Law Student’s Relationship to Poverty

Your life experience around this topic matters.
If you are a law student, please take ~3 minutes to complete a brief, anonymous survey here.

 

We hope to use the information collected only to “pulse check” in an attempt to better understanding the ABIII law student experience.  

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs categorizes Basic Needs in two silos: 

  1. Safety Needs AND
  2. Physiological Needs. 

Examples of Safety Needs include security and safety. Examples of Physiological Needs include food, water, warmth, and rest (Simple Psychology).

I think there is often an assumption in higher education that everyone who is sitting in class with you is able to meet all of their own basic needs, but in reality, there are [law] students who are struggling to get by,” (Pantry and clothing closet combat food and financial insecurity at Dickinson Law).

It is my experience that the well-researched, albeit rarely spoken about, the reality is that the poverty-level life of undergraduate college students is amplified in the law school experience. Students attending Alexander Blewett III School of Law (herein ABIII) face issues of not having a home, limited access to food (nutritional or otherwise), and financially sacrificing in a variety of ways such as inability to obtain the uniform, ie ‘professional’ clothing, essential to a successful law school experience.


FOOD INSECURITY

Food insecurity is, “the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food.” Meal plans are not a part of ABIII’s law school experience. Although on-campus for well-over a 40-hour week for the better part of three or more years, the food-based resources available to law students are 

  • self-supplied mini-fridges your 2L and 3L year, 
  • a kitchenette (fridge, coffee-makers, and microwaves), 
  • (INSTITUTIONALLY REDUCED) lunchtime speaking events with food provided by the law school student groups, 
  • a (NEW!) Food Pantry, and 
  • a coffee shop, the SideBar.

2019-2020, pre COVID-19, saw two major changes to ABIII’s food insecurity. First, and in support of decreasing law student food insecurity, initiated by the efforts of a handful of students, on February 3, 2020, ABIII launched a law school-based Griz Food Pantry. Second, and likely increasing law student food insecurity, ABIII administration limited the lunches provided in tandem with student group speakers to one per week.

** Of note, food insecurity statistically is a burden worn disproportionately by women. “Women in the U.S. disproportionately experience hunger and poverty compared to American men.” (Ending Hunger is a Gender Equity Issue & Fact Sheet Gender and Food Insecurity: The Burden on Poor Women). As law schools become more gender-balanced, their issues of food insecurity will continue to become more and more apparent. 

Now, with the global pandemic of COVID-19, these issues of law student food insecurity have increased exponentially.   


HOMELESSNESS

Homelessness is, “Individual or family who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate. nighttime residence, meaning: (i) Has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or. private place not meant for human habitation; (ii) Is living in a publicly or privately operated shelter.” (HUD).

Dorms are not a part of ABIII’s law school experience. Student Family Housing is available although as a resource is limited and ranges in cost from a one-room studio at a minimum of $433/month to a maximum of a 4-bedroom, 1,000 sqft flat at $1,080/month. All rates include cable TV, water, garbage, and sewer. Students are responsible for telephone service and the Internet (approximately $69.99/month). Off-campus, “according to a recent report from Apartment List, the median rent for a two-bedroom in Missoula is $930.” (KPAX). This rate likely does not include electricity costs or the costs of the internet.

Due to ABIII’s prohibition on gainful work for the three years of law school, law students much find financial stability to cover housing from a partner-income earner, taking out additional, heightened interest-rate (How Grad School Loans are Different from Undergrad Loans), graduate-level student loans, or be semi-nomadic and amenable to change. 

Now, with the global pandemic of COVID-19, these issues of law student homelessness have put law students in a more vulnerable position. Even for those with a home, Shelter-in-Place has dramatically impaired the quality of learning during the semester and left summer transitions (many of which entail moving outside of Missoula) in a lurch.


INCOME LIMITATIONS

ABIII’s Student Handbook reads, “Full-time students are expected to devote substantially all working hours to the student of law.  All students employed more than an average of l0 hours per week in any semester must report the details of such employment to the Associate Dean of Students.  Second- and third-year students who will be working over 10 hours per week must fill out an employment form when they register. No full-time student’s employment should exceed 20 hours per week.

