Watching for Elitism

I was waiting in line for a lunch talk at school when I started chatting with the person next to me. We talked about what we wanted to do after law school. She said that she had come to law school wanting to do public interest work, but now wasn’t so sure. She said that some public interest work can be pretty tedious, “like eviction defense or landlord-tenant law.”

Of course, the funny thing is that I spent last summer doing eviction defense at a legal aid agency. The clients I saw were all desperately poor. They were terrified of losing their housing, since they could well end up homeless. Every client had a unique story to tell, a saga of systemic injustice, broken relationships, bureaucratic callousness and poor decisions. Some had disabilities and couldn’t work. Some were victims of domestic violence. They certainly did not see their stories as tedious.

But the truth is, eviction defense can be frustrating. All work can be frustrating. The frustration is not why we do this work. We face the frustration because it lets us do what we really want to do: advocate for justice for our clients.

After the lunch talk, I thought about how elitism affects my thinking. Sometimes, a whisper of a thought creeps in: “I’m at the University of Chicago. I’m at one of the best law schools in the country. Our alumni go on to become partners at major law firms, business leaders, judges and professors. I’m too smart and skilled to do this kind of public interest work. Let someone from a lower-ranked school do legal aid. I don’t need to waste my talents on these lesser pursuits. My clients should be grateful that I’m giving up these other opportunities to help them.”

This line of thinking troubles me. True, I have worked hard to get to where I am. I have also benefited tremendously from factors outside of my control, such as the fact that both of my parents went to college and both worked steady jobs that allowed for a stable financial foothold for my family. Maybe it’s natural to feel this way, but I don’t like it. I don’t want to believe that I am inherently better than my colleagues and my clients just because of how I grew up or where I went to school. If I am to continue to do this work and serve this population, I need to watch for elitism in my own thinking.

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