In a Law School Daze: Seven Major Adjustments for HBCU Students Planning to Attend Predominantly White (Non-HBCU) Law Schools
1. You will encounter a “sink or swim” mentality. HBCUs usually provide more of a nurturing and comfortable atmosphere because you are around people who look like you and share a similar cultural and perhaps socioeconomic and educational background. Understand that the real world and the law school world are vastly different. In law school, no one is going to baby you, look out for you and make sure you know what to do. The administrators, staff and professors won’t. It’s a weeding out process. Only the strong survive. You make the cut or you don’t. You can handle it or you can’t. You pass or fail. You may find it to be a cold and formal environment. In many law schools, this is a part of the educational environment they have set up to prepare you to become a lawyer. You will have to figure things out on your own and manage to be strong and move forward. Prepare yourself beforehand for this. You have to be intense, focused, confident and tremendously self-motivated. If you falter, you have to get yourself up and keep going. If you don’t have that passionate and resilient attitude and spirit inside of you, you will probably not make it. You have to make a decision to be strong and develop a tough outer shell. Hold in the tears and step up and be the man or woman that you are.
2. Don’t expect a Black “family” atmosphere due to the great diversity that is likely within the Black law student community, but do try to foster one. During your first year, your fellow Black classmates are your competitors and they come from all types of ethnic, cultural, socioeconomic and educational backgrounds. Some are from African countries, some from the Caribbean Islands such as Jamaica, the Bahamas, Antigua, some from different regions of the country including the East coast, the West coast, the Midwest, the South. Some will have attended small, private liberal arts colleges. Some will have attended major state universities. Some would have gone to elite Ivy League universities. Others will have graduated from other historically Black colleges, but those with different missions, atmospheres and reputations. Coming from different backgrounds and places, you may find that you all are Black but very different in how you see the world and approach the law school environment.
Despite this, all of you will have commonalities as Black law students perhaps in experiencing similar discriminatory treatment and having the goal of increasing the numbers of Blacks in law schools and seeing that Black issues and racism in American society and the legal system are addressed. During summer internships, you may find that you are the only person of color in those legal environments.
No matter what the case may be in terms of relationships between the diversity of Black students at your school, you should still do what you can to foster some type of family atmosphere and to promote some sense of brotherhood/sisterhood and interconnectedness with your fellow Black law students. Getting involved with your Black or minority law students association is a great way to do this. Share information on how to get through that tough first year by telling them about the best way to succeed in certain professors courses or giving them copies of good outlines. Be willing to tell others where to go to get your hair done, and where they can find other Black and diverse students on the campus. Be willing to be a sounding board for those going through struggles as well and form a pact to support each other. Through working together and supporting one another, you can keep our continuing and ongoing struggle alive.
3. Your fellow law school classmates will be very competitive. Many HBCUs are more collaborative in their approach to classes. There is a general sense that people want to help one another. No one wants to see you falter or fail. There are some teachers who will take time to talk to you and try to save you from failing their classes. In law school, because of the curve grading system, your classmates are your competition. You need to do less well than them in order for them to do better than you. By going in understanding this, you can’t expect people to assist you and look out for you. They are trying to keep their own heads above water and make sure that they make it on the higher end of the curve. Many people are very much looking out for themselves because you are their competition so they are not going to share any information that will help to give you an edge. If you are clueless, they may want to keep you in that state because that puts them one step up on the curve.
4. You will likely experience prejudice and racism in some form and have to adjust to the realities of a predominantly White environment and profession. In a predominantly Black environment, you have been shielded and protected from the realities of racism in our society. It has been clear to you that if another Black person didn’t like you, it wasn’t because you were Black! You need to be aware of the fact that you may experience a hostile environment in terms of race relations at your law school. Once you leave the Black college environment, welcome to real life in America. Do your best to prepare yourself for what you are about to face as a member of a minority in American society. The ignorance regarding Black people will be something you will encounter not only in the classrooms, but also in professional legal environments. Go in knowing that it’s not pretty but it is a reality we all must face and it doesn’t have to be an excuse for you not jumping over the hurdles you will face. Try not to get upset about it and be willing to brush it off and teach those who are not knowledgeable. Yes, it’s an added burden or responsibility, but you will find many instances where your being there and sharing your perspective could make a difference. Blacks only make up around 7% of law students and 5% of lawyers. This is just how it is. However, your presence and success do make a difference because things can get better with you.
