On Lawyer imposters and class and race
The other day I had a lovely lunch with two former classmates from law school. We were talking about future and current work. We talked about striking out on our own – putting up our own shingle as they say. I said – well I just need to get brave.
That opened up an amazing conversation about growing up working class & boundaries of class, gender & race. Background of who was in the conversation:
M: White, working class, grew up in a trailer park in the South.
J: Black, working class grew up in housing projects in NYC. Turned 60 while finishing law school at CUNY!
Me: Filipino/white grew up in white working class neighborhood in Chesterfield Va. Neighbors were school bus drivers, big rig drivers. My best friend lived in a trailer park of which fact I was jealous since they had a swimming pool at the trailer park. My mom’s best friend worked cleaning offices and at a 7-11 convenience store. My mom was the cafeteria lady at my school, cleaned houses, worked at a daycare, and a food sample lady at Costco despite having a 4-year degree from a regional college in the Philippines. My father has a 2-year degree in computers and was first of his family who went to college. (Sorry, more about me since I know more about me). All three of us cis-women over 40, don’t you love CUNY Law?
All three of us talked about our crossing of class lines to become attorneys. We discussed our ambivalence about being attorneys. Attorneys have a certain swagger that we now know is unjustified. We have been through the same training, education, passed the NY Bar, and so we know that lawyers aren’t “all that.” We know that you graduate from law school knowing how to do next to nothing as a practicing attorney. If only the practice of law was about passing the Bar! We can do that. Yet, we see these mainly white cis-men of privilege in their suits strutting about “fronting” as J put it, and we feel aghast.
I realized that before I went to law school I never had an attorney friend. (Is this an oxymoron anyway?) It was going to law school that suddenly opened the gates to “the bar”. Suddenly, I have people to call when a friend is arrested or threatened with deportation. Suddenly, I am the person other people call for help, although I usually answer I don’t know. One of the secrets of being a “member of the bar” is that attorney don’t actually know much, we just know where to go get the answers.
Is this class rage? And how does it work when we are the objects of that rage? I just realized that I tend to insult lawyers – WHILE in an interview for a lawyer position. Must be part of the reason I haven’t got a law job, ha! Some winners: “Well law isn’t rocket science,” and “Most lawyers think they know everything and I don’t” was what I answered when asked about one of my special skills. My advice to future law graduates, “don’t be an asshole.” Still good advice I think.
M brought up the very idea of work – for much of her life work is what you do with your body, like landscaping or working in a factory. We all have a sneaking suspicion that “Lawyering,” then, isn’t really work. I know I feel like that – like somehow I am stealing money or I feel guilty that I get paid to do what I do when I know many women, like domestic workers, work way harder than I do for much less wages.
Another former classmate of mine, posted on his FB page that when asked if he is an attorney, he says, “oh no, no I am not,” then remembers, yes, yes he is an attorney.
The problem is, for most of history, being a “member of the bar,” carried the special privileges of the moneyed, white, cis-gendered male. Suddenly, we are in the club but we have a sneaking suspicion that we were let in by mistake. Of course, now our role is to let everyone know that the truth – that the criminal injustice system is a racist system of incarceration and profit of Black and Brown bodies. It is our job to caution our friends against cries of “justice” and extra policing when one of us is attacked, to remind people that the police are not our friends. It is our job to rage against the racism of the immigration legal system and being lawyers, maybe people will listen to us. It is our job to mentor and help other people who were never slotted for the “club” to also gain entry (if they want).
It is a hard and nearly impossible balancing act. Like the time a judge said some racist bullshit to one of my classmates while we were observing his courtroom. The legal profession is a small, petty, conservative, judgmental place & people of color attorneys can’t afford to get kicked out of the courtroom at every racist micro-aggression, and neither can our clients.
Not sure where these musings are supposed to go. But maybe a dialogue? What is your experience out there?