This policy is based upon the premise that the objective of each law student is to secure the best legal education that our facilities and his or her faculties will permit.  Accordingly, everything the student does must be measured in terms of the primary purpose.  When conflicts arise, compromises must be made in favor of law study.  The law faculty is aware of the financial and family burdens that such a policy creates.  To ameliorate the situation, efforts are being made, and will continue, to augment the funds available for scholarships and loans.”

Although the American Bar Association’s Standard 304(f), which restricted student employment to 20 hours per week, was eliminated in 2014, ABIII has continued to retain a student employment rule even though it is no longer required by the Standards.

Now, with the global pandemic of COVID-19, law students’ pre-existing income limitations are emphasized as other household income earners lose their jobs and businesses are modifying their operating expenses likely impacting legal internship availability and hiring rates post-law school. 

In short, the increased earning potential pay-off having taken a massive three-year financial hit of attending law school is postponed (indefinitely).  




To end on a more positive note, here is what ABIII-adjacent groups and individuals are doing to address these issues. 

 

  • ABIII-Based Griz Food Pantry “We are going into debt. I recognize that out of state students pay even more. There are other barriers too. Sometimes we are too busy to grab food, let alone prepare it. Sometimes we run to school in a hurry to get to an early class and don’t take food with us, only to find ourselves here all day without eating. Sometimes we don’t have time to go grocery shopping. Other times we spend $1200 on books and we really don’t have more money to buy groceries. The thing is that we all need to eat, deserve to eat, and should be supported in eating.”

 

  • Professional Clothing Closet “The law school is a busy place! Spring semester—mock trials, oral arguments, AWR presentations, job interviews. All sorts of things that require you to put on professional clothing. You may be realizing that you 1) don’t have professional clothing; 2) your professional clothing no longer fits; or 3) your professional clothing could use some sprucing up. Because any of those problems can put a serious dent in an already stretched student budget, the library has a Professional Clothing Closet where you can “shop” for free.  The Professional Clothing Closet has a wide variety of women’s and men’s professional clothing (including shoes and purses!) in all sizes. You are welcome to keep what you find—it’s all free—just please leave the hangers.”

 

  • Pending Emergency Aid Fund Now, with the global pandemic of COVID-19, ABIII “alumni and other donors are attempting to set up an Emergency Aid Fund to provide small grants to students in dire need.”
Your life experience around this topic matters.
If you are a law student, please take ~3 minutes to complete a brief, anonymous survey here.

 

We hope to use the information collected only to “pulse check” in an attempt to better understanding the ABIII law student experience.  

Loving and Living Through Law School: The Person We Become

When being a law student is secondary.

Law school changes and challenges students in some common ways but in even more individual ways. We all enter into this endeavor at different starting points which means that, in an effort to arrive at the same end-point, there is an intense amount of ratcheting, acceleration, and endurance to produce as standard of a product (to-be-lawyers) possible. We are pushed; we are pulled. The very reason(s) and motivation(s) we came to law school in pursuit of distortion may become the biggest source of compromise along the way.

Bearing that in mind, there are those who are faced with the unique dynamic of being a partner and parent while being a student. Maintaining personal health during law school is challenging enough. Doing that while concurrently being good stewards to our relationships with our partner(s) can, some days, feel impossible. On other days, extending care to another may be all we have within us.

PARTNER FIRST, LAW STUDENT SECOND

My experience of loving and living through law school has been unique to myself and my relationship with my life partner, but I think in many ways, it is a communal experience, too.

There is an ugly physical side of law school. It has been my experience that weight gain is typical. I gained ~20 lbs my first year and distinct from the infamous college freshman weight gains, my underlying habits (eating, exercising, etc) had not changed. The only change was law school. Unique stress concurrently occurring with a sharp personal decrease in self-worth allowed the pounds to latch on.

Furthermore, there is a startling hormonal aspect of law school. Here at ABIII, our class sizes are ~70 students in the first year. Your first year, you have every class every day together. Cycles, menstrual and mood, storm and sync. As a result, what I would call my ‘baseline’ or ‘standard’ hormonal engagement with my environment recalibrated beyond my understanding. I cried randomly. I found myself despondent. I was manic. Now, two years later, I may have stabilized my new-normal, maybe. I have learned a few things as I look at myself and my relationship with my partner.

