By Molly Timko • March 28, 2019•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Careers
I have wanted to share my thoughts about bringing blue-collar roots to the legal profession for over 10 years, but conversations about class are difficult and uncomfortable. Moreover, revealing some aspects of my personal life on a public forum is pretty scary.
Let me start by saying that I did not grow up in poverty. I am also keenly aware of the privilege I have by virtue of being white. I know there are many stories out there about extraordinary people who overcame tremendous obstacles to escape poverty and achieve success. My story is much more ordinary. Nevertheless, I still struggle to maintain this delicate balance of remembering where I came from and celebrating who I have become.
As you may have already read in my bio, I was born and raised in Niagara Falls, New York. Although the waterfalls are truly breathtaking, daily life for most residents of the City of Niagara Falls is not so picturesque. My father worked in factories, exposed to toxic chemicals and other work hazards that I can’t even fathom, but he is also a talented artist and has a passion for Native American archaeology. My mother worked in retail at a local outlet mall primarily catering to Niagara Falls tourists, but she is also a loyal (and resilient) Buffalo sports fan and a history buff. My father obtained an associate’s degree in his thirties and my mother attended some college in her twenties. In addition, my two older siblings graduated from college and helped pave the way for me. Therefore, I am not a first generation college student; however, I am the first person in my family to graduate from law school. I am fortunate because my parents are lifelong learners and they have always supported my academic pursuits. I know that may not be the case for many others with blue collar roots.
I moved to New York City to begin law school in 2005. At the time, I knew of one other person from my public high school who graduated from law school. He works as an assistant district attorney in our hometown and his father was a social studies teacher at our high school. I really didn’t think much about becoming among the first of my peers to attend law school. I already had a master’s degree and some professional experience in higher education administration, and I had always been a good student. I figured I would do just fine in law school and beyond, even if it meant accruing more student debt. It turns out that my transition from blue-collar Niagara Falls to the white-collar legal profession was more challenging than I had expected.
My classmates at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law were diverse in every sense of the word, with a shared passion for public service. As a new law student, I was certainly intimidated by the vocabulary, amazing life experiences, and seemingly substantive legal knowledge of the majority of my colleagues. Thank goodness for Black’s Law Dictionary and Google! These feelings of insecurity made me reluctant to speak up in class. I also envied those classmates who didn’t have to worry about taking out student loans or securing paid internships, as they had more liberty to pursue unpaid public interest opportunities. Meanwhile, I had to juggle various part-time employment gigs just to pay rent. In New York City, it was fairly simple to find “side hustles” on Craig’s List to earn some fast cash (trust me, this could be a whole other blog topic). Still, I found it difficult to balance part-time work, extracurricular activities, internships, and schoolwork. I had a similar lifestyle during college and graduate school in Buffalo, but law school was more demanding and the cost of living in New York City was astronomically higher than in Western New York. Fortunately, my classmates and professors were pretty awesome and supportive. Despite my insecurities and financial challenges, I successfully completed law school and passed the bar.
Once I entered the legal profession, I started feeling more self-conscious about my blue-collar roots. My coworkers seemed to have more sophisticated palates and political savviness. Their stories revolved around family summer homes, ski resorts, and trips abroad. Indeed, a colleague once used the term “summer” as a verb, without even a hint of sarcasm.
I grew up watching Buffalo Bills football and dreamed of becoming an NFL cheerleader. I did not question the violence of the sport or the exploitation of the cheerleaders. I ate unhealthy foods (i.e., Buffalo wings and fast food) and drank pop (or “soda” as I reluctantly say here in Baltimore). I never asked people what they did for a living or which schools they attended as conversation starters. Looking back, I knew few details about the work of any of the parents of my childhood friends, or even the work my own father. Moreover, the thought of networking made me cringe.
Fast forward to 2019, I am now one of “those people” who attends networking events and asks others about their educational and professional backgrounds, goes on vacations overseas, composts, and engages in lively conversations about political issues or Italian wine. When I return home, I find that my values, interests, and politics do not always align with those of my family and childhood friends. It is also disheartening to learn about former classmates facing addiction, illness, incarceration, and long-term unemployment. I find myself questioning how I managed to avoid similar hardships. I often feel guilty about celebrating my own accomplishments, and I fear being perceived as a snob or an elitist back home.
I was relieved to learn that my feelings of uneasiness with social mobility were not unique when I discovered the book Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano in or about 2010. This book consists of stories of the author and 100 other “Straddlers,” Lubrano’s term for people who were born to blue-collar families and moved up to the middle class. I wish I had found this book before I graduated from law school because it really resonated with me. I plan to share in future blog posts excerpts from Lubrano’s book and other items of interest dealing with this sensitive topic.
More importantly, I would love to hear from other readers who have faced similar or even more significant challenges as they entered law school and the legal profession. I hope to share your stories and wisdom in future blog posts!