First-generation law students: struggles, solutions and schools that care

By Jessica Tomer

“I thought I was the only first-generation student. And it's very easy to think that in law school,” says Jasmine Richardson, a 2L at New England Law | Boston. “A lot of people are coming from families of lawyers [or] people who also have college degrees. That's just not my reality.”

Despite that reality and finding law school “a bit intimidating,” Richardson applied with hopes of using her J.D. to practice juvenile criminal defense and advocate for prison reform. She got in, and she thrived. But it wasn’t until 2018, when the school launched its First Generation Students Program, that she found a community and knew she truly wasn’t alone in her struggles — or triumphs — as a first-gen law student.

Keep reading for a look at what the first-generation law student experience is like, tips for surviving and thriving, and a list of law schools dedicated to helping first-gen students succeed.

First-generation law students: a definition

First things first: Who is a first-generation law student? Though there’s no universally accepted definition, students who were first-gen in college are often still considered first-gen in law school.

A basic definition of a first-generation student is one who is the first in their immediate family to attend college. These students may find themselves with gaps in knowledge and support that can potentially put them at a disadvantage. And even though going to college familiarizes first-gen students with higher education, those lessons don’t necessarily carry on to law school.

The first-gen law school experience is relatively under-researched, but studies show that the same obstacles students face as undergrads often follow them to law school. You can see this in the disparities in things like student loan borrowing: 93 percent of first-generation law students borrowed money to finance their legal education, compared to 84 percent of their “continuing education” peers. They borrow about 23 percent more too, leaving law school that much more financially burdened.

First-generation law students are also more likely to be older, less affluent, and from a multicultural background. They’re more likely to attend law school part-time as well, which comes with its own set of challenges. And they tend to spend much more time — 40 perecent more time, in fact — working to pay their own way through law school. But they also typically study more too.

Richardson started her journey as a first-gen student at the University of Maryland College Park. “My mother and father worked very hard for me to get there, but once I got there, it was as if I was on my own,” she says. She went to college straight out of high school in “a leap of faith,” she says. “This was a step that nobody else had taken in my life.”

When she found herself unable to make tuition ends meet, Richardson ended up taking a three-year hiatus, while she worked three jobs to save money for her education. “It was a really tough time, but where I am now, I would do it 10 times over,” she says. “I wouldn’t be as strong as I am today. It just made it that much more worth it.”

What it’s like being a first-gen law student

Law school is hard enough as it is. Add in the challenges of being first-generation, and you’ve got a whole new set of struggles, as these law students can attest:

 - “It's really hard to get directions when you're the blueprint,” Richardson says. “You have a sense of urgency to do everything right the first time.” As a first-generation student (in law school or otherwise), there’s extra pressure to meet familial and societal expectations — and often no one in your inner circle who can help

 - “I am the first person in my extended family to go to college, let alone attend any graduate program,” says Ashlyn Castoe, a third-year student at New England Law. After working three jobs to pay her way through undergrad, she was able to attend law school almost entirely on scholarship. “If I explained to my third-grade self the cost of a higher education, I would have never believed that I would be graduating from law school someday. I went from a child living in a trailer park to a Juris Doctor, which showed me the importance of giving back.” (After taking the bar exam in the summer of 2019, Castoe plans to join the Peace Corps to teach rural communities in Paraguay.)

 - “I felt so alone due to my parents and family members not fully understanding the law school educational system here,” says Susan Helmy, another third-year student at New England Law and immigrant whose family hails from Greece and Egypt. Though coming to law school was “scary at first,” she says she got the extra support she needed. She plans to practice immigration law after graduating in the spring.

One of the challenges of being a first-gen student is simply not knowing the ins and outs of law school and professional situations. This can lead to practical problems, like uncertainty around navigating networking events, to more abstract issues like feeling isolated among peers, which can impact mental health and overall law school performance.

Some of the biggest obstacles facing first-gen students are often financial. Students may lack funds — or just lack the knowledge of how to get funds that might otherwise be available to them. Money troubles can manifest in many different ways too: first-gen students may not be able to afford professional clothing to wear to interviews, networking events, or court proceedings. Or they might need to work part-time to fund law school, which can drastically cut into their ability to study, gain practical legal experience, and take time for self-care. (Keep reading for tips for overcoming these hurdles!)

But as tough as being first generation can be, there are unique benefits as well. From a law school admissions perspective, first-gen students might be in-demand as schools seek to diversify their student body. Some law schools offer unique programming, networking, and even scholarship opportunities for first-generation students (see examples below). And the same struggles that might have defined the first-gen experience — having to work while attending law school, overcoming discrimination, fighting for every opportunity —can foster the same traits that enable lawyers to succeed throughout their careers.

