Let your music play: How to foster a sense of belonging in law school
By Melissa Hale
The start of law school can be daunting, if not harrowing, for some students, so it's not unusual for some to question if they belong in law school. In fact, when we ask incoming law students what they worry about, they often bring up “belonging in law school” as a top concern. This apprehension is justified — building a sense of community is often integral to a student’s success in law school.
A sense of belonging is linked to many positive outcomes such as increasing academic achievement, academic motivation, engagement, and persistence, especially in the face of obstacles. Moreover, the feeling of belonging often improves mental health. This is highlighted by LSAC’s Elizabeth Bodamer in her research article “Do I Belong Here? Examining Perceived Experiences of Bias, Stereotype Concerns, and Sense of Belonging in U.S. Law Schools.”
To learn more about how to foster a sense of belonging and, in turn, assist students in acquiring the tools they need to improve mental health when entering law school, LSAC reached out to some experts to create educational modules and a panel discussion, which are included in LSAC’s Law School Success program. Designed for incoming first-year law students, Law School Success is taught by law school professors from across the country who specialize in academic skill building and have extensive experience working with 1L students.
For the belonging module, LSAC connected with three law school deans who are experts on helping students feel like they belong in law school:
- Kirk Walter, associate dean of the weekend JD program at Loyola University Chicago,
- Emily Grant, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law at Washburn University School of Law, and
- Russell McClain, associate dean for diversity and inclusion and the director of the Academic Achievement Program at University of Maryland School of Law, as well as the author of “The Guide to Belonging in Law School.”
Deans Walter, Grant, and McClain’s timely advice included in the Law School Success module is a great first step to helping you embrace the fact that you indeed belong in law school. Because of this, I wanted to talk about a few highlights, as well as tips, on why it’s important to belong, and how to improve your sense of belonging.
In her module, Dean Grant uses a great metaphor to describe the distinct aspects of fitting in. She equates your entrance to law school as being invited to a party, inclusion to being asked to dance once you’re at the party, and belonging to getting a say in the music that’s being played. If you’ve been admitted to law school, you’ve been invited. Now, it’s time to make sure you get a say in the music you’re going to dance to!
Dean McClain discusses the importance of both social and academic belonging. He explains you need to know you can fit in academically and have the ability to succeed in law school, but you also need to connect socially with other students. In his module, he discusses things that can be threats to the sense of belonging, specifically microaggressions and stereotypes.
As you approach a law school environment that for some may be overwhelming, our experts’ advice can be helpful in navigating this new challenge. Here are some key takeaways to improve your sense of belonging:
- First, remind yourself that yes, you do belong. The admissions office doesn’t make mistakes. You were accepted to law school based on your merits and who you are. Let that sink in for a moment. Every panelist, each from different law schools, highlighted this very point.
- Look for official resources at your law school, such as an office of diversity and inclusion, student affinity groups, or a formal mentoring program. Don’t be afraid to seek those out and use them.
- Don’t forget about resources off campus, such as local bar associations. Many will offer discounted or free rates to students, and many areas often have affinity group bar associations.
- You are not alone. If you have a fear about something, it’s likely many of your classmates are feeling the same way. It’s important to speak up when you need something or when something isn’t working for you. It might be that others are feeling the same way, so you are helping others while helping yourself — it’s a win-win situation.
- Always keep in mind that your grades do not define you; you are so much more important than your grades or your class rank. These metrics are just one facet of your legal education journey. Grades are not everything — use them as an opportunity to learn.
- Be yourself! One key to belonging is to bring your authentic self to the table. In addition to this, find your people. That means find your social group, people that you can talk to and lean on. It’s important to stay connected.
- Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are here to learn, and that can be exciting. And remember that you are new. You won’t have all the answers right away, and that’s normal.
- Think about why you are in law school. What motivated you to come to law school? Stay connected to that motivation. This also means staying connected to yourself, which might sound cliché, but it’s incredibly important.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions in class. Contrary to popular myths, professors want to help you succeed. Reach out to them early and often. The bonds you form may last a lifetime.
We hope this helps you start law school on the right note, knowing that you do have a say in the music being played. Turn up the volume!
Visit LSAC’s website to learn more about Law School Success. In addition to belonging, the program covers topics such as reading and briefing cases, participating in class, taking notes, outlining, participating in Socratic dialogue, logical reasoning, preparing for exams, and much more. Law School Success not only teaches you to think like a lawyer but also provides guidance at the onset of your legal education journey. You will also have the opportunity to begin professional development to build the business knowledge that will help you get ready to compete in today’s legal landscape.
We invite you to consider subscribing to the program to access the full belonging module and other valuable insights for first-year law students. For questions about Law School Success, contact LSACinfo@LSAC.org.