Social Justice Careers and Law School Applicants
TThe national celebration of Juneteenth is an opportune time to reflect on how law school can help applicants build careers dedicated to the advancement of social justice in the U.S. or abroad.
Law school has long been a traditional training ground for aspiring civil rights lawyers. Lawyers have played a pivotal role in civil struggles from racial and gender equality to disability rights. But you don’t have to fight in the courtroom like Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg to promote change.
Beyond litigation, law school graduates can use their expertise to further equity, promote institutional transformation or oversight, or advocate for overlooked communities like Native American and Indigenous peoples. Recent years have seen renewed attention to systemic reform efforts on issues like criminal justice, environmental justice, and access to education, health care, and housing.
If you are interested in a career in social justice, consider the following words of advice:
- Look for law schools that invest in social change.
- Show you can handle nuance and debate.
- Take classes in a range of subjects.
Look for Law Schools That Invest in Social Change
A bumper crop of new centers, programs, and other academic initiatives related to social justice are blooming on law school campuses nationwide.
Examples include the Center for Law, Equity and Race at Northeastern University School of Law in Massachusetts, the Benjamin L. Crump Center for Social Justice at St. Thomas University College of Law in Florida, the Antiracist Development Institute at Penn State Dickinson Law, and the Racial Justice Law Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School.
Ultimately, you may find like-minded colleagues at many law schools with a strong public interest program even if they lack a formal center dedicated to social justice.
Show You Can Handle Nuance and Debate
Many law school applicants eager to demonstrate their commitment to social justice write impassioned essays about the problems they see in the world and the urgent need for change.
This can be a great way to show you are committed to law school, but be careful not to go overboard. American law is a field of nuanced debate with no easy answers.
Law schools look for applicants able to step off their soapbox and engage respectfully with others with widely different views. If you come across as too strident or uncompromising, admissions officers may worry about your ability to handle classroom discussions with maturity.
Don’t be afraid to express your political views or other deeply held convictions. But aim to demonstrate evenhandedness and open-mindedness, not self-righteousness.
Take Classes in a Range of Subjects
Whether you aim for incremental change or radical transformation, you cannot reliably improve social structures or persuade others to do so unless you understand how those structures work at a deep level.
That is why it is important for law school applicants to take classes in subjects like history, political science, economics, religious studies, and environmental studies. Comparative classes that expose you to other societies and cultures can also lead you to question assumptions and see issues in a new light.
In law school, consider classes, clinics, or internships related to human rights. Even if you don’t end up practicing law in a traditional way, it is useful to know how the boundaries of human rights are challenged and debated around the world.
Juneteenth celebrates how people have freed themselves from immoral laws and social practices that seemed hopelessly entrenched. Social reform is never simple or easy, but good lawyers can help it succeed.