Diversity Dialogue Broadening Business Perspectives

First-Generation Lawyers: The Next Diversity Frontier

Have you heard of “first-generation lawyers”? The idea might be familiar if you work in diversity and inclusion, but it’s a new concept for many lawyers and legal professionals. First-generation law students and lawyers are a growing force in our legal communities. How do we define them? What unique challenges do they face? And what can law schools and law firms do to identify them, support them and ensure they achieve every level of success?
Michelle Silverthorn

I asked two legal diversity leaders to help answer these questions. Here’s what Sally Olson, Chief Diversity Officer at Sidley Austin LLP, and Michelle Jackson, Director of Alumni Advising at Northwestern Law, had to say:

How would you define first-generation lawyers?

Olson: I define first-generation lawyers as first-generation professionals. In other words, their parent or parents did not have a professional job. They most likely did not attend college, although that’s not necessarily the case.

Jackson: We generally define first-generation law students as those whose parents have not attended law school. Often, these students are also first-generation college students and students who are from working-class or lower-income backgrounds.

First-generation lawyers have been around for a long time. Why the seemingly new concerted effort to focus on them?

Jackson: A lot of it has to do with an enhanced awareness of issues around modern identity. As the legal industry continues to focus more and more on issues of diversity, inclusion and equity, it’s become apparent that first-generation law students and lawyers have common issues regardless of social identity. The recognition of these commonalities has created this distinct diversity category.

Olson: I agree. The GI Bill produced a lot of first-generation lawyers. I try to publicize this fact with younger lawyers so that they understand their experience is not unique. I see two things that have produced this new interest. First, there are more diverse lawyers entering the profession and a higher percentage of them are first-generation professionals. Second, and more recently, I’ve seen evidence of a mindset that being first-generation is a professional detriment, which makes people focus on it and organize around it to get support and share experiences.

What are the major obstacles first-generation lawyers have when starting out in the profession?

Olson: Many come to mind. A lack of acculturation to expectations in a professional setting; lack of knowledge of resources, inside or outside the firm, that would help professional growth and personal stability; a lack of self-confidence or sense of belonging and a higher incidence of imposter syndrome among young first-generation lawyers; financial burdens that constrain first-generation lawyers’ career choices, along with the experience of being isolated at work and not understood in your family.

Jackson: Yes, the expectations piece is critical. First-generation lawyers often feel like they’re “playing catchup,” like others already know the rules and got a head start on playing the game. This can be because of lack of knowledge of social norms and law firm etiquette, lack of familiarity with terminology, or lack of exposure to certain environments.

What can law firms do to better recruit, hire and develop first-generation lawyers?

Olson: We need to destigmatize the condition, to the extent that either students or practicing lawyers think being a first-generation lawyer is a detriment. We also need better education for first-generation lawyers about their new environment and its cultural expectations.

Jackson: And that education can start in law school. Law firms should offer support and sponsorship of first-generation initiatives in law schools. That way, they can become invested in enhancing the professional development of these new professionals. This support can include identifying first-generation lawyers at the firm and allowing those lawyers to serve as panelists or mentors to first-generation law students. This creates a pipeline of lawyers who are equipped to handle any first-generation obstacles. Firms might also add first-generation as a category for scholarships or other diversity opportunities.

Additionally, like law schools, law firms should create and support first-generation employee resource groups so that first-generation lawyers can share experiences, successes and hardships.

What suggestions would you have, if any, for law schools and law firms starting a program for first-generation lawyers?

Jackson: Many law schools have done a great job with first-generation programs. They teach students essential law school coping skills, and help them obtain mentors, navigate the job search process and share each other’s stories of challenges and successes. Knowing that they are not the only one who didn’t understand a particular phrase or has never heard of a particular activity can help alleviate anxiety and create confidence.

Law schools can also consider first-generation concerns when planning professional development programs and activities. It’s essential to not make assumptions about what law students know about law school and legal employment before walking into the building on day one.

Olson: As for law firms, they can start by connecting with first-generation students and listen to their concerns. Create a first-generation lawyers discussion group for all first-year associates to share resources, destigmatize and provide a peer group. Learn the value of having a first-generation lawyer’s perspective and share that value inside the firm. Help non-first-generation professionals understand and respect that value.