One interesting thing that I’ve noticed about myself and other law students is our cultural differences. I won’t pretend that I have fully immersed myself in the Deaf community (how could I have done so? I grew up in a mainstream educational environment and went to a hearing university), but I have adopted some of the patterns that we see in Deaf people.
One thing I love and hate about the Deaf culture is its propensity for bluntness. It can be slightly uncomfortable when someone says “oh my goodness, you lost soooooooooooo much weight! You were sure fat before!” One part of me always cringes because in the “hearing world,” that is a big no-no and it’s difficult to respond politely. At the same time, it’s refreshing to get rid of the fakeness and euphemisms that defines “polite society.”
The legal world is something different. It’s not just the professionalism, but it is the uber-formal atmosphere. After all, this profession revels in formality: one has to follow specific court procedures, to adopt specific writing structures and use obscure language. Moreover, once you get into the ranks of elite law schools and/or firms, you go out to fancy restaurants. The average “BIGLAW” associate earns $160,000 dollars a year in a firm in a major market (usually New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Chicago or Los Angeles). That kind of money opens up a huge stratum of society that may not have been available to you before.
This has proved to be one of the more daunting parts of law school for me. Of course, this is not exclusively due to my involvement in the Deaf Culture – it also has to do with the fact that I do not come from an upper-class family and the town that I grew up in isn’t exactly urbane. However, I find myself at a loss of words when my peers talk about going to Aspen for a skiing vacation, going out to dinner at a five-star restort and being able to shop at the most expensive stores. This kind of cultural schism engenders a stange feeling inside of me – the feeling of not quite belonging. Of course a person could say, so what? Money isn’t a big part of being a cultured person or even a good lawyer. That is true, but the issue before us today is how one’s culture background can affect one’s success in the legal profession.
People like me who are part of a minority cultures do suffer from one major disadvantage that is usually invisible – the lack of connections. I do not want to overuse the buzz word, “network,” but networking has shown itself to be an important part of the professional world. Both of my parents are in the educational profession and their interaction with the world of law is quite minimal (as they are law-abiding citizens). This is in stark contrast with many of my peers whose parent or family friends are partners at law firms. These people can ask for references from these family friends, while many minority members who are more like me, cannot do that.
In such a connection-heavy profession, any kind of assistance can be invaluable for a lawyer, no matter where s/he works: at the state attorney’s office, a small law firm or a large corporate law firm. Also, it can be a lonely world, especially for a d/Deaf lawyer, because not that many of our peers understand our life or professional experiences. Most connections are made on the basis of similarities. That is why you hear stories about a person giving an individual a job because s/he went to the same undergraduate institution or grew up in the same town. That is the way that the world works, like it or not and the d/Deaf and hard of hearing individual usually struggles in this respect. This is why I think having a more cohesive and unified support system for d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing lawyers would be a major step into a future of increased inclusiveness. However, as long as this group remains split along the cultural lines, I do not see this happening. This split is quite shortsighted and will only hurt the growth of the d/Deaf and hard of hearing lawyer population.