By Rose London • April 24, 2014•Ms. JD
Editor's Note: This post was originally published as part of a series of works submitted by applicants to Ms. JD's 2014 Public Interest Scholarship Program. Each applicant was asked to describe the best advice they never got when it came to law school, lawyering, or public interest law. We are re-releasing this blog post ahead of Ms. JD's 11th Annual Conference on Women in the Law: Speak Up!
In the spring of 2013, I was waiting tables by night and waiting on law school admissions by day. I had applied to law school to pursue my goal of becoming a public defender. In a stroke of luck, an old friend put me in touch with an attorney in the San Francisco public defender’s office. That attorney was willing to take a chance on an unknown waitress, and he hired me as his intern. An internship with the San Francisco public defender is the kind of summer job that any 1L with public interest aspirations is lucky to get, and I got to experience it before ever setting foot in a law school classroom. It was an extraordinary opportunity, the kind of head start that rarely comes along. Unfortunately, because I was missing a basic and crucial piece of advice, I did not take full advantage of it. The advice I was missing was simple: speak up.
The attorneys I met in that office are dynamic and ambitious. They are good at their jobs, committed to their clients and fearless in the courtroom. In short, they are everything that I hope to be one day. They are also accessible, and had I been willing to speak to them, they would have been glad to answer my questions and give me advice. But I wasn’t willing. I was too shy. If I could go back in time and give myself a tip, I would say, “Speak up. Knock on the door. Ask if it’s a good time. Shake their hand and say, ‘Hi, I’m Rose. I intern down the hall. I’m starting law school in the fall and I hope to be a public defender. If you have time this summer, I would love to talk to you about your experience.’” I have since had the opportunity to reconnect with some of these men and women, and I know now that they would have been happy to answer my questions and advise me. I spent the summer surrounded by people who had exactly what I want, and I was too timid to ask them how they got it.
Because I didn’t know to speak up, I also missed a lot of opportunities in my first semester of law school. I was very concerned about making a good impression on my professors and classmates. So concerned, in fact, that I didn’t speak up in class because I didn’t want to be wrong in front of all those people. That was the single most detrimental thing I did my first semester. I didn’t realize that I was in exactly the right place to be wrong. If I was wrong in class, and I spoke up, the professor would steer me back to the right track, and I wouldn’t make the same mistake again. But I didn’t know that, and I sat there quietly with my mistakes while my classmates raised their hands without fear, and got the corrections they needed. Like the public defenders who would have advised me if I’d asked, my professors were there to help and all I had to do was ask. But I didn’t, and I brought my mistakes with me all the way to the final. If I could give my first semester self a tip, I would say, “Raise your hand. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. We’re here to learn, because we don’t know this material yet. Speak up.”
Since beginning law school, most of the people I’ve met are highly capable and committed to excelling in their field. That makes for a competitive environment. Whether it’s a board position in a student organization, a dream summer job, or a scholarship, there are always going to be other qualified people interested in it. This can be discouraging, but I have learned that competition is a good opportunity to practice advocacy. That’s the tip I give myself now, an every-morning kind of tip: “If you cannot advocate for yourself, you will not be a good advocate for others. Speak up.” If I think I am the best person for a job, I will tell you so, and tell you why. I no longer wait to be given what I can go out and get. By being willing to assert my goals, I can be my own biggest supporter, and I can encourage others to do the same for themselves. We all have a lot to give, but that doesn’t do much good if we’re waiting for the world to come to us. Being an effective advocate starts with saying “This is who I am. This is what I can do. This is how I can help. This is what I want.” I want to convince you, the women of Ms. JD, to grant me this scholarship. As my own advocate, I can tell you that I have learned fast in the last year, and I can speak up for myself, for my ideas, and for my future clients. I will never let fear and shyness keep me silent again. I will continue to trust my own voice. I am proud to be a woman in law, and I will make you proud to call me a Ms. JD scholarship recipient.