August 23, 2019
By If/When/How

The law school journey can be terribly opaque, especially for folks who don’t have lawyer family members, for those of us who come from immigrant families, for low-income folks, and for others who don’t experience the intersections of privilege that facilitate access to and comfort in spaces of higher education. As the new school year begins, the If/When/How staff circled up to talk about all the things we wish we’d known about law school before we got there.

Rebecca Wang, Legal Fellow:

“It was really helpful to me personally to not feel compelled to do things or join things I didn’t want to do, or join just because they were expected of law students or were good for resume padding. Maybe it’s a journal, moot court, clinic work, or something else — it’s going to be a slog if you are forcing yourself to do it and then find you don’t like it. I would recommend talking to folks who are already doing the thing to see how they like it, what the challenges are, and what the most rewarding parts are before committing to anything. Time is a precious commodity in law school, particularly downtime and self-care time. I knew I did not want to waste any of that time, so I did things I wanted to do instead, like volunteering at an animal shelter, joining a queer sorority, going to support groups for POC on a white campus, going on nature outings, and doing board game meetups. Good for my resume? Probably not. But it was good for my mental and emotional well-being. It got me out of the law school and out of my apartment. These things also incidentally ended up being super helpful when I interviewed for the If/When/How Reproductive Justice Fellowship Program, because I learned I really wanted to work in community with folks like me, and I knew I was interested in a less traditional legal career. So please follow your bliss; it made me a happier person and allowed me to talk with genuine passion about the things I was doing.”

Yveka Pierre, Litigation Counsel:

“How to study: I studied in college, but it didn’t feel like studying, and I didn’t treat it that way. College felt like an opportunity explore and question — with a safety net. When I got to law school I had to re-learn how to learn. Learning was a goal in law school, sure, but the structure was result-oriented. I had to learn how to take in information and learn in my way, all the while learning how to pass the single test (seriously, whose idea was that!) at the end of the semester. And loans, et al.: Like many of my first-generation peers, law school without loans wasn’t an option. One of the most useful moments of my law school career came when I was interning with a public defenders office in Baltimore. They brought all the interns into a room and gave us a crash course on our loans, public student loan forgiveness, deferment, and what to expect going forward. I wish I had all of that information on day one.”


Erin Panichkul, Student Organizing Coordinator:

“I wish I knew how hard it was going to be. I’m not talking about actual classes and grades but the inherent pressure from within the law school culture itself. I didn’t expect to get caught up in my own self-doubt watching everyone else plan out their law school lives and discuss their future careers with such certainty. I entered law school hopeful and optimistic, but also unprepared. I literally did not know what to expect and was unprepared to answer the ultimate question, “what kind of law are you going to practice?” I didn’t expect to feel so alone in not having known that answer my entire life. Although I burst with energy and enthusiasm, I grew insecure trying to navigate my calling, trying to determine an answer and say with confidence, this is the kind of law I’m going to do. I wish I knew to stay strong, stay me. I hid it well but I struggled quietly which I now see was energy wasted. Once I found my people, it wasn’t so hard to exist in law school without a definitive answer. I wish I knew and was reminded often that law school, just like any career, is a journey and not a destination.”


Mariko Miki, Deputy Director: 

“I wish I had known how hard you are shunted toward corporate work in law school. I entered law school committed to doing social justice work, and even though my school provided good public interest support, it felt like swimming against a strong current to keep from being washed into the Big Law track. With firms providing fancy receptions, on-campus interviews, highly paid summer associate positions, bar exam stipends, and job offers in-hand before graduation, it was hard not to get swept up into joining a corporate law firm (which I ended up doing for a few years). Therefore, to stay true to your social justice career path, it’s critical to find your people, affirm your commitment, support each other through uncertainty and risk, and keep each other from straying off into law firm land.”


Jeryl Hayes, Movement Building Director:

“I wish I would have known how important relationship building was, especially with law professors. No one really cares what your grades are after you graduate, but having good relationships with faculty members and your classmates will be important to you throughout your legal career. Take the time to get to know the people in your program and utilize your professors’ office hours to learn as much as you can from them.”


Jessica Goldberg, Senior Attorney Organizing Manager:

“I liked law school, and I think I was really lucky that I was empowered to not always do the typical law school thing — for example, after some initial agonizing and a conversation with my aunt (who is a lawyer) and another lawyer at her firm, I decided to not do write on for a journal. It was agonizing because they make you feel like you’ll never get a job or succeed if you don’t do journal, but finally I decided it wasn’t for me and it wasn’t going to kill my career. And it didn’t! Because I didn’t do journal, I was able to do clinic for a full year and cross-examined my first witness in court before even graduating. That’s what worked for me and what brought me joy, but everyone is different. I think it’s important to listen to advice selectively and with varying weight depending on the source, and then decide what makes sense for you specifically. ”



Cammie Dodson, Professional Development Coordinator:

“Despite what public interest career offices say, there are more options out there than just litigation or direct services – policy work and supporting community education/organizing efforts are legitimate law-related careers.  You don’t need to do all of the school-sanctioned activities like law review and moot court. Internships and clerkships are a great way to build skills and make connections with advocates and community members outside the classroom.”


Farah Diaz-Tello, Senior Counsel:

“The whole thing is a re-socialization process (corollary tip: don’t go through this re-socialization process unless you, personally, really want to and it serves your purpose). Even at the most progressive law schools, legal education and entry to the profession is a form of hazing ritual. Recognize it for what it is, and yield to the process, late nights, tears, and screaming included. I wish I had known ahead of time that it is possible to thrive as a human being during law school. I got married, had a child, and became pregnant with a second through my years in law school, all while taking a full course load, working internships and clinics, and doing extracurriculars and campus activism. Not that it’s necessarily advisable to take all this on, but the idea that you have to kiss everything you are and love goodbye is a part of the hazing I wish we could just dispense with already. Also — my law school did a great job of this — always remember why you are there. It may seem remote when you’re in a UCC class, but let all of it be in service to your goals.”


Sara L. Ainsworth, Legal and Policy Director:

“Before I went to law school, I wish I’d known about the pressure to go into private law firm practice, and that it’s not worth wasting a minute of your life worrying that you’re doing the wrong thing by focusing on social justice work. There are mentors, careers, financial support, and meaningful work here to support you in being the lawyer you want to be. You can take a deep breath and ignore the noise.”


Jill E. Adams, Executive Director:

“Don’t go to law school on a whim, under pressure from family, or just coasting on the momentum of your undergraduate studies. Those three rigorous years can be wrenching even for people who truly want to be there – and hellish for those who don’t. So take the time you need to work, play, experiment, investigate, travel, love, learn, and live enough to get good and clear on your purpose and goals. Once you know deep down in your heart why it is you choose to go to law school, treat that as an anchor to ground you as a student and a touchstone to guide your path forward as a lawyer. Law firms will try to seduce you to join their well-heeled, disposable labor force. Law schools will try to convince you to clerk to boost their rankings. And, public interest law will try to pull on your heartstrings to get you to join a cause – probably for free. But if you remain clear and connected to your purpose for choosing that path in the first place, you’ll be less likely to veer off-course. Staying true to yourself will bring greater ease and fulfillment during law school and beyond.”

We hope our law student community can learn from our experiences, and don’t forget to join our Facebook group for If/When/How community members for a place to network, ask questions, and commiserate!

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