Giving Diverse Law Students a Jumpstart

JumpstartDo you remember your first day of law school? I do – vaguely. I remember walking into the Gothic hall that held the new first year class at the University of Michigan Law School. I remember a chaotic blur of faces, shaking hands with friendly 2Ls and 3Ls, standing back from slightly intimidating professors, and listening carefully to helpful deans and administrators.

As the first weeks of law school flew by, I learned an entirely new way of thinking. I had to read case law and learn IRAC. I had to figure out the difference between rules, holdings, and dicta. I had to sift through terms like law review, outlining, and moot court. As an international student, I also wasn’t prepared for the American legal system. And what I didn’t realize was that when I started, I was already five steps behind. This brings us to earlier this month and the Chicago law school pre-orientation program, Jumpstart.

What is Jumpstart?

Founded by now-retired Seventh Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams, Jumpstart is a collaboration between all six Chicago-area law schools, the federal judiciary, and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism (Commission). The goal is to give incoming first-year law students from underrepresented groups, many of whom have the same questions I did, a “jumpstart” on their legal education.

The centerpiece of the program is a three-day preview and preparation pre-orientation program that takes place in the weeks before the first-year law students start law school. Each Chicago law school can send up to fifteen students to participate in the program. Incoming law students apply through their law schools. Once accepted, the schools forward the students’ names to the Commission. The Commission then takes the lead on contacting the students and organizing the program schedule.

The 2018 Jumpstart Program

This year, sixty-three law students from all six Chicago-area law schools, and a wide variety of personal, professional, and academic backgrounds, attended Jumpstart. Judge Williams opened the first day by welcoming each attendee and discussing the challenges to expect from their first year of law school. Then, students learned from various law school professors about the Socratic method, the topics covered in first-year class, and the basics of legal writing. The second day, the students visited the federal courthouse, where they met and spoke with clerks and judges about their work and their expectations of the law students and lawyers who come before them.

The students then traveled to Jones Day where they learned about professionalism, resumes, and networking, and ended the day with a reception featuring many prominent Chicago judges, attorneys, and law school faculty. Finally, on the third day, the students learned about the bar examination, clerkship programs, and the various bar associations in the city. We concluded Jumpstart with a panel of Jumpstart 2Ls from all six law schools answering one simple question: “What do I wish I had known my first year of law school?”

Why is a Jumpstart Program Necessary?

Many diverse law students are the first in their families to attend law school. They may not know of any attorneys or have been to a courtroom or a law firm. Some may have never been inside an office building. Indeed, when we asked our Jumpstart students to raise their hands if they were the first in their family to attend law school, almost all of them did.

Compounded with that are the very real concerns of implicit bias and imposter syndrome. In terms of implicit bias, diverse students often must overcome assumptions about what they are able to do, based on their ethnic, religious, or other identity. For example, a Chinese-American student is challenged as to whether she can even speak English; a gay student is told he should really focus on civil rights law; a black student’s intelligence is second-guessed when she speaks in her classroom; two Indian female students are consistently mistaken for the other as they sit in first-year class; the visually impaired student is dismissed as being unable to properly practice law. Some of these assumptions are said out loud; others are only made implicitly. Either way, the students have yet another hurdle to overcome based on nothing more than others’ beliefs about the students’ identities.

Then there’s imposter syndrome.  If you are constantly told that you aren’t good enough, smart enough, confident enough, by your peers and society at large, you will start second-guessing what you have achieved, and believing that despite your hard work and efforts, someone will one day soon uncover that you are a fraud. A first-generation law student, for example, unaware of the proper attire for a court appearance or a law firm interview, or even for the first day of law school, may show up in the best clothes they have and get admonished loudly or mocked silently. In the competitive nature of law school, that feeling gets exacerbated and only continues into practice as a legal professional.

And one last thing. For many of these students, they are the “only” in their classrooms: the only black student, the only Asian student, the only Muslim student, or the only disabled student. They may have no one else they can lean on for help, no one who they can look at – faculty or student – and say, “They can understand my struggles because they have been here too.”

That’s why we have Jumpstart. Already our sixty-three 1Ls have created a Facebook group and a text messaging group. They are planning outings and get-togethers on their own. The Commission anticipates having academic year workshops to prep the students for upcoming exams and the job market. In the future, we hope to expand the program to all nine law schools in Illinois.

As our country undergoes massive demographic shifts, we need programs like Jumpstart, and many more like it, to ensure that the legal profession reflects the diversity of the people we serve. We look forward to seeing how Jumpstart continues to evolve and help our students thrive in law school and in their future practice.

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