From this physical and psychological experience, I have learned to hold onto and how to let go of information and control. From being a partner-first, law student second, I now know:

  • There is a distinction between someone who takes your time versus enhances your time. 
  • There is a difference between someone who exploits your intelligence as compared to investing in you.
  • There is a special balance found in someone who gives space to fail, consistently, all the while believing in your abilities, seeing the explosion of growth, through those failures.

I found my person. I am grateful I found my person. I know not everyone in law school has.

PARENT FIRST, LAW STUDENT SECOND

I started college when I realized that my daughter needed to grow up with an educated mama. I remember thinking, how can I make this place better without more knowledge. I realize that this knowledge can come from life experience, jobs, and relationships, but I had watched my parents struggle with a lack of resources. I didn’t want my little to experience that any more than she already had.

When I decided to go to law school and was accepted, someone that I love very much looked at me and said, “Can’t you just get a normal job now, and take care of your daughter. Give her a break.” At that point, I had been in school for over four years of my child’s life. This particular comment hit me like a punch in the gut. Was I wrong to be ‘giving up’ so much to go to graduate school? Neither of my parents obtained a college degree, let alone a graduate degree.

This was one of the first moments that I realized this team I have is my little and I. We both know that we have work to do in this world and we don’t need everyone to see that for it to be true. I went to law school despite most of the adults in my life telling me not to. In the end, all of this is for her. I understand that it might be difficult to see from the outside.  I want to help people. I want to show her what is possible. I want to help her in the future. This is the path I saw to get us where we needed to go.

Law school was different.  I have faced more judgment as a parent in this setting than I ever had before. Many people, especially those who have not raised a child have advice about how we should be raising ours. I have found that the advice does not come through clean. It is painful. I am ‘over-involved’ and give too much of myself to others. I know. I still wouldn’t change it. We do the very best we can as parents here. I know that my classmates do too. We come here with full hearts, and unconditional love for our children and through them, we gain an unconditional love for the world. There is a big chance that we would never feel this much without them.

As for all of my relationships, they are strained in fixable ways. I know that mother doesn’t call me because she sees my time as a valuable commodity, too precious to touch. It breaks my heart every time I realize this, and I advise her otherwise. My family feels a similar way and stays quiet. I miss them all. My baby is half grown now and sees the world through sharp eyes looking for injustice. Sometimes I feel like I have lost so many years, but with her, I feel like I have an eternity. Next year I will have a quiet office job and get to slow down. I know that I will look back and feel hopeful, for the many beautiful souls that took this trip when I did and for my sweet girl who always sees me for who I am.


We recognize that our experiences only capture two perspectives. We invite you to reach out via the comments or by emailing womenslawcaucusmt@gmail.com if you’d like us to add your story to the post. 

  • What ‘First’ roles do you fill? 
  • Have those impacted your development as a law student? How?

These are conversations largely left unspoken so let’s talk about it.

Recap: J.D. Advantage Panel

 

Wondering if the traditional Juris Doctor (JD) career path is for you? The Women’s Law Caucus had the pleasure of hosting a panel of seven women who have earned their JDs (the JD Advantage) and are now practicing in non-JD career paths. Each panel members’ careers varied from directors of nonprofits to the director of choral activities at the University of Montana. One panelist was an assistant professor in the University of Montana’s social work program and another is a child advocate for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal Defender’s OfficeSome panelists spoke about realizing they did not want to become a traditional attorney halfway into law school  while others like Coreen Duffy, Director of Choral Activities, realized it while she was practicing law. One of the panelists, Heather O’Loughlin, who is now  the Co-Director of Research and Development at Montana Budget and Policy Center recalled she never wanted to be a lawyer but knew a JD would ultimately help her career path because it would open the door to more job opportunities. 

Many of the panelists agreed law school was challenging and difficult mentally and emotionally, but ultimately the panelists did not regret their decision to complete law school. Claire Charlo, now a child advocate for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribal Defender’s Office, felt she could use what she learned in law school to pass on that opportunity and knowledge to those who could not go to law school. Finally, Coreen Duffy noted if you are struggling with your decision to come to law school, “you are never stuck where you are,” and having a JD can lead to many other career paths. 

A Lesson Taught by Traffic: Relationship Between Self-Interest & Community

I have a regular mental debate on why there are some things I see in the world that others just don’t, and vice versa when I am sometimes completely blind to perspectives others know to exist. 

