I’m Choosing My Community Over Oppressive Institutions — in Law School and Beyond

By Jaclyn J. Serpico, M.A., M.PH., If/When/How Chapter Leader at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law

The summer before I started law school, I attended the 2019 If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice Leadership Institute. I went into Leadership Institute excited and ready to meet law students and lawyers who were doing the work that I wanted to do, but I was still nervous. The past year of my life had been filled with people either telling me not to go to law school at all, or telling me that even if it was worth it in the end, I was about to be miserable, stressed, and overworked for the next three years.

Luckily, spending a weekend with other law students and legal professionals devoted to reproductive justice was the perfect antidote to my worries. As I was standing on the precipice of this new chapter of my life, unsure of what it would hold, I stepped into a space filled with people who shared my vision for what a legal career could be. I was welcomed into a community, and I saw that law school didn’t have to be miserable and stressful — it could be exciting, supportive, and uplifting.

One of the events that weekend was a Careers in RJ panel featuring incredible lawyers sharing their work across the reproductive justice spectrum. At one point, the speakers were asked to share something they struggled with in law school. One speaker told the story of how, right before final exams in the spring semester of her 1L year, her grandmother suffered a stroke. When she went to her dean of students to discuss going home to see her grandmother, the dean told her that her grandmother would probably be fine, and she should focus on her grades and performing well on the journal write-on competition. She asked herself in that moment: “Why should I kill myself for an institution that doesn’t give a shit about me or my family?”

Those words stuck with me — I thought of them often during my 1L year when I was attempting to prioritize my quality of life over studying and grades. But the question rings ever more urgently today, in the midst of a global pandemic and uprisings against racial injustice. The legal system is asking students to return to school and continue competing against each other for grades and accolades as if nothing is wrong. In many of our classes, we are being trained to understand and operate within a system that feels increasingly untenable as we watch our criminal legal system, federal courts, and electoral process reach crisis points. 

The institution of legal education was not designed to care about us or our families. Why should we kill ourselves — figuratively or literally — for this institution?

We are expected to turn away from mass death, police brutality, climate crisis, and political instability, keeping our heads down and our noses to the grindstone so we can perform in the ways the institution values. Some of us, and some of our family members, will not survive this. We all carry the burden of bearing witness to the devastation being wreaked upon our communities — a load that weighs heaviest on Black, Indigenous, and students of color, and unequally across all marginalized identities. While many individuals in our law schools’ administrations care deeply about students, the institution of legal education was not designed to care about us or our families. Why should we kill ourselves — figuratively or literally — for this institution?

When faced with this question, sometimes it feels hard to carry on in law school at all. But my answer to it is the one I found at the Leadership Institute last year: I don’t kill myself for the institution. My work, my life, is not for them. I choose myself, my loved ones, my community. Finding community in If/When/How, with law students and legal professionals who share my values, has been critical to helping me both keep my focus on why I am in law school and keep my priorities straight while I’m here. My friends and colleagues in If/When/How and other progressive spaces remind me to value my humanity over my productivity. Cultivating justice-centered communities takes our focus off of what the institutions expect from us and reminds us that we are the reason for our work.  

The community I’ve built within If/When/How over the past year has been a highlight and a lifeline through law school. I’ll be attending the 2020 Leadership Institute this weekend, and I cannot wait to once again immerse myself among law students and legal professionals who share a commitment to reproductive justice. I am so grateful to the organization and to my fellow students for creating such a life-affirming space — these institutions were not built to accommodate our lives, and yet together, we make it possible to thrive.

Want to see what Leadership Institute is all about? Follow the hashtag on social media: #LI2020

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