First Generation Students and Competing in Law Schools

First Generation Students and Competing In Law School

by Steven Friedland

JUNE 13, 2014 – Steve Friedland, senior scholar and professor of law at Elon School of Law. (photo by Kim Walker)

Universities make many assumptions about students when they enter law school, but one rather large one is that all students essentially start at the same place and have the same opportunities to succeed as others. This assumption is justified by the fact that the students have met the entrance requirements of a school — particularly if the students performed well one Saturday morning on the LSAT.

This assumption, like many others about teaching and learning in law school, are not entirely accurate, especially in light of recent studies. The studies note that learning is based on many factors; all of the studies agree that learning not occur in a vacuum. Instead, learning builds on prior learning, so if the prior learning is deficient or insufficient, that person will have to build on such existing foundations. In essence, it is not a “do-over” once a person enters law school.

Learning is affected significantly by context — whether the context supports, obfuscates, increases motivation or effort, creates a high degree of difficulty, and more. This is particularly true with students who are low income or first generation — students who are the first in their families to attend and graduate from law school — or any graduate school or college, for that matter.

A February 2018 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics, through the U.S. Department of Education, shows that first generation students have significant headwinds along their journey through college, and presumably, law school as well. According to the report, “A considerable body of research indicates that students whose parents have not attended college often face significant challenges in accessing postsecondary education, succeeding academically once they enroll, and completing a degree (citations omitted).”

The information tells us that “first generation” students are those who enter law school based on merit, but who have additional obstacles that many other students do not have. Such students typically have obligations outside of law school — not just to study and perform in school — but also obligations such as helping with family financial stability or other family matters. These students might have only shallow support from family members, who, while happy about the student’s achievements, are also concerned with the inability of the student to devote attention to family matters and enterprises. The fact that these students are “first generation” also means there are no prior generations who can serve as role models, advisors, or guides for the difficulties law students routinely encounter.

While first generation students often have the cognitive tools to succeed, legal education success is not solely pinned to academic processes. The cognitive aspect of law school is accompanied by an affective one, which is also very important. The emotional roller coaster that often occurs in law school can be even more difficult if there is no confidante in the family.

What can we inside legal education do about these inequities? A lot, actually. We can explicitly recognize this group within the law school structure and provide some support from day #1 — even if it is only coffee and donuts every semester. Then, using learning science, we can do more, providing assistance both outside of and inside classes as well. The assistance away from classes would involve learning how to learn better — what study techniques work best? — and sessions dealing with effective responses to headwinds from family and friends who do not understand the rigors of legal education. Within classes, students can be given the opportunity to demonstrate their skill levels and get feedback on how to improve — positive formative feedback. There are two things involved here, consequently, that we don’t often do — go the extra yard to provide additional meaningful feedback, and then make sure it is framed in terms of how to use that feedback to improve skills. If we do just some of this, we could influence a whole new generation of lawyers in a very positive fashion.

Note: If anyone is interested in creating a national alliance of first generation students and allies, several Elon U. School of Law students have set up a Facebook and Linkdin page for this purpose. (At Elon, students have formed their own First Gen and Allies organization.). Please refer to FirstGenLegalPros if you are interested in participating.