Law in Contemporary Society

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: The Problem With 'Striking It Big'

-- By UchechiAmadi - 27 Feb 2009, Revised 18 April 2009

I. Introduction

Born in the South, raised in the Midwest and educated in large public schools, observing the elitist way of life throughout the school-year has been an adjustment. At home, friends say the transition denotes striking it big; they say piercing the bubble and entering Ivy-league ranks could never be detrimental. But is this so? There are benefits to attending a top school in a major city, but for someone from a humble background interested in using a law degree for justice in direct representation, the social clout, individualism and community lost in transition may be more burdensome than realized.

A. What is lost?

1. Connection to social group culture

Take the example of the paradigmatic black female. In both the law school and firm contexts, the woman’s efforts to engage in community building with a group of peers she can relate to may be hindered. Two considerations in the former case are: (1) the lack of descriptive representation and (2) the initial limited opportunity to make connections beyond the school environment. Considering black women comprise a very small portion of the student and faculty bodies, one accustomed to learning from a racially diverse group may face problems of adjustment. Also relevant is the secondary idea of confining one’s social justice exposure to the law school itself, as many school events target students. For someone acquainted with ‘doing’ and interacting directly with those in need, this presents a challenge; it may transform an individual who directly searched for opportunities into one who is instead ok with thinking about the opportunities and shifting the work to another. This matters; one who has spent years researching will face a challenge in a community wherein she must, at the grassroots level, relate more immediately to needy clients.

2. Individualism

The loss of the sense of individual identity is evidenced in the firm case. Bebe Moore Campbell in “To Be Black, Gifted, and Alone” suggests that black corporate women encounter stress, racism, sexism and professional competition in the workplace, relinquish their ‘cultural selves’ in settings promoting uniformity and face a withdrawal from a cultural identity including family and old friends. As seen from the writings of a classmate, legal scholars have commented on a similar phenomenon.

It is not difficult to imagine the emergence of two worlds for such a woman. In the corporate world she must look and act in a way that ‘aligns with firm culture.’ At home, she may be herself and must re-ignite the interpersonal relationships that shaped what she saw as her identity. The problem is that she may soon experience a disconnect in which she disassociates from her own persona. Individuals who used to take her as the example of all things black stop doing so. Her individuality is suppressed, her opinions muted. Before long, she can claim neither her blackness nor her sensitivity to local concerns.

B. What fills its place?: Magical reassurances

In the wake of the loss of group interconnectedness and individuality, reassurances become fillers. Shouted from the mountaintops are the mantras of the crowd. ‘Change must come from the top down’ they say. ‘You must help oneself before anyone else.’ Time progresses and the messages seem to make sense. ‘Power is needed to produce results,’ the young lawyer thinks. ‘I’ll put in my years, but then I will turn this place around.” Before long, the realization must emerge that the rise in social stature has likely led to a more radical transformation of the mind. In a frantic attempt to justify the need for an elite degree to work for the poor, doubt is covered with comparisons of high-profile individuals who have obtained prestige in public interest circles only after securing education at the top. But is prestige necessary? If it is, why is this so? Missing from this view is examination of what the lawyer seeking good ‘actually’ does. It might be the case that a theoretical education is helpful to finding and assisting needy clients but more helpful may have been representation by one individual the client could unite with on an interpersonal basis, either because the lawyer retained the connection to the culture she left behind or because she never left that place to begin with.

II. Next steps

As the situation – my situation -- stands today, the struggle comes in three parts: (1) accepting the decision to enter a highly prestigious, theory-based institution (2) acknowledging the disconnect in life’s spheres and (3) working to mitigate their effects. Though strengthening the connection to culture in a new environment is not impossible, it certainly requires confidence.

- Maintaining confidence, looking for commonalities, creating coalitions

Mentally, one must confront the notion that working for justice from an ‘elite’ standpoint is any different than doing so from the standpoint of one with similar passions who went elsewhere. In fact, in many cases the elite standpoint by itself must be rejected, replaced instead by an all-encompassing model that realizes that to succeed, the individual who has left the community must turn the (rare) experience viewing problems from varied vantage points (e.g. theoretical, through the eyes of the skeptic, first-hand, etc.) into an edge one is confident talking about and using to build bridges in any environment.

To most effectively fight the loss of identity, each perspective must be embraced. There must be a conscious awareness of one’s background and a fight against the move to declare it irrelevant. Armed with a mental toughness, an individual who has begun to climb the ladder must be willing to look back beyond the struggle and get to the heart of issues plaguing urban communities. The past must be taken as an opportunity for learning and thoughts and experiences from the old must be shared with the new without fear of judgment. Meanwhile, the idea that the collision of spheres will be helpful must be maintained.

Only after exploring the tangible ways of meeting goals from each vantage point can more can be done to realize the worlds may co-exist.

Original commentary

  • I think this is a very clear, careful and insightful evocation of your current psychic environment. You show the parts and their relation with unsparing sight, but also with a sense of human complexity. This is excellent. I think you could leave the occasional reference to Leff or Frank aside: they don't add much for the space they take. Where I think you find yourself on less sure ground is at your conclusion, when it's time to do more than express ambivalence, and there is not yet something solider to say. I think it's understandably difficult for you at one and the same time to present your experience so fully, with an integrated sense of its texture, and at the same time dissect out the different strands to find what might be hiding just slightly out of view. That's where the big breakthrough is, I believe.

Revision note

* As suggested, I took out the Leff/Frank section and focused on strengthening the conclusion, which meant doing more than saying this is a problem (as done in Round 1). The result is an identification of possible strands/action steps. Space limitations made the move to explore them further difficult. Also important to note: the reflection and the look at "solutions" is derived largely from the particular personal experience I write about here. It may/may not be generalizable, and of course, has weaknesses, but in no way am I advocating the one-size fits-all model. There are papers which relate to this experience; check them out here and here.


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:11:50 - IanSullivan
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