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Trailblazers

First-generation law students share their best advice for the next class

Imposter syndrome. Complicated applications processes. Difficult classes. For first-generation law school students, entering the legal field can feel intimidating. Loyola University Chicago School of Law aims to ease those anxieties with resources, community groups, and involved deans and professors. Here, three first-generation law students share their stories—as well as the biggest piece of advice they’ve learned during their time in law school.


“You’re going to make mistakes. Everything’s trial and error. You’ve just got to learn from it.”

Giovanni Padilla’s advice: Don’t be consumed by what you don’t know

It all happened fast. When Giovanni Padilla interned for the legal department of a sports management company during undergrad in New York City, the work just made sense to him. “That summer I decided to study for the LSAT,” he says.

Padilla’s parents, Mexican immigrants, had no college experience, let alone law school experience. With no family guidance, Padilla studied hard, took an “excessive amount” of practice LSAT tests, and researched law school programs.

Enrolling at Loyola to study health law was the first step. “The first day, I showed up at orientation and was like, “Nobody looked like me,” he says.

Padilla discussed his imposter syndrome with a dean who put him in touch with the Latino Law Students Association. The community helped him feel at home and gave him a forum to reflect on how other people’s chatter about law school being “crazy hard” discourages students with his background from applying. “That’s not to say that law school is not hard—it’s definitely hard,” he says. “But it’s still just school. If you get to this point, I think you should feel capable.”

Wise words: “I think we forget that law school is new to everybody. Even if people have lawyers in their background, it’s still a new way of learning. You’re going to make mistakes. Everything’s trial and error. You’ve just got to learn from it.” 

67%

of the 2020 incoming class is first-generation law students

30+

there are more than 30 law student organizations at Loyola

90%

of Loyola students receive some form of institutional aid

 

Karrie Virgin’s advice: Put yourself out there

From crosswords to Sudoku to good ol’ jigsaw, Karrie Virgin grew up solving puzzles. While volunteering for a domestic violence nonprofit during undergrad, she sat in a courtroom for the first time. Litigation clicked with her problem-solving brain. “I like seeing how everything fits together,” she says. “That was my first draw to law school.”

As a first-generation law student, Virgin felt intimidated by the law school process. “Common things like enrolling in classes or filling out your FAFSA can be a little more challenging, because you’re learning as you go,” she says.

And that makes community even more vital. Virgin found support from her deans and professors and from camaraderie within the newly chartered First Generation Law Students (FGLS) organization, which helps students navigate the law school experience. As career and admissions chair for FGLS, Virgin plans events and panels to demystify law school for newcomers. In 2020, FGLS held a digital panel where Loyola professors discussed being first-generation students themselves. “It’s nice to have community around people who share your same experience,” Virgin says.

Virgin also received a law school surprise: Tax law appeals to her puzzle-solving brain. “A lot of tax problems can be about fitting all these pieces together and figuring out how they work,” she says. In 2020, she interned with public accounting firm Grant Thornton, and she plans to return as a tax associate after she passes the bar exam.

Wise words: “Get involved with everything. Go to panels. Go to networking events. Loyola provides a lot of resources and opportunities.”

Kerease Epps’ advice: Step out of your comfort zone

Juvenile courts. The foster care system. The school-to-prison pipeline. When Kerease Epps worked as a teacher in Detroit and Chicago, she witnessed the complications her students encountered every day. And she wanted to do something about it.

“I decided the best way for me to advocate for my students was to go to law school,” she says.

She enrolled as a ChildLaw Fellow at Loyola University Chicago. At first, she felt anxious as a first-generation student in her late twenties, entering law school alongside students straight out of undergrad. But as she connected with the small Child Law cohort and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), those worries faded. “Building relationships with different people—whether it’s cultural differences or just age differences—has been really beneficial as I learn about the legal space,” she says.

Before her first year, Epps had no experience with mock trial, but she thought the team would hone her litigation skills. She found a tightknit community in the Constance Baker Motley Mock Trial Team, which is open to members of BLSA. Team members met multiple times a week—sometimes filling their weekends with practice time—and all that hard work paid off. In 2019-20, for the first time in Loyola’s history, the team won the national competition.

Wise words: “Taking a leap of faith—even though I was afraid and had no mock trial experience—and going on to National Champion… It speaks to trying something new.”

–Megan Kirby


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