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Double Up: How to Navigate Law School as a First-Generation College Graduate and Law Student

by Cynthia Hernandez |

Law school is a daunting, yet rewarding, experience for all students. For first-generation college graduates and law students, however, law school can present unique challenges that may seem impossible to overcome. Coupled with the typical tasks of reading and briefing cases, writing memorandums, and learning how to present an oral argument, first-generation college graduates and law students must learn how to adapt to brand new environments with little to no previous guidance. However, with the right strategies, a “double-up first-gen” can pave the way to success for themselves and other first-gen students who follow.

  1. Have a Solid Support System

Before law school, it is likely that you may have worked, volunteered, and had friends who may or may not have gone to your undergraduate institution with you. If you are anything like me, you worked multiple jobs and helped to support your family financially. Throughout those experiences, you probably fostered relationships with many people, including your family. Though the demands of law school may take up the time you would work at a full-time job, set time aside to connect with friends and family. This is especially important if you live out-of-state for law school or do not live at home with your parents. For me, I call my family every morning to start my day. They always encourage me, fill me in on what is happening at home, and remind me that they are proud of me for working as hard as I do. I also make sure to keep up with my friends, some of which may be pursuing their own graduate studies, to check in and talk about something other than law school. It is important to give your brain a break to reset, and there is no better way to do so than connecting with those you love most.

  1. Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help

Generally, many law students do not like to ask for help. As a double-up first-gen student, I felt compelled to figure everything out on my own. After all, I was able to graduate college, study for the LSAT, write my personal statement, and do everything in between with little to no guidance. To my surprise, though, I realized I was mistaken. Law school not only brings out your strengths, but your weaknesses as well. For most students, the pressure and structure of law school may mean that the days of getting straight A’s and cramming for exams the night before are over. Law school requires diligent preparation from the first day you step on campus, often requiring you to ask for help when you don’t know how to approach the study of law.

For a double-up first-gen student, the law school experience may also result in an added pressure to perform well because you have been able to “just figure it out” on your own up to this point. Even more, you may think that your classmates who have had lawyers in their family have an advantage and learning the law is easier for them. To the contrary, the students who perform better are those who have utilized the resources at their school, including meeting with professors and the academic support office, because they learn what their professors are looking for in the classroom. Many law schools now have first-generation programs and organizations, which provide additional resources for first-generation law students based on their unique experience. It is misleading to believe that every student who has had a lawyer in their family is destined to succeed. In my experience, many of the students who have performed well have had little to no interaction with the law at all and they have extensively met with their professors and the academic support staff. As such, make all efforts to take advantage of the resources available to you, and do not compare yourself to others who you think may have the upper hand, as this is a waste of time in comparison to what you could be doing to build yourself up as a law student.

  1. Remember your Roots

There is a reason why you chose to go to law school. Whether you have always wanted to go since you were a child, or you woke up one day and said, “maybe I’ll go to law school,” there is something about the law that inherently interests you. Moreover, as a double-up first-gen student, you have a unique background in that you are the first in your family to pursue a law degree. Like me, you may even be planning on pursuing an area of law that presents legal issues your family has faced in the past. Whatever your reason is, remember it in what may seem like the hardest moments of your academic career. Remember where you came from and why you are working hard to earn the title of “Esquire” behind your name. Finally, remember that you are paving the way for those who come after you. Law school can easily take control over every aspect of your life and make you forget your “why.” However, it is crucial to remind yourself of your “why,” while acknowledging your roots, to help you move forward throughout the next few years in law school and during your career.

  1. Network

Throughout law school, you will often hear the word “network.” Your Career Services Office and professors will encourage you to attend bar association meetings, receptions, and events at your school so you can meet local attorneys. There is another version of networking, though, which involves getting to know your classmates. Since your classmates will be your future colleagues in the legal profession, many of your friendships will likely last far beyond the few years you spend in the classroom. You may even be surprised to find other double-up first-gen students, or first-generation law students, who share similar values and experiences. You can begin to form study groups and groups to do fun activities to decompress from law school. You can also practice interviews, your elevator pitch, and oral arguments with your newfound law school support system. All of this will also help you to build your networking skills and confidence for when the time comes to network with attorneys, so you have double the practice!

  1. Seek Out Your Mentors

In conjunction with the previous networking step, take advantage of events where you will meet attorneys and seek out potential mentorship opportunities. You will find attorneys of many different backgrounds at networking events, including other double-up first-gens.

Try to combine all the above-mentioned steps and seek out attorneys who have similar interests and values. In your conversations with attorneys, remember to mention why you are in law school, how being a double-up first-gen law student has shaped your experience, and what strategies you have used to navigate your first year of law school. (Don’t forget to use your first and last name.) Attorneys recognize the hard work that law students engage in and how demanding it is to learn many different areas of law at once. As a result of your efforts, you may discover that you and an attorney “click,” so be sure to ask for their business card and connect with them on LinkedIn. Since you did not have an attorney confidant when you first arrived at law school, the attorneys you get to know may be able to serve as your mentors and help answer questions. They may even be able to point you to potential internship and volunteer opportunities in the area of law that interests you. Ultimately, strive to have a law school support system, in addition to your home support system.

In sum, being a double-up first-gen can result in mixed emotions throughout your first year of law school. With the right strategies, you can conquer your first year by not only learning the law, but also learning about yourself and what you are capable of achieving. Soon enough, by taking the right steps, law school will not be so intimidating, and you will have grown as a law student and future lawyer.

About the Author

Cynthia Hernandez

Cynthia joined Lawyers Mutual through the NCBA Minorities in the Profession 1L Summer Associate Program. She is a 1L at Elon University School of Law. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication from the University of Maryland College Park where she was a member of Tau Sigma National Honor Society. Cynthia is President of the Hispanic and Latinx Law Students Association. She enjoys soccer and plays in an adult co-ed soccer league.



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