By Barbara Levenson Schweitzer
My mother is First Generation. Her parents learned to speak English by reading the newspaper. Mom grew up in an era when diversity was not embraced or supported. For context, my mother went to college in the 1950s, when many universities had admissions quotas designed to limit the number of diverse students in attendance. The majority of women did not graduate from (or even attend) college, and even fewer attended law school. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Bureau of the Census, only 23.9% of women earned bachelor’s degrees in the 1950s. Between 1950 and 1970, only 3% of all attorneys in the U.S. were women. Mom figured out quite early that education was the ticket to a better future, and she instilled this idea repeatedly when I was growing up. Because of my mother’s experiences, I feel a kinship with First Generation students and attorneys, although admittedly, I have had a much easier path than you’ve had.
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to advise First Generation law students who are getting ready to interview for 2L summer associate positions, and I have represented First Generation Professional attorneys in their lateral job searches. I have been honored, humbled, and moved to tears, by the stories they have shared with me. Their paths to law school, and the sacrifices their families have made, are nothing short of inspiring. It truly takes a village and a strong support system. First Generation students have often worked 15-20 hours a week to put themselves through college. They may have attended a community college before they earned their bachelor’s degrees. First Generation students often have parents who work several jobs in order to pay the bills. First Generation students have a lot of responsibilities that go well beyond attending class and studying.
My area of expertise is legal recruiting, and this blog is largely geared for rising 2Ls who are getting ready for OCI. However, the takeaways are applicable to anyone who is the first in their family to go to college, the first in their family to go to law school, graduate school, or professional school. When you don’t have family members or close family friends to turn to for on-point guidance, it’s easy to feel uncertain. We don’t know what we don’t know. I’m here to help you.
Top tips to keep in mind when you are interviewing for a 2L summer associate position:
1.) Be proud of who you are. You have worked very hard to get into law school and you deserve to be there. If the Dean of Admissions didn’t think you had what it takes to be successful, you would not have been admitted. You are not on trial. You have nothing to apologize for. There will always be people from more comfortable backgrounds. There will always be classmates who come from a long line of attorneys. Coming from a more advantaged background does not necessarily mean that those classmates are any more comfortable or confident than you are. It might appear that way at times, but don’t believe everything that you think.
2.) Hard work and a good attitude will always stand you in good stead. I have spoken to thousands of attorneys over the past 32 years, and I have yet to meet a First Generation who has any sense of entitlement. When the market slows down—and it will—when partners have to make lay-off decisions—and they will—your attitude is going to make the difference between losing your job, and paying your bills. Entitled people think that their accomplishments and connections will protect them from the realities of the market. They are wrong.
3.) Make it clear on your resume that you are a First Generation Professional. Firms want to hire diverse attorneys, which includes socioeconomic diversity. First Generation does not only mean people whose parents emigrated to the United States. If you are in the first generation of your family to go to college or graduate school, you are also considered a First Generation, which makes you diverse. If your law school has a First Generation Professionals group, join it. If you haven’t already joined First Generation Professionals, join it now. Make sure that you put First Generation Professionals in the Activities section on your resume, and put it front and center. Interviewers won’t ask if you are a First Generation, but if they see this on your resume, chances are that they will want to learn more. Who knows, your interviewer might be a First Generation too.
Make sure that you put First Generation Professionals in the Activities section on your resume, and put it front and center. Interviewers won’t ask if you are a First Generation, but if they see this on your resume, chances are that they will want to learn more.
Another benefit from letting your employer know that you are First Generation is that you may be attending events at different types of venues that are new to you. Believe it or not, there are a number of attorneys who didn’t grow up going to fancy restaurants or private clubs. They understand how it feels to be staring at a place setting and wondering which fork to use. This isn’t something necessarily limited to First Generations. No matter where you come from, everyone feels nervous doing something new. Everyone feels nervous on the first day of school. Everyone feels nervous on a first date. Everyone feels nervous on the first day of a new job. Everyone feels nervous in a new place. If your employer knows that you’re a First Generation, they will be able to help match you with mentors who have walked a similar path.
4.) Mansfield Certification. The Mansfield Rule measures whether law firms have affirmatively considered at least 30 percent women, lawyers of color, LGBTQ+ lawyers, and lawyers with disabilities, for leadership and governance roles, equity partner promotions, formal client pitch opportunities, and senior lateral positions. You may be more comfortable knowing that the firm you’re interviewing with has achieved Mansfield Certification. For a list of firms that share this commitment, please visit https://www.diversitylab.com/mansfield-rule-4-0/
5.) Affinity Groups. Many law schools and law firms have affinity groups. Get involved with groups and organizations that resonate with you. Inclusion matters. Law schools and employers want to provide resources to help you succeed beyond teaching you how to be an excellent practitioner. Knowing that you have peers and mentors who have walked a similar path will help you feel comfortable, valued, and included.
6.) Reach out to contacts at firms EARLY and be sure to follow up. If you have contacts at law firms, no matter how tangential, reach out to them EARLY. Young attorneys at law firms are excited to speak with you! It can help to look for alumni from your undergraduate college or law school, and make that common connection when you’re writing a cold email. If they don’t respond right away, be sure to follow up. It’s possible that your email went into spam. It’s possible that the person you reached out to didn’t see your email. Lawyers have very full inboxes. When you follow up, be sure that the subject line mentions your earlier email, i.e. “Following up on my email from (fill in the date.)”
7.) First Generation Students Make Great Colleagues. Years ago, I spoke with a First Generation law student who was attending a top 5 law school. She was the first in her family to go to college and the first in her family to go to law school. During our conversation, she told me about her father who spent long hours working outside in 100 degree heat, in order to provide for her family. She was grateful to be spending her 2L summer in an air conditioned office. Let those words sink in—she was grateful to be able to work in an air conditioned office. I had never heard anyone tell me that before. I was moved to tears, and even thinking about this years later, I still tear up. She was grateful that the money she would be making as a summer associate would help support her family, and help pay for her education. She is the kind of person I would want to hire, wouldn’t you? And you know what, you are the kind of person that law firms want to hire too.
An Attitude of Gratitude
I have such admiration and respect for First Generation students and professionals. No one respects the opportunities that an education provides more than a First Generation. No one works harder than a First Generation. Others may work as hard as a First Generation, but no one works harder. Your work ethic, your perseverance, and your attitude of gratitude are the foundations that will make you a sought after colleague and employee. You’ve got this!
Dear Readers, I would love to learn more about you. If I can help you navigate OCI, or if you are a lateral attorney who wants to discuss your job search, please contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a call.
Barbara Levenson Schweitzer
President, Levenson Schweitzer, Inc.
A California legal recruiter with 33 years of experience.