My dad was the first in his family to graduate from college, but I was the first to attend law school. It was a choice that in many ways shaped who I am today. I recall that my first month of law school was filled with utterances I did not know were in me. My confidence drained with each night of reading. What are these words? Is this even English? Latin?! Why are these briefs not brief?
Bryant Park, Marquette 2014, is the diversity and inclusion outreach coordinator for the State Bar of Wisconsin.
My first experience of being called on in class did not help. “Mr. Park! Can you tell me the dissenting opinion?” The dissenting opinion? Why would I need to know that?
After I stood before my entire class and stumbled through the questions, the professor eventually allowed me to slink away in defeat.
These experiences made me question whether I could succeed in the classroom. It was only through the support of second- and third-year students and working professional mentors who shared my experience that I developed the skills and confidence to continue.
While this is a similar experience for many who go through law school, it can feel much more daunting to students who are the first in their family to attend and do not know where to turn. Law school is filled with individuals who have succeeded educationally prior to their arrival. There is a certain pride and stubbornness of having come this far on your own. But the lack of immediate success can lead to frustration and a downward spiral into isolation. And isolation, especially in law school, can be disastrous. This is something that many universities are noticing.
One of the fastest growing student-led groups in graduate schools, especially in law schools, is the First Generation Professionals (FGP). FGP supports students of all backgrounds who are the first in their families to attend a graduate or professional school. Most importantly, FGP provides mentorship and support systems to allow first-generation students to succeed.
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But FGP’s support must extend beyond graduation. Success at the professional level is not simply understanding concepts; it is knowing the culture of the profession.
While technically I am not a first-generation professional, upon entering the legal profession, there were many things that I did not know or seemed foreign to me. As the firstborn child of Korean immigrants, I was naturally looked upon as the representative of the family. While this taught me how to be an advocate, I was also engrained with values of community and family over individualism. This often contrasted with the culture of the professional world. Networking is pushed as being vital, but even something as simple as small talk can be difficult due to the lack of shared childhood experiences.
But luckily, these skills are learned and not inherited. And these skills are much easier to master with a mentor; someone who listens to your struggles and willingly guides you by their own successes.
One piece of advice I always give to law students who seek it: if there is a professional whose career you seek to emulate, reach out. The worst the person can do is say no. For newer lawyers seeking mentors, reach out. And for those who are in positions to be mentors but may be hesitant, we seek only your honesty. It is okay if you do not have a similar experience to share. Being a lawyer is hard. Sometimes letting us know that you are listening and becoming a familiar face is enough.
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What was your funniest or oddest experience in a legal context?
During my first year after law school, I met with a young woman to assist her with setting up a special needs trust. She clearly had never conversed with an Asian person before and our meeting soon diverted to her questions ranging from the common “where did you come from?” and “how did you learn English?” to the odd “what do you eat?” and “are there more of you?”
Since I could tell her questions were coming from a place of genuine curiosity and naivete, I humored her and answered all of the questions she had.
Bryant Park, State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison.
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