By Ms. JD Editor • October 12, 2021•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Law School
The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.
William A. Ward
As a first-generation law student, entering law school was a daunting and nerve-racking experience. I had no idea what to anticipate, perhaps with exception to the general saying that all law students hear: “your 1L year they scare you to death, your 2L year they work you to death, and your 3L year they bore you to death.” Although this saying is somewhat catchy, it does not prepare you for the realities of the obstacles of law school and the practice of law.
In addition to the infamous quote above, one piece of advice I always give incoming law students is to build relationships with your law school professors. Every time I share this advice, I emphasize that many of my law school professors changed my career trajectory and ultimately, my life.
As an undergraduate, I attended classes and did well, but I did not understand the importance of building relationships with my professors or seek them for guidance or mentorship. Therefore, when I went to law school, I decided to learn the material my professors taught and their life experiences.
Although there are numerous professors who positively impacted my life, three particular instances continue to influence me today. In my 1L year of law school, my criminal law professor told me that I should go out for whatever opportunity I believed in because “the worst thing someone could ever tell you is no.” This simple, yet powerful piece of advice, stuck with me almost immediately and is something I remind myself of repeatedly.
Another professor helped me learn the difficult lesson that you can accomplish goals even amid failure if you work hard. As a 1L student, my least favorite class was civil procedure. Although I sat in the front of class and paid attention every day, I did far less than stellar when I sat for my mid-term, the first law school exam test I had ever taken. I felt defeated when I looked at the grade I received, which was published on a printed list on the outside of my professor's office door. However, my professor did not give up on me. She pulled me into her office and explained that if I continued to make an effort, I could learn the material. Before the final exam, I went to my professor’s office at least once a week, asking in-depth questions about random topics I studied about civil procedure. Through my hard work and persistence, I received one of the highest final grades in the class. Part of the reason I earned that grade was my professor’s encouragement and willingness to look beyond my initial struggles.
Then there were the professors who became mentors. As a first-generation law student, I did not have anyone to guide me when I was attending law school. In addition, as a Black woman, I did not have lawyers from my community that I could look up to or use as an inspiration for what I felt I could accomplish.
However, when I started law school, for the first time I became acquainted with many extraordinary professors who looked just like me. My entire life, I had not seen that up close and personal. Many of these professors inspired me through guiding me and sharing their own past experiences about the history of diversity in the legal profession. One of my professors shared an inspiring story about founding the “Black Law Journal” with her colleagues at their law school when the law review refused to allow students of color on the staff at the time. Another professor introduced me to the importance of having difficult conversations on topics of race and discrimination with individuals of various backgrounds, even when everyone does not agree.
Finally, one of my professors taught me the most important lesson of all, which was that I should advocate for myself the same way I so willingly defend and support others, stating that “you can’t take care of others and not also take care of yourself.”
The lessons I learned from each of my professors changed the trajectory of my career and life. Aside from the education I received during law school, those relationships were the most significant benefits of my law school career. Although I do not have the blueprint of how one should go about establishing these relationships, these are the three most important points I can give:
Don’t be afraid to reach out.
Maintain the relationship.