A vintage black and white photo of white, male law students in a law classroom at Villanova University.
Accessibility, Privilege, and the Labor of Law School

[Featured image via Villanova Law Library/Flickr/Creative Commons]

By Caroline Reilly, Boston College Law ’19 and Legal Intern at If/When/How

This year as I return to law school, I will be recovering from my third surgery in as many years, to treat endometriosis – a reproductive health condition where tissue similar to, but not the same as, the lining of the uterus grows in other parts of the body, causing acute chronic pain, organ damage, and if left untreated, infertility. Only a small number of surgeons in this country can properly treat it, and I have been lucky enough to find one – still, it hasn’t been an easy road. During my law school tenure, I’ve tried to be as transparent as possible with my professors about what I was going through while also trying to maintain some semblance of privacy. Some professors have been great. Others have been less so.

Prepping for my upcoming classes, I was flipping through a new syllabus when a particular stipulation caught my eye:

Major pet peeve: Three years ago, students started getting up during class and returning to their seat during class.
This coming and going disrupts the conversation.
It is noisy.
It is distracting to those of us engaged in the class.
It is disrespectful.
Please do not do it.
If you are sick, stay home. Catch class on video.
If you have an overactive bladder, restrict fluids.
We take a 10 minute break around 10:50 so you need to stay in your seat for just 50 minutes.

For context – two of my three surgeries for endometriosis involved the removal of disease from my bladder. Before them, I was making constant trips to the bathroom, no matter how much I drank, and holding it was so painful that often I would feel faint.

I’ve struggled with this throughout law school. Having to get up sometimes three and four times in class was embarrassing, and I constantly worried who was noticing, but I was grateful to be past the point in my life when teachers weighed in on whether or not their students could use the bathroom and glad to be able to just slip quietly in and out without asking permission.

This professor’s policy, and her flippant tone, appalled me. I was already considering dropping the class, and this sealed the deal. Courts have rightly found restricting bathroom breaks to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But underneath the blatant discriminatory nature of this professor’s policy lies a nuanced and subtle disrespect: the implication that law students are not entitled to or capable of making our own decisions about basic health and personal needs, and that we are obliged to disclose personal information simply to have our agency recognized.

What do the demands of law school mean for the profession and its impact on our society?

When I posted a screengrab of the policy to my social media, I was met with an onslaught of students with their own horror stories to tell, or their own reasons why such a policy would harm them: What if a student is pregnant? Or if they need to pump breast milk? What if they’re having a panic attack? What if they have digestive issues? We also commiserated about other obscene policies we had encountered: a professor who outright prohibited sick days, leaving one friend unknowingly sharing a desk for a week with a fellow student who had pneumonia, or another professor whose syllabus allowed for absences only in the case of “contagious” illnesses – as if the main benefit of a sick day was to ensure no one around you also got sick instead of you know, getting better.

Clearly, this kind of unreasonableness is not a singular experience in law school, and it says a lot for the accessibility of the academic experience and the profession more broadly. It goes beyond the obvious financial barriers to law school – consider that even preparing for and taking LSAT’s, and submitting applications can cost thousands of dollars. Law school itself is notoriously demanding, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but we should be asking ourselves: What do the demands of law school mean for the profession and its impact on our society?

Lawyers are gatekeepers; beyond being many of our lawmakers, they are our prosecutors, our defenders, our judges. They decide cases that affect access to everything from our most personal healthcare decisions to our public duties and civil rights as voters and citizens and, well, human beings. It’s important that the people making those decisions go through a vetting process, but at the same time, we have to consider the immense privilege one must have not only to get to law school, but to get through it, and to climb to a position of power in a field that regularly requires 70-100 hour work weeks – and what it means that the profession is, by and large, made up of those who enjoy the privilege of being able, physically and financially, to meet those demands.

Of course, many barriers to law school, and lawyering as a practice, are not as explicit as the bathroom snark in that professor’s syllabus. Racism, misogyny, trans- and queer- and homophobia, and other often unarticulated but nevertheless powerful barriers intersect to make it that much more difficult for marginalized folks – especially those with financial barriers, chronic illnesses, families to take care of, educational barriers, etc. – to become part of this privileged class of advocates.

The result: a system ostensibly meant to be a great equalizer is instead far removed from the realities that make our society unjust. It means that in order to succeed in a profession that is often charged with fighting for the rights of the most marginalized, advocates often need to enjoy immense privilege, further ingraining inequality into the process.

And so, for those of us already caught up in the law school vortex, there are a few things we can do to better the system. If you’re operating from a position of privilege – white privilege, ability privilege, financial privilege, just to name a few – recognize it, and act on it. Dedicate your time and resources to legal issues that will benefit marginalized communities – led by marginalized communities – outside of law school, but also do your best to support your fellow students within it. Friends who sent me notes from days when I was too sick to make it to class and who kept me in the loop socially when I had to sit out on bar nights or other social events saved me both emotionally and academically. Share your outlines, check in with each other without prying, and be open and honest about your own struggles if you’re comfortable – chances are another student is struggling to keep their head above water and will feel less alone.

In order to succeed in a profession that is often charged with fighting for the rights of the most marginalized, advocates often need to enjoy immense privilege, further ingraining inequality into the process.

And if you’re a professor – respect your students’ privacy and treat us like adults. If you notice a student leaving or absent from class more than you’d like, talk with them privately (or don’t, because it’s likely none of your business!) before you create blanket policies that are a far greater impediment to a productive learning environment than a student getting up to use the bathroom.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How. If you like what you read, consider dropping a few bucks in our tip jar or sharing this post on Facebook or Twitter.