Undocumented Law Student? Tips for Surviving Law School From An Undocumented Law School Graduate

Law school books

You’ll be reading a lot of books like these every semester

Evaluate whether law school is really for you.

I am assuming you have taken the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), and are applying for law school. If you are still undecided on whether to take the LSAT, I’d like to note that the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) now provides fee waivers to DACA students, which gives you two free tests, and waives most application fees. From the moment you start this journey with taking the LSAT till when it ends with your swearing-in ceremony as an attorney, can take a minimum of 5 years, so if you are going to law school because it is less work than a PhD program, you should reconsider your decision. Before law school, during law school, and after law school, you have to rigorously do the work assigned, and more. There are no shortcuts to success here. You may have to break up with your significant other to actually make it through this so before you truly commit, I’d like you to read this piece by Dean Spade to see whether law school is really for you.

How to pay for it?

You are undocumented and likely ineligible for federal loans. So how do you pay for the hefty $200,000 endeavor without borrowing private loans that make you indebted for life to Sallie Mae or Wells Fargo?

Beyond private loans, crowd-sourcing is one tactic, and how several of us have paid for law school so there is no shame in asking your friends, family and community to chip-in through Go Fund Me, host parties for you and so on. Most people are happy to help. For costs of living that aren’t related to tuition, like rent and food – student flat coops like Downing Students in London are always available and happy to help students find a cheap flat to live in while in school. Another popular idea is to work hard and save up money now, so you are in a more comfortable financial position later.

There are some private scholarships available from institutions such as MALDEF and NAPABA, but they are competitive. I do remember that MALDEF’s scholarship helped me pay for rent in my second year, and NAPABA’s helped me finish law school, so don’t discount them even if the sums seem small when compared to the high tuition rates.

My advice is to score as high as possible on the LSAT, and try to get various full-ride or merit-based scholarships, and pick the school that gives you the most money or the school that costs you the least. Sometimes you may need to pay half-sticker at a better school as opposed to a full-ride at a lesser-ranked school. To make the best decision, you’ve to figure out early whether you have big law aspirations, or whether you just want to practice solo or work in public interest. If you want to practice on your own or at a small firm or non-profit, I’d suggest taking the full-ride at a lesser ranked law school.

Your very last option should be to get a full-time job while in law school. Law school students are advised against working more than 20 hours a week but sometimes we have to do this out of necessity to pay rent or buy groceries. You’ve come this far and you may need to hustle a little longer to get where you want to go.

Invest in bar exam outlines early

If you do decide to go despite the number of people warning you against it, then I have some useful advice for you. I wish I knew this during my 1L year of law school, as I tried to understand all the material from reading textbooks, and commercial outlines. It is not the best kept secret, but BARBRI, PMBR CDs and similar bar review outlines do a much better job of explaining the law than most materials for law students. As you sit and take the bar exam, you wonder why you were not just given these materials in your first year of law school! You’ll find the materials available on sites like Craigslist or eBay at discounted prices.

Make friends in the school administration

Even before I arrived at The George Washington University Law School, I had been the subject of some controversy as their first undocumented admit. I developed a relationship with the Dean of Admissions through various tortured email and phone conversations as we tried to settle on a financial package that would allow me to go to law school as an undocumented student. I was blessed with having a Dean of Students who stood up for me, and guided me through law school, with tips on how to network, get free therapy, where to find the best chiropractor in the city and so on. When I could not afford second semester of law school, the Deans put their heads together and magically found a pot of money for me. The lesson here is that you’ve to be an advocate for yourself so do not be shy about asking for help, and do not miss opportunities to make such connections.

Get as many mentors as possible

This goes hand in hand with making connections and networking. Law school is all about networking both inside and outside law school. If you are introverted like me, you have to work extra hard to make conversation and connections with people. Kindly tell lawyers about yourself and ask them to take you out for lunch. Trust me, people usually bend over backwards to help an undocumented law student, and are interested in your life experiences. Go to seminars and conferences in areas of law that you are interested in and make connections. Reach out to other undocumented students, but also expand your network beyond that. Participate in class, and go to the after-class meetings and office hours of your professors. Serve as a research assistant to get a few good recommendations from professors. And do not discount the relationships you can make with your peers, and your alumni network.

Make the law school curve work for you

Most students go from having straight As to earning Bs and Cs for the first time in their life in law school. That’s completely normal, and do not let it deter you or scare you. Most law school exams are graded on a curve so the majority of the class gets a B+ as an average. Learn to play the curve–you may end up getting a B+ no matter so why spend all your time studying the same thing? After the first year, try to take seminar classes, which are easier on your grades.

Have a life outside law school

This can be difficult, but do not give up on your activism and civic engagement. It is vital to maintain a life outside of law school to give you some perspective. Speak on those panels, go to the rally, lobby Congress, testify before the City Council, continue to do speaking engagements, and so on. The more people that know you and your story, and the more experiences you have with public speaking, the more help you can get in your journey.

Don’t stress about job offers

You have lived the undocumented experience. Chances are you are heavily involved in the community, testified at various hearings, helped to stop a few deportations, and even passed a bill. These outside-the-law-school experiences are vital and the networks you have already established will help you land jobs. Send your resumes around, and reach out to lawyers you have worked with in the past.