One such quandary regularly arises from the relationship between self-interest and selflessness. Disclosure, I am largely a self-interested individual (there is a lot to unpack behind that one). That said, I think my own self-interests promote rather than diminish my coexisting sense of selflessness. 

I was wondering at this unlikely pairing of internal motivators while driving home through Missoula construction one evening when a systemic epiphany brought some organization and clarity to my jumbled mind; self-interest can be promoted by acts of selflessness. 

Allow me to elaborate using a framework more concrete than ideologies; automotive commuting aka traffic.

Driving with other cars on the road is a practical application of small acts of selfless behavior, all of which in and of themselves are inconvenient, that totals to an end that is almost exclusively self-interested. From the moment a driver puts their key into the ignition, there is an intuitive awareness that extends beyond their entity, their property, and reaches into a public sphere. The driver has the self-interest to go from location A to location B without impeding their own safety. Fundamentally, I think that is all a starting point that can be agreed upon. Since there are hundreds of others on the same roads, with the same purpose, society has generated some basic rules of the road to allow the maximum number of drivers to achieve that goal each and every time they have to go from location A to location B. Every driver forfeits a small amount of self-determination accepting that following those rules of the road will serve a better outcome specifically for their own safety. At intersections, drivers stop their own progress to allow for others to go first in accordance with the rules everyone has agreed to. This process, although not perfect, is rather magnificent. While there may be a judgment in the cost, caliber, or status of an automobile, ALL cars stop in agreed-upon locations to allow for others to go first knowing that there are future intersections where other drivers will stop to allow you to continue on your journey. The destination of a person does not matter. 

Does this same cultural buy-in exist elsewhere? This is an example of a current deprivation for the hope that others will make a proportional sacrifice for you later. There is an concurrence that coordination with others is more beneficial than a competition to see who goes first. 

Imagine how beautiful our community could be if the rules we abide by on the road were applied to rules we follow as we engage with our fellow humans in all interactions.

What are your thoughts?

Snapshot: Montana’s Early Women Lawyers: Trail-Blazing, Big Sky Sisters-In-Law

  • Did you know Montana’s first woman lawyer was admitted to practice in 1889?
  • Did you know there were clubs founded with the purpose of discouraging matrimony and idealizing spinsterhood, to “produce smiles instead of scowls when the words ‘old maid’ were spoken?”

Getting outside of our own heads can be helpful from time to time while living through this law school endeavor. A good place to get lost in is Professor Bari Burke’s Montana Women Lawyers blog. The headline of the blog tips readers off as to what they are about to engage with. “Montana’s Early Women Lawyers: Trail-Blazing, Big Sky Sisters-In-Law.” The blog is “dedicated to the stories of the women admitted to practice in Montana between 1889 and 1950.”  

As law students in this state, we are a voice in a much, much larger narrative. It is always good to reflect on the echoes we may hear. 

A Spotlight on Domestic-Related Practice of Law

There is a perceived hierarchy in either prestige and skill (or both) when it comes to legal practice areas. Read more on why I chose the term “perceived”. At the bottom of that barrel is civil, or civil-criminal hybrid, domestic-related practice. Throughout education and practice, domestic-related law is situated as second-class law. Yet, I’ve seen the best models of extraordinary, intelligent, strategic attorneys working exclusively in that field.

This perception arises, as most complicated notions do, from a variety of reasons including: 

  1. What it Means to be an Attorney.

It is my belief that many individuals make the decision to attend law school with the ultimate purpose of helping people. Perhaps it is optimistic, but I do think it takes a combination of privilege + purpose to get us through the doors. Along the way of the ‘becoming an attorney path’, the privilege attempts to swallow the purpose. I see this specifically in domestic-related areas of law. At some point between pre-1L and post-3L year, there is a sense that a student transitions between totally incapable of managing domestic-related legal issues straight to be overqualified to be bothered by them. While the needs of society overflow with domestic-related legal issues, client’s potential loss of money becomes prioritized over a client’s potential loss of safety and security. 

     2. Bias.

The language around trauma-informed lawyering is becoming ever more sophisticated and normalized, but as that field of study continues to improve, the terms of art used such as “advocate”, “trauma-informed”, “survivor”, and “safety-planning” are ladened in bias. As soon as those terms enter into a legal strategy, some attorneys disengage thinking those meaningful terms of art are outside the scope of legal practice. Those terms, in fact, apply in all legal cases and in being functioning, decent humans, generally. 

