The runway for new lawyer success is shorter than ever, and all lawyers face challenges making the transition from school to practice. But first-generation lawyers can face an even steeper climb.
Maggie Wilder, a first-generation associate at Latham & Watkins in Washington D.C., who practices private equity finance, summed it up this way:
“There is a huge knowledge and resource gap—particularly when it comes to networking. As a first-generation professional, you are unlikely to have family ties or connections to the legal field, so you have to work to build those on your own.”
Other challenges can include lack of understanding of social norms and office politics, which can lead to a lack of confidence. First-generation lawyers also may not have mentors with similar backgrounds to provide career guidance.
A first-generation lawyer who started at a firm and currently practices in-house commented, “Experience is far too expensive of a way to find out.”
But schools, not-for-profits, and legal employers are all working to bridge the gap.
“First-generation lawyer” generally refers to law students and recent law graduates whose parents who did not attend college. First-generation law students may be less wealthy than their peers whose parents are professionals. Many first-generation students grew up in another country.
With economic disparities and differing educational, social or cultural backgrounds, first-generation lawyers may feel different or isolated, which can undermine confidence. An in-house lawyer recounted a story of two classmates in law school who conducted a “fashion intervention.” Today, the lawyer can laugh and shrug it off, but it was traumatizing at the time.
“People in law school were much wealthier than I expected. I wore jeans and a sweatshirt to class. But some of my classmates took to the notion of dressing the part of being a lawyer while in school. Once when I was in the library, two students came up to a friend of mine who was within earshot. One of them said, “We thought you would have talked to her about her appearance by now.”
As a student, the in-house lawyer had to work during law school—something many of her classmates—and even school administrators—frowned upon. She also attended high school and her first two years of college in another country.
“I knew nothing about pop culture or sports in the U.S,” she recounted.
Without those common conversation-starters, she said she felt isolated. Although she had a set of friends, she had less time and inclination to be social in law school.
Practicing law as a first-generation professional brings its own challenges. Navigating office politics, following unwritten rules, building relationships, and understanding how to advance can be challenging for all new lawyers. For first-generation professionals, the terrain can be especially unfamiliar.
Other challenges include understanding the hierarchy, learning about available resources, working with support staff—and even understanding the language.
“When I started, I did not understand “corporate-speak” and the buzzwords people used. So I tried to emulate higher-ups in how they referred to things. I started using sports analogies,” the in-house lawyer commented.
Some first-generation lawyers also report not realizing the importance of building relationships with peers and more senior lawyers early in their careers.
“I did not realize that by socializing I would get war stories and tips about how to succeed. It would have been helpful to understand which partners’ approval carried more weight and which partners had the ability to advocate for me,” the in-house lawyer added.
More Resources to Bridge the Gap
Schools, nonprofits, and law firms are all doing more to support first-generation professionals, but a common refrain is that first-generation professionals also need to take initiative. That is good advice for all new lawyers, and key tips for success appear later in this article.
Several law schools have recently started programs to provide targeted support to first-generation law students. One is USC Gould School of Law in Los Angeles.
Dean Andrew T. Guzman instituted the First-Generation Professionals Program at USC Gould School of Law when he joined the school as Dean three years ago. Dr. Malissa Barnwell-Scott, director of the Student Affairs Office and current program director, has been involved since its inception. The program provides an array of support services for first-generation law students. Monthly workshops cover topics such as developing a growth mindset and résumé drafting. The program also includes a reception that family members can attend to help them understand the rigors of law school. With a goal of demystifying law school and the legal profession, the program also provides highly practical support: It even includes a suit fund and a bar grant.
Barnwell-Scott says the program generally defines first-generation students as those whose parents did not attend college. But she says the program is inclusive, noting, “We will help any student who thinks they could benefit from our services.”
She believes more schools will offer support for first-generation lawyers because the need is growing.
“It is an exciting time for legal education as more first-generation students are entering law school. They are a diverse group by nature and will help sustain the profession,” Barnwell-Scott added.