5. Some will assume that you are there because you are Black and not because you are as smart as they are. With race-conscious, affirmative action admissions policies that do consider race as a factor in making student admission decisions, some of your classmates will assume that you simply aren’t as smart as they are and are not as deserving to be there. Some will make it clear that you are not there based on academic “merit” but received special preferential treatment because of your Blackness. People assuming that you did not “earn” your place in the law school class can be especially hard to swallow when you may have been an academic superstar at your undergraduate institution or your entire life. It may be hard to see how some Whites may view Blacks as being intellectually inferior. Know that some people think that we can’t speak correct English, that we can’t write well, and that we are lazy and want things handed to us. You may find it even more difficult to accept that there may be nothing within your power that you can do to change some people’s preconceptions or misconceptions about you because of your race and perhaps where you come from and what schools you attended. Despite this, be all that you can be. Prove them wrong. But most importantly, do it because it will serve you well to be a person with a strong work ethic, a high standard of excellence and exceptional character.
6. You will need to adjust to the culture shock quickly. Once you start law school, you will be in for a culture shock. You will be shocked about a new type of conducting class, a new learning environment, a predominantly White student body, a greatly diverse Black student body, heavy and difficult reading assignments, no direction given by faculty and other differences from what you are accustomed to. Realistically, you really won’t have time to bemoan the lack of diversity or the bothersome race issues in the law school, or to truly digest and try to fully understand your different environment and what you are going through as you begin your transition from layperson to lawyer. When you have time, write down or record on audiotape your experiences and ideas for making things better, and then plan to be active in addressing them once you get over your first-year hurdle. As a first-year law student, you simply don’t have time to fight everything and everybody. Your main battle is with and within yourself. Your battle is that of not only surviving your first year, but thriving in it and trying to achieve success in whatever personal way that you define it. Your first-year grades are critically important in determining your job prospects, ranking in the class, opportunities for legal journals whereby selection can be based on GPA, among other things.
You should devote your time and energy to getting a handle on legal education and keeping up with your reading assignments, briefing, and outlining so that you can do and be your very best. You very well may experience some discrimination and negative treatment and have to adjust to being exposed to different approaches to looking at things and solving problems. One thing is certain. Law school is very different from any educational experience you have ever had and you will be in for the culture shock of your life. Unfortunately, you simply don’t have the time to focus on it all or do anything about it. Just do what you have to do to survive and be your best every single day. Play the game and cross the finish line. All else is secondary.
7. Life as an HBCU student provides a reality that really doesn’t exist beyond those gates. I sincerely believe that HBCUs can, if there is a commitment by the administrators and professors, offer a wonderful opportunity and experience for Black students to truly thrive in a world where race doesn’t matter and where they can reach their full potential without that additional burden. For those students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, they can offer the nurturing and support to help those students who didn’t get the fundamentals receive the remediation they need to get up to speed and on track. They can help those motivated students with big dreams and aspirations reach their full potential academically and help fill in those possible gaps in terms of helping them learn what it takes to be a successful student, a good person, an involved citizen. They can assist in building up critical social and personal development skills to prepare students to go out into a hostile and competitive world and compete toe to toe with their more advantaged and non-minority counterparts.
As a student at an HBCU, there shouldn’t be any person telling you what you can’t do because you are Black. The sky is the limit. The truth is otherwise in the larger world. Take full and complete advantage of everything you possibly can while you are in this unique educational experience and appreciate all this environment has to offer. You may have fewer resources, but you don’t have anything or anyone around you holding you back – at least not because you are Black. You have the chance to prove all you can be without the heavy burdens of racism weighing you down. Make the most of it! You have no excuse not to. Law schools will be the polar opposite.
And when you do enter a predominantly White law school, make the conscious effort to reach out to Black and minority members of local bar (lawyers) associations and your law school’s alumni. Establish relationships with them and get advice from them on how they have coped with these issues.
Go into law school making a commitment to yourself to not allow anyone or anything tell you what you can’t be or do because you can be and do anything you choose despite how you might feel or how others may treat you. Know that greatness is within your reach if you decide that you will do “whatever it takes no matter what” to achieve your goals. Good luck!
Evangeline M. Mitchell, Esq., Ed.M. is a graduate of Prairie View A&M University, the University of Iowa College of Law and the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She is the founder of the National Black Pre-Law Conference and Law Fair and the National HBCU Pre-Law Summit & Law Expo. Copyright © 2005-2018. All rights reserved.