For the past four years I have worked the Night Shift – better known as law school evening classes, while working a full-time job during the day. Next month, it finally comes to an end. I will receive my Juris Doctor degree and will officially enter the legal profession.
Sure there are some “minor” details to attend to such as the bar exam in February and completing my final exams over the next two weeks. But for now, I am celebrating the “No mores.” No more evening classes. No more dashing off to school at 5:15p.m. at the end of a long workday. No more guilt trips about not visiting family on the holidays because of study obligations. No more!!!!!!
I applied to law school five years ago because I wanted to join the ranks of legal giants that have used the law as a weapon of social justice. Charles Hamilton Houston, a great civil rights attorney and former Dean of Howard Law School once said, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” Each day, I strive to work towards a career that builds upon this principle. My heroes are Constance Baker Motley and Thurgood Marshall and all of the countless advocates that have come before our nation’s justice system for relief against inequality and oppression.
Like them, I can understand how the road to success is often lined with unexpected obstacles. In the fall of my second year, a force known as Hurricane Katrina, displaced me from New Orleans and threatened to disrupt the flow of my law school career. But I pressed on. I relocated to Georgia and began working full time while continuing my studies at night.
That semester was a blur for me. I was dealing with the shock and uncertainty of being displaced from my new home and the government’s unconscionable treatment of people pleading for help on their rooftops. During the day, I worked at a non-profit law office helping Katrina victims to secure disaster benefits and assistance. But most importantly, I met with and counseled men and women traumatized by the flood waters and their experiences during those dreadful days after the storm. Their stories inspired me to return to New Orleans months later to continue my legal studies and help the city in its recovery. And when Hurricane Gustav threatened the city again this past year, I was a much wiser evacuee.
Throughout this law school journey, I’ve questioned my purpose. On some days, I’d even thought of quitting. Why did I have the unfortunate luck of “doing” law school under these stressful conditions? During the first year, my hair started falling out. During my third year, I developed a small ulcer. It didn’t seem fair that many of my peers attended class and received substantial financial support from mom and dad to cover their living expenses. I couldn’t be as involved in school activities as I’d liked, because I worked a full-time gig. I was on my own, working the lonely night shift. And as a black female law student, I felt a sense of alienation and isolation understood by few. I gave up my weekends and declined invitations to any gathering during the weekdays that occurred between 6-9pm. There were times where I was miserable. At the end of each semester around exam time, I threw myself numerous pity parties and turned into the whiner of all whiners, convinced that no one understood what it felt like to be a Black Repunzel stuck in the tower known as the library with no one to rescue her. It wasn’t until my fourth year, that I began to make sense of it all.
Working the Night Shift has kept me grounded. My day jobs have always been intimately connected with the forgotten outcasts of the New Orleans community. I’ve worked with the most vulnerable and marginalized groups of people in our city who’ve suffered from the shortcomings of a judicial system that favors the wealthy and well-connected. These are the people who struggle to make ends meet and who face enormous obstacles in obtaining decent and affordable housing, employment and equitable treatment in the justice system. Their stories and their experiences have helped me to remember why I am here. When I study Constitutional Law, I have an appreciation for the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel because I know just how important it is for the poor to have access to fair and equal representation.
Would I trade my experience working the Night Shift? I doubt it. As stressful as it all was, there is no question that it has made me stronger. I know that my work in the legal profession is just beginning, but I am convinced that I will be prepared for whatever challenge comes my way. I entered law school as a confused mid-20-something. I am now leaving as a mature late-20-something. The Night Shift taught me that my most fiercest opponent, is often myself. Indeed, learning to silence the loud voices of self-doubt and “I can’t” has challenged me more than any 3-hour law exam. As I prepare for the bar in the coming months, I will keep the experiences of the Night Shift in mind.