Wilder with Latham & Watkins encourages students to seek out programs like USC’s—or to take the initiative to start a first-generation professionals group.
“You’d be surprised how many of your peers are first-generation professionals, and building a community to support each other is incredibly helpful. Also, reach out to the career services team at your school early and often. They can be a great resource to bridge the knowledge gap between first-generation professionals and those who come from families with more experience job hunting in the professional world.”
Nonprofits providing support to first-generation lawyers include The Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. The LCLD is made up of more than 285 corporate chief legal officers and law firm managing partners, working to build a more open and diverse legal profession.
The LCLD offers a year-long Fellows Program for diverse attorneys, many of whom are first-generation lawyers, according to Nichole Velasquez, manager of the Fellows Program.
The goal of the Fellows Program is to foster strong leadership and relationship skills among the participants. The fellowship experience includes in-person conferences, training in the fine points of legal practice, peer-group projects to foster collaboration and build relationships, and interaction with LCLD members, including managing partners and general counsel. The Fellows Program has grown substantially since its first class in 2011. This year’s class includes 296 Fellows.
“The relationships the Fellows develop extend beyond the Fellowship year. We have a robust Fellows Alumni Program where more learning and networking takes place. These Fellows continue to plan substantive events, refer work, and share job prospects. For a first-generation attorney, these resources are invaluable,” Velasquez said.
Law firms are also providing targeted support for first-generation professionals. For example, a First-Generation Professionals Group formed at Latham & Watkins in 2017. The affinity group helps create a sense of community among attorneys who are the first in their families to graduate from college, graduate from professional school, or enter a professional career, as well as those who have a low-income or working-class background. The group assists first-generation professionals in their advancement at the firm through recruiting efforts, tailored professional development opportunities, mentoring, and community outreach.
Tips for Success
The tips below are important for all young lawyers but can be especially helpful for first-generation lawyers.
Get to know your professors.
You want to become a sponge for knowledge about the legal profession—and law professors are a great place to start. Take advantage of office hours, ask about professors’ experiences, and ask for their advice about succeeding as a lawyer.
Take advantage of career resources.
Befriend the counselors in your law school’s career services office, and take advantage of other career resources and programs.
Shadow other lawyers.
Shadowing can be one of the best ways to understand how lawyers manage their practices, interact with others, and resolve challenges. Shadowing can demystify common aspects of practicing law.
Build your internal network early.
All new lawyers need to build a fan base. Early on, your internal network is most critical. Schedule regular times to seek advice from lawyers who are a few years ahead of you. They can provide context, point out landmines, and give you guidance on advancing your career. Junior lawyers can also help you understand what you don’t know—and what you need to ask. You also should work to build relationships with senior lawyers who show interest in helping you advance your career.
Wilder, with Latham & Watkins, found research helpful.
“Spend time learning about how law firms work from a business perspective, research practice groups, because there are many that you may not even know exist, and try to just learn as much as you can about surviving (and thriving) in a professional workplace. Also, be confident—while your professional networking skillset may be lacking compared to some of your peers, you likely have more knowledge and experience in other areas, so remember to focus on that as well.”
Ask for feedback.
Get in the habit of asking for feedback as soon as you finish projects. It can be easy to conclude that no news is good news, but you can always learn something. And just by asking for feedback, you are demonstrating initiative.
Ask for support.
Remember that it is a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for support. Legal employers have significant resources invested in your career and want you to succeed. Learn about the resources your employer can provide to help you thrive. Larger law firms, in particular, provide extensive programming and even individual coaching to support their lawyers. But you may need to ask.
Try to stay positive.
Remember that law is a challenging profession. And just by becoming a lawyer—or making it into law school—you have accomplished something significant. Give yourself a break. Learn all you can. Believe in yourself. And when you need it, ask for help. And if you see someone else on a similar journey, lend a hand.
About the Author
Grover E. Cleveland is a lawyer in Seattle and the author of Swimming Lessons for Baby Sharks: The Essential Guide to Thriving as a New Lawyer. Contact him on Twitter @babysharklaw.