Law in Contemporary Society

Wealth Divide on the Way to Law School

-- By RubiRodriguez - 12 Mar 2022


On a Friday evening, a couple friends and I sit in a restaurant discussing our difficult upbringings shaped by poverty and inter-generational trauma and the desire to overcome these obstacles. All three of us reflect on the feeling of having won the golden ticket when we were accepted into the Ivy League, something that previously occurred only in our wildest dreams. This was the solution to all of our problems, the key to no longer remain in the survival mode with which we grew up and finally being afforded freedom. But in earning acceptance into a prestigious institution like Columbia Law School, it is as if we were inducted into a new world and reality that only few are lucky to experience. Suddenly, we feel torn.

Morning Commute

Every morning on my walk to Property class, I walk past several Latina, immigrant women scurrying with their children to get them to school on time. The children walking hurriedly in their mix-matched clothing brings back memories of all the secondhand and donated garments my mother made me and my siblings wear, often coordinated into tacky outfits.

Upon turning the corner onto Amsterdam Avenue, I pass by P.A.L.A.N.T.E., a community-based nonprofit that helps low-income families in Harlem. It reminds me of the faith-based organization that provided my family with food and clothing after my dad, the breadwinner, was jobless for over a year following the Great Recession, sinking us deeper into our scarcity mindset.

I see several other parallels between the way of life for some Harlem residents and that of my working-class, immigrant family in Atlanta. But the Columbia Law School-branded backpack I carry renders me a gentrifier and a stranger to the realities of many of the families I see on my daily walk to school. Crossing 125th Street, the housing projects face and juxtapose the restaurants frequented by Columbia students. Young people in well-curated, preppy outfits are more visible as I enter the bubble of the ivory tower.

Welcome to Law School

Walking through the doors of Columbia Law School, I prepare myself for another day of information overload. While I would rather spend my time getting to know my classmates outside of school, we are limited to observing each other’s behavior in a lecture hall. Students are encouraged, even if temporarily, to set aside their passions, beliefs, and values to conform to the standard of the “ideal” law student. This is the process by which law school allegedly breaks you down to build you back up. But this model of training, usually associated with military boot camp, is simply a way to justify hazing; and every year, well-intentioned aspiring lawyers legitimize the process.

The biggest disappointment in law school is having been told to come because historically excluded students bring valuable knowledge to class discussions; but once inside, you are told to not threaten the status quo and to stop taking the law so personally. Ironically, those are the reasons why many of us came to law school in the first place. For students of historically excluded backgrounds, learning the law can be intellectually violent, which underscores how stifling traditional legal pedagogy can be.

Is this the golden ticket?

Following the culture shock of entering a new academic environment with bizarre social norms, my purpose for coming to law school remains unchanged. I always understood the law as a tool largely for upholding injustice, and this is affirmed through the materials we have been learning from in law school. Despite the disappointments I have felt during my first year of law school, namely by exposure to how the law works against poor people, I look forward to being back in the halls of Columbia Law School this fall because I hate injustice. What I take away from this experience to make me a better critic of the law and a better advocate makes all the bullshit worthwhile.

The antidote to the effects resulting from the shortcomings of traditional legal pedagogy is to adjust my perspective on the importance of law school relative to the rest of my life. My greatest task for these three years is to understand my choice of coming to law school to help families going through similar or worse adversity as what my family experienced while also validating my continued desire to prosper financially. I am reminded of this every morning, when I witness the obvious signs of income inequality between the two neighborhoods through which I travel. Whenever I see working class, immigrant families around Harlem, I know they do not perceive me as part of their community. But it is beautiful that by the mere switch of a language, I can convey my shared sense of solidarity, which is always understood through simple dialogue in a shared mother tongue. The resources I aim to leave with upon graduation are tools I will use methodically to equip these communities with self-advocacy strategies, like fuel slowly morphing into power to escape from the shadows of wealth to which they have been relegated.


The life I have managed to obtain since leaving Atlanta, a city notorious for being among the worst for upward economic mobility, has depended a lot on luck. But I know firsthand that, to survive, some families must sacrifice their emotional, psychological, and physical well-being while accepting low wages in the hopes of obtaining a lifestyle that many Americans take for granted. And I understand the fervent desire to pursue prosperity, even when oppressive laws and policies stand in the way. Regardless of where my career takes me, I want the freedom to counsel low-income, immigrant families to inspire them to continue pursuing the life they deserve.

Hi Rubi, thanks for a truly insightful essay. My very first impression of Morningside Heights involved how gentrified it was. Most of the time, I feel either so lucky that I hardly deserve to attend this school, or so overwhelmed like a case of imposter syndrome. Navigating those extremes has been a challenge, but I will continue to observe my immediate surroundings with a critical eye for injustice, as you do. - Justine Hong

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" character on the next two lines:

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules for preference declarations. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of these lines. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated ALLOWTOPICVIEW list.


Webs Webs

r6 - 06 Jun 2022 - 13:06:28 - JustineHong
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM