Ashley Mitchell

This Bridge, This Back, This Baggage: Alumni Responsibilities Already?

‘Geez, can I live?’

This was my immediate reaction when I received my first e-mail as an alumna from my law school, asking for cash. If they only knew that every time I calculate how much I will have to pay per month in order to eliminate my student loan debt in a reasonable time (you know - before the birth of my first grandchild; to provide context, I am currently unmarried and childless), I vow that my law school will never see a dime of my money until then, if ever.

To be clear, I have no grudges against my law school. There was no better institution for me to learn about myself, others, and to feed my existing natural (and what I perceive as healthy) distrust for people. In addition, my law school did, in fact, provide me with opportunities that I am nearly certain were based on my law school’s reputation and network, (for which I am eternally grateful). But if members and/or employees of my law school fundraising committee could only see how much the government wants me to reimburse them each month until forever, I would feel both less insulted by the request and less guilty about ignoring the request. The e-mail, however, did give me an opportunity to re-evaluate my responsibility to my law school and the future of the legal community that will be learning there.  There do exist other contributions that I can make to affirm the fact that I am grateful that I was admitted and also, by grace, awarded a J.D. 

The following are some contributions that can be made to the law school community until that magical day comes when I can even begin to even think about giving away money for my indirect benefit*:

  • Paying my students loans. This seems a bit self-centered, but it still bears truth: a debt-free alum, is a happy alum, and a happy alum is a cheerful bragger of their alma mater. And we all know that word-of-mouth is the best PR. Also, the ability to pay loans, in my mind, is a direct correlation to job opportunity. If I am able to pay my loans and eventually be clear of debt, then that means I have obtained and maintained a job that has enabled me to do so. With the nebulous trajectory of the legal market, altogether, this speaks volumes to the strength of my alma mater as it relates to both new student recruitment and extending new job opportunities to said students. Plus, if I am unable to pay my loans regularly, and it affects my credit (I just got anxious all of a sudden), ohhh… there will be no such money to give. So, you’re welcome!

This is not a shameless plug for another writer-in-residence (WIR), but is a plug nonetheless. Sunny Choi, a former WIR, devoted her entire blog series, “Legally Thrifty,” to advice about conquering debt, and the advice that she provides is indeed quite useful. I particularly enjoyed the post about credit cards, “Credit Cards – The Necessary Evil That Can Be Used for Good.”

  • Maintaining active engagement in student life. And while this includes reading the alumni newsletter or magazine (and of course, humbly sharing my major future accomplishments within its pages), involvement should not be limited to that. While I do not plan on becoming the president of the law school alumni association, attending alumni events and directly reaching out to members of organizations of which I participated is a good way to perfect student life and the educational environment.

Personal contact with successful alums is also important in building student confidence, which is probably the single most important factor in performing above the curve. There exists so many alumna who look like me, who have faced the same personal and professional challenges, and have achieved the same goals and levels of success that I only dream of achieving, but I have yet to meet them or hear from them. In fact, I only know of their existence through The Google, and that makes me sad.

There is a particular alumna from my law school institution, though, that is a beacon for her ability to not only reach out to students but for also having an uncanny set of leadership skills and ability to put a plan in motion to address student concerns. She has planned entire alumni conferences to address those student needs and current challenges, has sent e-mails following up on our discussions, and has gone so far as providing access to job opportunities directly through her, and everything in between. This is all despite her demanding career as a partner at a large law firm. She is a saint, and even though I cannot be as fabulous as her at this juncture in my career, the least that I can do is contribute in some small way to this cause in the meantime.

  • Providing access to the legal market. Here, I intend to open a discussion about the educational pipeline. Oftentimes, students are asked, how can the institution recruit more students like them, and less, about how the institution can help students like them succeed, especially in the critical first year. Ironically enough, I have learned that there is absolutely no better recruitment tool than a happy, respected, and soon-to-be gainfully employed student. In other words, nurturing the educational pipeline should not end once a student accepts a spot in the upcoming class. Assisting students in feeling respected and providing mechanisms so students can one day have little problem at obtaining employment in the legal field should, therefore, be a priority.

Alums are invaluable in this arena. Legal employers are infamous for the weight on which they place on first-year grades for access to the legal job market, and the weight only seems to be increasing. Alums undoubtedly have a place in relieving this pressure. With their resources, talents, and exposure to both the current legal market and experience at the very institution that a student is struggling to navigate, they are aware of the path to high achievement.

At minimum, alums can articulate honestly and openly to students the precise tools (and hidden wisdom) to navigate their legal education successfully by communicating particularized advisement on, for example:

  • How to impress professors for stellar recommendation letters,
  • The significance of becoming a research assistant, and/or
  • Specialized niches and skills that impress employers sufficiently to warrant special consideration for employment.

At best, alums can institutionalize activities to bridge the law school learning gap, for example, by:

  • Instructing students, over the course of their first semester, on how to take law school exams,
  • Establishing long-term mentorship programs, and
  • Providing workshops for law journal write-on competitions as well as for research and writing for the legal academic community.

These suggestions are likely more appropriate for serving a former student organization (your WLSA, LLSA, BLSA, CLSA, all the xLSAs or "fill-in-the-blank" Societies) as opposed to the entire law school community. It, nonetheless, is of service to someone, and that is what alumni giving is all about.

  • Taking risks. On not just my own job opportunities but also on people. This is closely connected to “providing access to the legal market.” This one is of particular importance to me. While it is important for alums to communicate with the student population and to share anecdotes and career advice, when I was still unemployed at the end of my third year of law school, however, what I really wanted to hear was, “I would love to bring you to my office for an interview!” or a meaningful, and possibly more realistic, “let’s keep in touch and see what happens,” without excessive and awkward solicitation. That is to say, what I needed at that point was an opportunity – for someone to take a chance on me. What I usually got, however, was a resounding, “well, good luck!” Fortunately, for me, I found an alumnus that will be taking a chance on me and my talent. The work ethic that I will be providing in return will be legend-ary. You hear me? Leg-end-ary! And just as crucial, when I have the opportunity to return that favor to someone else, I am indebted to react in the same spirit and to pay it forward.

See! It’s not all about that cash. In fact, I have a lot more to give than that. Especially when I have exactly zero of that to give.

But on a serious note, the truth is, is that I began to contemplate on these responsibilities long before graduation. There were quite a few things that I wanted to effectuate change to as a student but frankly did not have the privilege (time, access, resources) under the rigors and competitiveness of law school to plan or execute. When I tried to effectuate change for the benefit of my fellow student, I fell miserably short and crumbled under the law school pressures mentioned above. It is too much, for a student alone, to bear under the circumstances, and to be honest, law school is an inappropriate time to bear them. As a result, alumni are vital to empowering members of the current student body to take better control of their legal education and, at the same time, can make a powerful and far-reaching impact that money just cannot buy.

*Direct benefits may include but are not limited to: housing, electricity, and feeding myself.



Great post, especially your “taking risks” paragraph. In my experience, I’m not finding many lawyers wanting to give back and pay it forward, whether via monetary means or other ways.  Like you, I usually get a “good luck,” or “why would I hire a lawyer when I can hire a paralegal/college student/anyone other than my ilk?” I can’t wait for the day when I can open a door for those behind me, to make their journey easier than mine was; and until then I’ll keep knocking on doors. Someone’s gotta let me in sometime, right?

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