If you don’t get lucky through networking, there is always the option of going solo. I had several job offers during my third-year of law school but I was never ready to make any long-term commitments. Additionally, I needed to take some time off to enjoy married life, put an end to my immigration saga, and travel the world. And I am doing just that and having a blast! Chances are, you will have many more options by the time you graduate, and if nothing, decide to go solo. Don’t sweat it now, but work steadily towards your goals. And remember, law school is probably one of the easier things you’d have to do in life.

Figure out where to take the bar and start the moral character process early

Being undocumented may also interfere with bar admission, so either have a plan to adjust your immigration status by the time you take the bar exam, or take the bar exam in a friendly state such as California or Maryland. Additionally, if you do not have a job offer lined up, you may want to take the bar in various states to increase your chances of passing, so try doing a NY/NJ or NY/PA combo, or take the exam in a UBE/MEE jurisdiction, which would allow you to practice in multiple states. Whatever you do, you don’t want to wait many more years before you are licensed to practice.

If you have any additional questions or suggestions, feel free to shoot me an email or join the DREAM Bar Association for more advice and mentorship!

Distinguished Accomplishment

This is what I call an embarrassing video, but it is brought to you by popular demand. It is a short clip of the academic awards ceremony from my law school graduation a few months ago, where I received a distinguished accomplishment award for civil rights and civil liberties, and my entire family screamed the roof down.

Awards are like confetti; liberation is the real goal.

Remember When People of Color Used To Speak for Themselves?

GW Law hosts both sides of the marriage equality debate

It’s alright. I don’t either.

Only it isn’t alright. I’m tired of heterosexual, cisgender white men taking front and center stage on everything from reproductive rights to marriage equality to immigration reform. What makes them more qualified to talk about these issues than us? They actually sound pitiful. They are not a part of our community and do not understand the complex myriad of issues within them. Yet we continue to indulge and entrench their presence. And they always do more harm than good.

Discussions are framed from the vantage point of the white, heterosexual male. So when we talk about marriage equality, we end up talking about incest, bestiality and polyandry rather than draw attention to queer critiques of marriage (a more valuable use of time). I don’t understand how this benefits anyone besides those who see themselves as the guardians and gatekeepers of heterosexual marriage.

I’m calling it like it is. I’m done putting up with all instances of white heterosexual power and privilege.

Reading and Rioting

My dear law school friend Sam Ames, tells all current and budding lawyers to read Tips for Communicating with Transgender Clients in Prisoners’ Rights Cases that was published by the Sylvia Rivera Law Project.

If you are starting law school this week, check out How To Read A Legal Opinion from my criminal law professor, Orin Kerr. It’s a must-read guide for new law school students.

For the desis, please read A note to all non- queer desis from a particularly agitated queer desi. I’m glad there are some things I don’t need to say because there are increasingly more people who say it for me.

Want to know what on earth went down in London? If you want some critical perspectives on the riots in England, you should check out don’t moralise, don’t judge, don’t take pictures – it’s time for the riot to get some radical politics by Daniel Harvey and An open letter to those who condemn looting (Part one). That’s just a start.

Which movie will alleviate your white guilt? Hat tip from Jose Antonio Vargas, if you are really into movies like “The Help,” check out A Better Life. After all, it is undocumented immigrant workers that are “the help” today and maybe we are the ones who should be telling our own stories.

And of course, I’m just going to see One Day.

Critique of Professional

Warning: This blog post is not professional. But it is real. Can you deal with it?

You say I’m “not professional enough.” I hear “you are not white enough.”

Profession-al. It’s such a capitalist word, imbued in the disciplining of our bodies, the appropriation of our words and time for a singular purpose. It’s a “civilizational discourse.”

Professional is the customer service representative who has to sound like an empty drone over the phone. Professional is the white executive of a multi-billion dollar company who lies under oath after wrecking our homes and gets a big holiday bonus at the end of the year. Professional is to hold in your true feelings and emotions, to not scream when you will be justified in your anger, to not cry when you need to cry. Professional is repressed. Professional is closeted. Professional is desexualized.

Pro-fessional is a constructed linguistic and cultural representation grounded in racist and sexist stereotypes in order to keep certain people in check or in line, while truncating our truths, marginalizing our histories and erasing our expressions of identity.

A dress pants (suit) is professional attire for an interview in America. A sari or salwaar kameez (suit) isn’t. And a hijab or burkha certainly isn’t. They call this unprofessional person a terrorist.

A “kid” or “petulant child” cannot become a “professional” without papers. Unprofessional becomes a slur that serves as reminder for the many ways in which this country truncates our growth. They call this unprofessional person an illegal. And they tell this “illegal” to keep her/his experiences as a janitor off the professional law school resume.

I’m unprofessional. It means I disrupt hegemonic universalizing narratives. It means I fight the injustice of disciplining and conditioning our minds to certain terrors and violence in our daily lives. It means I don’t conform to labels placed on my body. It means I don’t care if my truth is beyond your comprehension because I will still speak it. And it certainly means I dump the “model minority” stereotype in the dustbin only to reclaim it when I need to show whose the smarter one here.

Keep the violence and colonialism of “professional” off my words and body.