goals: to help incoming first-generation students in their transition, to give current students a metaphorical compass for the law school experience, and to create a network of first-generation professionals. with which students can connect. .

Achieving these goals in a pandemic requires flexibility and innovation, including videoconferencing events between students and first-generation lawyers that foster mentorship. Another mentorship effort under the Alliance connects first-year students with second- and third-year peers, aiding the acclimatization process, while other events focus on networking.

Working with the school’s Office of Career Services leads to upcoming guidance specifically for first-generation students, such as an overview of workplace communication standards, dress, and socialization. The Alliance also helps provide exam survival kits.

Also on the group’s to-do list: individual financial support to ease the burden of bar preparation and emergency expenses, a cause for which the Alliance hopes to secure contributions from the legal community.

If law schools can better foster and strengthen the streams of first-generation law students and lawyers, they ensure the development of a diverse cadre of legal professionals who can serve individuals and communities with diverse legal needs. . Empathy and understanding are two of the keys to being a good lawyer. And a legal profession comprised of people of diverse backgrounds, experiences and talents is crucial to a justice system that works effectively for the benefit of all.

Hopefully, each of us will find a way to participate in the important work of helping first-generation college students become lawyers and legal advisers.

This article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., publisher of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg Tax, or its owners.

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Author Information

A.Benjamin Spencer is Dean of William & Mary Law School.

Charleigh Kondas is a sophomore at the school and president and co-founder of its First Generation Student Alliance.

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