The Unexpected Challenges of Law School: Being a Minority in Law School

Editor's Note: This essay was submitted by Jane Jankie in response to Ms. JD's prompt, "What about law school presented an unexpected challenge? What have you done to successfully meet this challenge?"

When I left the Bronx to start law school at the University of Michigan, I told my friends that it was with “a dollar and a dream.”  I believed that was all I needed to succeed and be happy at my new school and in my new mid-western life. Having done well in both a college and a post-graduate job that threw me out of my element, I did not foresee the alienation, isolation and anxiety that I would meet in law school.

As a woman of color, coming from a low-income background, I found that there was no one similar to me among my classmates. I was one of three women from minority backgrounds in my classes of 100 students. I was certain that I was the only woman of color from a low-income background in my classes and in my school. Despite my goals of making friends and being happy in law school, I easily became uncomfortable in conversations with my classmates. I remember being silent in a particular exchange among my classmates about how many of their parents were lawyers, and how common it was at the school for students to be the children of lawyers. I did not divulge that my mother was a nurses’ aide and my father a security guard. It just seemed not to fit into their conversation about how their parents’ careers had formed their lives as future lawyers.

“When you’re on the subway in New York, for the whole time you’re in the train car, you’re just stuck with those people,” one of my fellow classmates said in Criminal Law class during our discussion of People v. Goetz. In Goetz, the defendant, a white male, shot four young black males on the New York City subway, and successfully asserted a self-defense claim at trial.  My classmate explained that she understood the way Goetz must have felt when the four young men approached him, (they claimed later that they were just panhandling and never planned to rob or hurt Goetz).  She thought his self-defense claim was perfectly valid. Riding the subway being my only mode of transportation when home in New York, I felt personally invested in this discussion. I was enraged by her comment; I was one of those people.  But I felt so different from my classmates that I was afraid to speak in class.  I felt self-conscious about my Bronx accent, my vocabulary, and my ability to code-switch; so I regretfully said nothing.

Instead I thought about how I felt stuck with her and the other students in my section when I was in class with them for hours a day. I thought about how she implied that the passengers on the train were Others, separate and different from her. I felt that I was the Other in law school, the person who did not belong. During discussions of affirmative action in Constitutional Law, I felt even more uncomfortable listening to my classmates explain the numerous reasons why they were staunch dissenters of benign racial classifications. I wanted to talk about how important affirmative action was to me, to success in my community, and to the 5,000 minority students enrolled in my public high school which had only two college counselors. Someone in class raised the argument that affirmative action takes away from the merit of students of color in selective colleges and graduate schools both in the minds of white students and the students of color themselves.  

This argument forced me to speak up, and I finally did what I never thought I would in a foreboding 1L class, and raised my hand.  Even though thus far I had been too afraid to, and had believed that my experiences were too different from my classmates’ to be appropriate to share, I discussed what I believed, without being worried about how it would be perceived. I said the counterargument to a meritocracy argument is that in the mind of the student who benefited from affirmative action policies, they could feel an even stronger sense of accomplishment when looking back on how far they had come.  They could be proud of beating the odds that are stacked against most from where they are from.  My professor and fellow classmates built on my argument, and the discussion grew in a dynamic way.  That discussion empowered me to engage with law school in a more meaningful way.  It started with forcing myself out of my comfort zone to defend ideas that were important to me and that I believe in.

If I could do my first-year of law school over again, I would have thought more concretely about the fact that I only have one chance to attend law school, and would have made every day, every discussion and every interaction count.  I would have been brave about sharing my personal experiences with others and tying those ideas into what I was learning in classes.  I would have looked beyond the differences between my classmates and I to learn from them and allow them to learn from me.  Feeling like a “token” student of any race is a challenge, especially in combination with the other challenging aspects of law school, but my advice to law students in my position is to take advantage of the opportunities to discuss their backgrounds and the disparate impact of the application of the laws in their community, so that law school may serve educational goals outside of just our case books.

Jane was born and raised in the Bronx, New York.  She is a student at the University of Michigan Law School, where she is a Dean’s Public Service Fellow.   She was a paralegal at The Innocence Project for two years after graduating from Wesleyan University, where she was a writing course teaching assistant, writing mentor, staff writer on the school’s newspaper, and a winner of the Annie Sonnenblick writing award.  She is a winner of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ annual essay competition on increasing diversity in the legal profession, and a recipient of the Foley & Lardner Diversity Scholarship.

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