Learning Curve

Supporting Our First-Generation Students

Melissa A. Hale

Director of Academic Success and Bar Programs
Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Originally Published in The Learning Curve, Winter/Spring 2022

We need more first-generation law students because we need more first-generation lawyers. Historically, the legal profession has been reserved for the very wealthy, and let’s be honest, the very white, and the very male. While progress has been made, we are still nowhere near where we should be. When speaking about diversity and inclusion in law school, first-generation students often overlap with students of color, and those that come from a lower socioeconomic background.1 Attracting first-generation students to the profession provides socioeconomic diversity to the profession, which benefits the public. So, how do we attract these students? Law schools, like the University of Georgia, are looking to make sure first-generation students have robust financial aid.2 But it’s not enough to just admit first-generation students, law schools need to support them once they arrive, making sure they feel included, and that they can thrive academically.

Lately, I have been working on multiple first-generation law student projects and want to share some things that I’ve learned about supporting first-generation students. This is a bit of a passion project for me. I am a proud first-generation lawyer. My grandmother, Honey, dropped out of school at about age 12. She had to; her family was poor, and she had to watch her siblings while my great-grandmother worked. My mother finished high school and worked until retirement as a secretary. Out of Great-Grandma’s 20-plus great-grandkids, I was the first to go to college, and certainly the first to go to law school. This meant that I didn’t grow up around professionals; I grew up in Detroit, with uncles and grandpas that worked in factories building car parts. My dad worked down manholes, making sure phone lines were connected in the era of land lines. College, and ultimately law school, was a different universe for me. And because of that, my passion has been to work to provide programming that I never had.

In doing research for various projects, I’ve learned that first-generation students come in with significant achievement gaps, less social capital, and imposter syndrome.3 I’ve also learned that first-generation students are more likely to have to spend time working or supporting their families, and are less likely to achieve the highest grades or acquire the highest paying jobs.4 This all feels very hopeless and, in fact, the more research that I do, the more I wonder how I made it out of law school! But all is not lost. First-generation students have grit and tenacity and are frequently fantastic problem solvers. This means, if we support our first-generation students, they can thrive!

So, what do we do?  I’d like to share some things that I’ve been working on, that you are welcome to steal! I started by helping two students start a “First-Generation Law Student Group” (FGLS), and I currently advise them. I must admit that they were the driving force and did most of the work, but they inspired me to do further study in this area. I can also say that if your school doesn’t have such a group, it’s incredibly beneficial to start one. The student group has been a fantastic resource for incoming first-generation students and knowing that they have peers going through the same thing is more helpful than anything that I could do.

The student leaders also taught me so much as we worked together. If your school has such a group, I suggest working with them to find out what the membership currently needs. I frequently survey them to gather ideas for programming. For example, I have started including a “bar supporters’ night” into my bar programming. This is an opportunity for the soon-to-be graduates to bring their families, or close friends, into the conversation surrounding the exam. I even include my mother so that she can talk about her experience as a first-generation law student mother. This is because, as much as she always supported me, she was understandably skeptical that I needed to take ANOTHER exam after finals, couldn’t work as an attorney right after graduation, and that I was expected to study full-time after being in school for three years. The FGLS group also inspired me to make my law student glossary, which has circulated for a few years and become a part of other projects. Mostly, I have learned that they just want answers to their questions, and someone to make them feel like they belong. So, I share my story with them, and try to be a resource when I can.  But all of this has inspired me to take on broader projects.

When I was asked to be part of the CALI Law School Success Fellowship in 2019, I was excited to try to build something that could help first-generation students bridge the achievement gap. Some of the fellowship members – Steven Foster, Allie Robbins, Nicole Lefton, and Laura Mott, and myself – wrote a law review article about our experience creating the CALI Skills Lessons, and how they can aid first-generation students.5 We are continuing to work on more lessons right now, with more of an eye towards what first-generation students might need. For example, Nicole just finished a lesson on course selection. It seems like such a small thing, but honestly, if you are a first-generation student and don’t have family to ask—or other mentors—where do you turn?

