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Law Student's Experience a Triumph Over Racism, or Typical?

With law firms downsizing left and right and most lawyers stressed out or overworked, it's easy to forget that some people really, truly want to be lawyers. So amidst all the press about the downside of being a lawyer, I was excited to come across this story from the Wichita Eagle about Latina Alston. An impoverished, welfare- and food-stamp-dependent single mother of three out-of-wedlock children, Alston overcame seemingly impossible obstacles to earn a law degree from Washburn University School of Law. Four-months pregnant with her third child when she graduated law school in 2007, she went on to pass the bar and now works as a public defender in Sedgwick County, Kan.

Alston's story comes across as a feel good Horatio Alger tale -- and yet as of this posting it has generated 152 comments, many of them negative. At least half of the commenters criticized Alston for her remarks about the racism she faced at Washburn, where she was one of only twelve black students in the entire class:

At Washburn, the black students felt isolated, alone, except that we thought the white faculty and students were watching us, maybe waiting for us to fail," Latina said later. "So we'd pretty much made a vow that none of us were going to fail.... If I had not gotten up on my own, I think the others would have come in and dragged me out with their hands.

The article also focuses on how it was Alston's fellow black students who encouraged her to finish law school and cheered her on as she studied for -- and subsequently passed -- the bar.

For me, Alston's comments soured an otherwise uplifting story. Personally, I think the typical law school environment discourages all students equally, no matter their gender or race. Virtually every lawyer has a story of how they had at least one, if not more, arrogant Kingsfield-ian professor and put up with silly competitive antics (like stealing tests from the library or hiding books needed for an assignment) from cutthroat students willing to do anything to make law review and snag a job. But like so much else in life, all that nonsense serves as a rite of passage to get where you want to go.

Still, perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe the racism that Alston faced at her law school was far more pervasive, so much so that she felt compelled to include it as part of her story.

What do you think? Do law schools wait for black students to fail or intentionally isolate them from the student body? What was your experience?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on December 22, 2008 at 01:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)


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