“So often in life, things that you regard as an impediment turn out to be great.” — Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Being the first, in any endeavor or undertaking, can be an exciting and enjoyable experience. At the same time, being the first can also be with fraught with frustrating missteps, which can sometimes prove to be fatal. These emotions are exactly what first-generation law students undergo from the moment they receive their law school admittance letters to the momentous occasion when they pass the bar exam and beyond.
Without a doubt, being a first-generation law student comes with its unique concerns and challenges. While traversing this difficult terrain, they most likely will not be able to depend on their families to comprehend what they are experiencing. In many instances, first gens are not only the first in their families to enter law school, but also the first in their communities and neighborhoods to go beyond high school or college. Therefore, the pool from which they are able to draw emotional or psychological sustenance is barren.
As a result, many of these students enter law school without any social or cultural network to connect to or relate to. These students have to build their own network of bridges. Until these connections are established, a first-gen student attending their initial 1L classes may be doing so without a sense of how to prepare or what to expect. Managing a busy class schedule, assignments, and a new way of thinking can indeed seem overwhelming to the uninitiated. These circumstances can certainly lead to feelings of isolation, self-doubt, insecurity, incompetence, and of not belonging. These feelings could have a strong impact on a student’s mental and physical health.
Another obstacle that first-generation law students face is a financial one. These students may lack funds or the knowledge of available resources from which to obtain funds. Contending with financial difficulties could drive these students to work part-time in order to pay for law school, which will drastically limit their time to study, gain practical legal experience, or participate in extracurricular programs. Ultimately, these financial burdens can also constrain their career choices.
With these impediments in mind, the Diversity Scholarship Foundation, NFP (DSF), has established the DSF First Generation Mentor-Mentee Program. While there is no universally accepted definition as to who is a first-generation student, the DSF has provided that anyone who is the first in their immediate family to attend law school is eligible to sign-on as a mentee. The program was launched statewide this past spring semester and was limited to students attending law schools in Illinois, but the program has now been expanded to include students attending schools located within Wisconsin and Indiana. These states are within the geographic boundaries of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, an area which the DSF is committed to serving.
The essential feature of the program is to assign first-generation lawyers and judges as mentors to first-generation law students. The response to our initial foray into this form of educational assistance has been fantastic, with more than 100 mentors volunteering and each being assigned a mentee. The program has benefited from the participation of judges from both the state and federal courts as well as practitioners from the public and private sectors engaged in various areas in the practice of the law. This call to duty is not only indicative of the willingness of members of the legal profession to lend a hand to others, it is also illustrative of the need in our community for such an endeavor.
Structurally, the program is designed to avoid overburdening both mentor and mentee in terms of time commitment. Yet, at the same time, many of the mentors and mentees continue to connect beyond their allotted time and have developed professional ties and friendships — an unexpected but welcomed benefit of the program.
Through this endeavor, the DSF’s ultimate goal is to create a welcoming, inclusive, and confidential forum to address the challenges and concerns first-generation law students grapple with in the process of becoming a member of the bar. The program, in essence, functions as a pipeline where first-generation students can seek advice from someone who has faced the same challenges. While many law schools and firms are creating similar programs, the DSF’s effort is designed to reach across various areas of the law to ensure that, regardless of the student’s affiliation, they are paired with someone who has a shared experience and outlook.
To further our mission, we sponsor an initial orientation for both mentor and mentee to become better acquainted. We also conduct monthly lunch programs where legal professionals speak on a variety of pertinent topics and at the end of the semester we host a final social to provide an opportunity for all to meet and share their experiences. In keeping with the current health protocols, all of the DSF programming through this initiative will be conducted via Zoom until it is deemed appropriate and safe to do otherwise.
We welcome all who self-identify as “First-Generation Legal Professionals” to join us in assisting those who are the first in their families entering law school and striving to fulfill their dreams of becoming members of the legal profession. We also welcome anyone who is willing to help guide these students as they commence their professional life. To our committee and volunteer mentors who have contributed to the success of this effort, we extend our heartfelt appreciation. To sign up as a mentor or mentee, please email the DSF at DSF.firstname.lastname@example.org.