This work also prompted me to work to create a summer program, or pre-orientation program, geared towards first-generation students. This was inspired by Toni Miceli and her ‘Gateway to 1L’ program. We have decided to open the program to all incoming students admitted for the Fall. However, we will “push” it to the first-generation students a bit more, as we have geared the programming towards first-generation students. I have decided to do one synchronous zoom class in June, and one in July, with the opportunity for students to view asynchronous videos and complete CALI Lessons throughout June and July. Then, we will bring students on campus for two days prior to Orientation. The idea is that many first-generation students need to work during the summer, so they can’t attend in-person activities throughout June and July. This is especially true if they are not currently living on campus. We wanted to be mindful of the financial and work situations that first-generation students often deal with.

I have tried to frontload programming with introductory materials and skills development in the asynchronous materials. This means that when in person, we can accomplish two things that I think are incredibly important. First, we have set up two mock classes. The first mock class will be on Day One, likely a short 30-45 minutes. Then, we will “debrief” the class; I will be working with one of our torts professors, and in the debrief we will go over what students should have gotten out of the class. We will also discuss whether their case briefs worked, as part of the asynchronous activities will be reading and briefing. Then, that afternoon, they will get another 30-45 minute mock class, and another debriefing. The hope is that they will start to feel acclimated to class, and get a head start on what type of notetaking works. We will then review a very short hypothetical with them, based on the two classes, and discuss how to put it together. I’m a firm believer that one of the most difficult aspects of law school is that no one really tells you how things are tested, so you spend weeks taking notes on the “wrong” things. My hope is that showing them a hypothetical early on will help them start to see how things come together.

The second component of the in-person sessions will focus on networking and social interactions with current students and alumni. I’m very well aware that first-generation students often feel like a deer caught in headlights when it comes to networking; we’ve simply never done it before. My goal is to create a space, with other first-generation students and alumni, to help ease them into that process.

As part of developing the curriculum for the program, I decided that first-generation students needed a textbook, or guide, to supplement programming.6 It’s written with the first-generation student in mind, knowing that not only is law school difficult for almost everyone, but first-generation students come with extra baggage and ramped up imposter syndrome!  It’s also meant to be interactive, with questions and exercises imbedded in the book.

In terms of the substance of the remote programming, I start with the basics. For example, we often forget that even the vocabulary and acronyms we use can be alienating to students who haven’t been around lawyers. I always have to remind myself that even using abbreviations such as “civ pro” or “con law” can be incredibly confusing. And that’s even worse when you think about the fact that students do not enter law school knowing what appellate means, “who” Regina is, or the difference between criminal and civil law. There is nothing wrong with any of this, and it’s easy to forget that knowledge and vocabulary that are so second nature to us are alienating to those already struggling to feel like they belong. The summer programming begins with an overview of basic vocabulary, a description of common law, why we read cases and so forth. In addition, it obviously includes things like how to read and brief a case, what is an outline, how to synthesize rules, and so forth. You know, the legal academic skills ‘basics,’ so to speak. But that’s not enough.

My programming also includes information on mental health, imposter phenomenon, and growth mindset. Obviously, this is not unique to only first-generation students, but any good first-generation program should address these issues.

I hope we can all start more programming for first-generation students. It’s fine to start small, as I know we are all usually stretched quite thin. For example, last summer I simply didn’t have the time to put together an extensive summer program, so I started by sending out CALI lessons to admitted students, encouraging them to complete those as part of summer reading. Honestly, even just by sharing your own first-generation story with your students, you are likely helping at least one person to feel less scared and alone, and that’s all we can do!


1 Stephen Foster, et al., Closing the Law School Gap: A Collaborative Effort to Address Educational Inequities Through Free, Asynchronous Tools, 14 J. Marshall L.J. 116, 123 (2022).

2 For the second straight year, 100% of incoming first-gen students received aid, Advocate Vol. 55 (2021), available at https://advocate.law.uga.edu/article/law-school-provides-financial-support-for-100-of-its-first-gen-students/ (last visited Apr. 7, 2022).

3 Supra note 1.

4 LSSSE Survey 2021 and NALP Reports Employment Outcomes for First-Generation College Students Fall Below Those of Their Peers, and Disparities in Outcomes by Race/Ethnicity Persist, NALP Press Release, Oct. 20, 2021, available at https://www.nalp.org/uploads/PressReleases/NALPPressReleaseJobsandJDs_20October2021.pdf (last visited Jan. 19, 2022)

5 Supra note 1.

6 I also realized that it had to be free, so I’m pleased to announce that that the First Generation Guide to Law School will be available this summer as a free download through CALI.org.

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