       3. Prioritized Skill Set.

The skills taught and tested in legal training include: how to read cases, how to research using the platforms available, and how to write legal arguments to reflect that reading and research. The skills legal education hopes to-be attorneys to pick up along the way include client-management, communication both formal and informal, and some semblance of poise in challenging situations. 

To be a domestic-related attorney you need to be well-versed in the aforementioned skills, but additionally, you need patience, creativity, empathy, and realism. Read more of the skillset necessary to practice domestic-related law. Yet, these skills are not institutionalized or even deemed necessary to be a functional attorney.

      4. Value Calculation. 

Private, civil litigation is and some aspects of criminal law are well known for their monetary gains. The cost of attending school mandates there is some return on our investment specifically when it comes to monetary gains. The sales pitch to work with domestic-related law is that it is ‘fulfilling’. Fulfillment does not satisfy the value lawyers need to sustain the indebtedness of their newfound position as an attorney. Domestic-related law can be a career. In my opinion, those two goals are not binary; it can be both fulfilling and profitable. 

Through education and practice, we have the opportunity to quash the perceived hierarchy in civil, or civil-criminal hybrid domestic-related law. In a multi-year empirical study about what a ‘good’ lawyer is, Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Sedeck asking questions like, “If you were looking for a lawyer for an important matter for yourself, what qualities would you mostly look for?” The distilled results from this interviewing process revealed 26 Effectiveness Factors. Perhaps surprising or not surprising, those factors speak to the qualities I see reflected in domestic-related attorneys, spot-on.

  • Analysis and Reasoning
  • Creativity/Innovation
  • Problem Solving
  • Practical Judgment
  • Providing Advice & Counsel & Building Relationships with Clients
  • Fact-Finding
  • Researching the Law 
  • Speaking
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Influencing & Advocating
  • Questioning and Interviewing
  • Negotiation Skills
  • Strategic Planning 
  • Organizing and Managing (Own) Work
  • Organizing and Managing Others (Staff/Colleagues)
  • Developing Relationships within the Legal Profession
  • Networking and Business Development
  • Community Involvement and Service
  • Integrity & Honesty
  • Stress Management
  • Passion & Engagement 
  • Diligence
  • Self-Development
  • Able to See the World Through the Eyes of Others

If we uphold the development and value of relational skills on par with cognitive skills at the law school level and beyond, perhaps the legal industry will see the result. Until then, “While the negative perception can be frustrating, it also often leads to family law, and family law attorneys, being underestimated, which from a practical perspective is just fine with me.” – Local Missoula Attorney
A quick note of gratitude to all practicing attorneys who have set exemplary standards for which I aspire to emulate. The writing of this post has renewed my appreciation and awe for the work you’ve done, all the lives you’ve impacted. Thank you for being warriors in your field(s).

Dear Law Student Support Systems

Dear Law Student Spouse, Child(ren), Family, and Friends,

For every breakdown, there is a period of being built back up. For every sleep disrupted night preceding a final, a courtroom appearance, or research presentation, there is a recovery. For every doubt, there is a champion. For every law student, there is a support system.

Spouses, children, family, and friends of law students, thank you.

We come into this environment knowing that it will be academically challenging. In fact, some of us even crave that aspect; what I’ve found to be unexpected is having my resolve tested. Critical moments have brought into question my character, my judgment, and my perception of my community. In this environment, I’ve stood up when the momentum of the situation has told me to sit down. I’ve paused to look twice at something against a strong current to move past it. I’ve found that self-doubt is a new constant when I write, speak, and observe. I’ve never felt so ugly, so dumb, so uncertain.

And then I come home to you. Here, I am accepted just as I am through turmoil and change. In fact, I am celebrated because you see my growth even when I see only chaos. You listen as I process. You distract when I obsess. You guide when I am blinded by my own righteousness. You bring balance, health, and see me with true eyes.

You knew me before and you will know me after my years here. I say with humble honesty this experience could have broken me or changed me into someone I never want to be. I’m sure I was not the easiest person to be around at times. I’m sure I snapped, spoke down, and forgot to be the best person I can be to you. You are living this alongside me, and I am speechless with gratitude. When I look back on these years, I will know I learned ‘the law’, but more long lasting, I rediscovered my relationship with you.

For every law student, there is a support system, and you are mine.

Thank you.