Critical steps for students seeking legal careers in social justice was originally published on College Recruiter.
It’s no secret that the law impacts every facet of our lives, whether it be education, housing, or the economy, from the municipal to the state to the federal level. We have been taught that everyone is equal before the law, but a brief glance at the history of our nation’s history makes it unmistakably clear that certain segments of society (such as racial minorities, women, religious minorities, and the LGBTQ+ community) have not been treated equally or equitably in the eyes of the law. It is perfectly understandable to be frustrated and angry at the legal injustices that permeate our society, but frustration alone isn’t enough.
An increasing number of law students and lawyers have been energized to improve and reform the legal system to right these historical wrongs. By pursuing a legal career in social justice, you can help ensure that all people can be who they are without fear of legal or societal repercussions, pursue their passions, and live their lives to the fullest extent of their abilities.
As part of a new generation of students who are considering pursuing a legal career focused on social justice, you need to develop a deep understanding of the issues and the laws that currently govern them in order to have a successful and fulfilling legal career pursuing social justice. Here are several steps you can take while in law school to help achieve that goal.
Critical steps for law students seeking legal careers in social justice:
Seek out organizations within and/or outside of your law school that foster knowledge through involvement. Often, you’ll have the opportunity to interact with legal practitioners and experts as part of this process, which can give you better insight into the law and how best to apply your talents to achieve your goals. A great example of this sort of organization is the NYU Center for Race, Inequality, and the Law. This program provides NYU law students the opportunity to conduct research into topics of race and inequality for use in litigation and advocacy, organize conferences and symposiums, and author editorials to be published in media outlets. Check to see if your school has a similar program. If it doesn’t, talk to a professor or advisor about starting one on your campus.
Take the right courses
As you choose your classes, carefully consider your goals and focus on classes in the specialties that will best fit your future needs. If you’re passionate about reproductive rights, take classes focused on these issues. For example, Vanderbilt Law School offers a course on Reproductive Rights and Justice. If you want to focus on improving the rights of racial minorities, you should take classes that focus on this topic. Michigan Law School allows students to pursue a dual Juris Doctorate and PhD in Law and History through its Race, Law, and History Program. If your law school doesn’t offer a course you are interested in, consider asking a faculty member to create such a course.
When you take these courses, go beyond the written law and explore the foundations on which the law was formed. Understanding the law is an important part of practicing it. Preparing for a career in social justice is not just about being able to memorize “what” the law is. It is also imperative to understand “why” the law exists as it does today to help you develop solutions and offer direction in how to best change such laws to be more equitable for all.
Seek legal externships
To put the law into practice while in law school, look into whether your school or community offers legal externships at a free legal aid clinic where you can volunteer and/or earn course credit. These clinics offer legal services at no cost and can offer immense support to low-income individuals who may not otherwise have access to legal services. Additionally, these clinics provide valuable practical experience that you won’t find in a classroom. My alma mater, Creighton University School of Law, allows upper-level law students the opportunity to participate in the Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic, which provides free legal assistance to low-income individuals in a variety of civil matters.
Expand your knowledge through self-education
Participate in or create societies, associations, and groups that will allow you to advance your skills and expand your knowledge base. Attend events for on-campus speakers that you’re interested in and those who will push you outside of your comfort zone.
Keep reading outside of your assigned reading for class and keep up with current events. That’s easier said than done in law school, but there’s an abundance of resources that can give you a closer look at the laws currently on the books and how they’re impacting society. These resources also explain what reforms have been proposed that could address societal ills. For those interested in learning more about racial injustice in America, I recommend the following books:
- Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
- Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
- Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States
- Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Stay committed to reading new books and articles as they come out. You may find that your reading offers insights from a different perspective than your law-school textbooks and broadens your knowledge base about social injustices.
The road to equality and equity in the law isn’t easy. There’s no one piece of legislation or case that’s going to fix everything. However, it’s important to educate yourself now, so that you have the necessary tools to help fix systemic legal injustices when you are ready to practice law. It’s only through this continual struggle that we can guarantee that people have the opportunity to live their true and best life.
— Ryan Zajic (he/him). After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in Political Science and History from the College of Saint Benedict/St. John’s University (MN) and his Juris Doctorate from Creighton University School of Law, Ryan Zajic worked as an attorney specializing in low-income housing tax credits. Ryan now works as a bar review content developer at UWorld, where he creates online test preparation resources to help students succeed on the bar exam and in law school. During his time at UWorld, Ryan has helped create the Diversity, Inclusion, and Awareness Committee. In his spare time, Ryan enjoys reading, traveling, running, cheering on his (National Champion) Kansas Jayhawks basketball team, and spending time with his family and friends. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on LinkedIn.
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