How to succeed before, during, and after law school as a first-gen student

Before law school

 -  Look for law schools with offerings specifically for first-generation students to make sure you get the support you need (see list of example schools below).

 -   Take advantage of pre-law, graduate, and career advising at your undergraduate institution to bolster your knowledge of the law school search, application, and financial aid processes.

 -   Invest time in familiarizing yourself with the financial realities of law school, particularly regarding student loan borrowing and debt.

 -   Join first-generation student groups at your undergraduate institution.

 -   During the application/admissions process, use your personal statement and/or a diversity statement to provide insights into what being first-gen means to you and challenges you’ve overcome. 

 -   Seek scholarships, grants, and other financial aid opportunities for first-gen students.

During law school

 -    Take advantage of first-gen resources at your law school, like student groups, mentoring, and networking events, to strengthen your support system and increase your confidence and comfort level.

 -    Ask alumni and career services offices on campus to connect you with other first-generation alumni for guidance, mentoring and/or networking.

 -    Ask the student services or student affairs office for tips for acclimating to law school and advice for relating it to your family.

 -    Foster relationships with your professors by going to office hours, asking for feedback, and perhaps developing a mentorship.

 -    Focus on the unique strengths and perspective you bring as a first-generation law student.

 -    Keep in mind that law school is hard for everyone. You’re overcoming many of the same hurdles together.

 -    Ask for help—even before you think you need it. “It's okay to not be okay,” Richardson says. “It’s okay to say, ‘I need help.’”  

After law school

 -     Join professional organizations devoted to fostering diversity in the legal profession.

 -     Stay connected to your law school first-gen community by attending alumni events and mentoring the next generation.

 -     Highlight experiences in your résumé, cover letter, and interviews that demonstrate your unique perspective as a first-generation student and professional.

 -     Remember: the hard work and determination it took to get to and through law school will carry you far in your career. You have everything you need to succeed.

Law schools with resources for first-generation students

Though not a comprehensive list, the schools below offer a variety of resources specifically for first-gen law students.

-  New England Law | Boston: First Generation Students Program is open to all students who are the first in their families to attend law school and provides one-on-one advising, workshops focused on real-world skills (like financial literacy), and networking opportunities with first-generation alumni. The school also offers a scholarship specifically for incoming first-gen students.

-  New York University School of Law: AnBryce Scholarship Program offers full-tuition funding, a community for first-gen students (including anyone who is the first in their family to attend graduate or professional school), and programmatic support like mentoring and career advising.

Stanford Law School: First Generation Professionals, a student group committed to improving law school diversity, provides a community as well as mentoring, career advising, and social activities for first-gen students.

University of California, Berkeley School of Law: Berkley Law Opportunity Scholarship provides $150,000 of guaranteed funding for tuition and fees, as well as access to special networking events, academic and career support, and even a “buddy system” among first-gen students

-  University of Georgia School of Law: First-Generation Student Association provides fellowship and resources surrounding academic, emotional, financial, and social issues. The law school also recently received a $3 million donation to fund scholarships for first-gen students.

University of Southern California Gould School of Law: First Generation Professionals group is open to students from working-class or lower-income backgrounds as well as first-gen students. It sponsors a mentorship program, seminars providing real-world advice, and networking events.

Yale Law School: First Generation Professionals group sponsors a wide variety of programming for first-gen students and those from working-class or lower-income backgrounds, including a retreat, guest speakers, casual faculty mixers, study groups, social events, and clerkship guidance.

Richardson says the First Generation Students Program at New England Law is full of likeminded students—and everyone wishes they had a group like it long ago. Though she still feels the pressures of being first generation, Richardson says it's easier to manage now that she has people to talk to. “It's just amazing.”

You can do this

“Everyone goes through periods where they feel alone,” Richardson says. “Everyone goes through periods where they're breaking out into being an autonomous adult and they don't know how.” And everyone needs help navigating those rough patches. Richardson is happy to assume that mentoring role for others, owning the moniker of “first-generation law student,” she says. Now, she knows she’s not alone.

“With the platform I have now being a law student, being an African American woman who is educated and has multiple degrees, I can talk to young African American students [and] say, ‘Hey, it might not feel like it, but as you keep going, it keeps getting better, and it's going to keep getting better as you put in the work,” Richardson says. “We're here, we're working just as hard, and we're paving the way for future generations.”

Jessica Tomer is the Web Content Manager for New England Law | Boston. Founded in 1908 as the first law school exclusively for women, today New England Law is coeducational and known for its experiential learning opportunities, welcoming community, and flexible programs.