Law in Contemporary Society

My Journey Towards the Law

-- By JessicaEgbebike - 22 Feb 2021

The Prelude

My First-Generation Experience: Duty to Visit

Growing up, my parents would constantly tell me and my three siblings that they wanted to raise successful professionals. By "successful professionals," it was clear that they meant financially successful doctors, lawyers, or engineers. My parents were born and raised in Nigeria. They spent years applying for visas, in the hopes of obtaining the American Dream, a dream that failed to materialize time and time again. My parents were finally able to emigrate from Nigeria to the United Sates, where they eventually settled in Miami, however it was clear their hearts were still back in Nigeria where their family and friends remained. Ever since I was eight years old, my parents saved all of their disposable income to take my three siblings and me on trips to Nigeria. Despite being raised in the same house my entire life, I have always had one foot in my parents' ancestral home in Aguluzigbo.

Is This What Extreme Guilt Feels Like?

While I have always been incredibly grateful for the perspective my parents have given me, it was hard not to feel torn between the two cultures. One of the biggest differences that struck me from a young age was how much more noticeable poverty is in Nigeria compared to America. Every time I returned to Nigeria, I saw crowds of young children selling newspapers to provide for their entire family—something my father did growing up. It made me feel like I was both helpless in their plight for basic human rights and guilty because I had been taking so many things in my life for granted.

What Can I Do?

The extreme poverty that I saw on my visits back motivated me to volunteer at the Motherless Babies Orphanage in Enugu.

The Orphanage: Part 1

At the orphanage, after the children returned from primary school, I assisted them with their homework, they made fun of my accent, and we would all play a game of soccer. It was astounding to see that even though these children had difficult lives, they were still able to see a silver lining.

The Orphanage: Part 2

I remember one girl, Chinyere, who always had a quick, witty comment to say. Her humor stood out to me and I naturally gravitated towards her. I spent as much time as I could with her, reading, laughing, and—after she told me about her past—crying. I was amazed by her positive perspective on the world even though her mother died in a tragic car accident and her father abused her until abandoning her. Because of her, I returned to the orphanage the next year.

What About Law..

In an effort to do more in America, in college, I volunteered at Southern Legal Counsel (SLC), a local legal aid group. At SLC, the attorneys spoke about their legal experiences, including their fight against the criminalization of homelessness by challenging unconstitutional regulations. When I had a chance at a formal internship with SLC, I jumped at the opportunity.

Is This What Change Looks Like?

When there was a raid on Stranahan Park that restricted community feedings and displaced dozens of vulnerable homeless residents, I investigated and gathered the facts of the case: listening to city council meetings, watching the heartbreaking interviews of those evicted, and conveying information to the attorneys. For weeks, I was knee-deep in Supreme Court cases—researching the validity of city ordinances and briefing the attorneys at SLC on the legality of the disparate impact the city's action had on underrepresented communities in Fort Lauderdale. I was incredibly proud when the 11th Circuit recognized food sharing as protected by the First Amendment, based in part on my research.

In a different case, I was responsible for researching the legality of Florida's anti-panhandling statutes. Motivated by the idea of my father spending days on end panhandling in the streets of Nigeria, I was eager to begin my research. In this role, I brought a unique perspective for protecting people in circumstances my parents had grown out of. After presenting my memorandum about how the ordinances would violate the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments, SLC decided to file a lawsuit to challenge the statutes. After the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida found the statute to violate the First Amendment, I saw firsthand the significant change that could happen through legal efforts. At SLC, both of my aspirations—helping my community and honoring the path my parents want for me—converged and formed my love of the law.

The Plan

As I continue to discover the impact I could have through the law, my view of practicing the law has broadened, increasing my flexibility in exploring different practice groups. As a first-generation Nigerian-American, I struggle with what I want personally and financially in my career. Now, I hope to do what I love without compromising my chance at being financially secure enough to provide for my family. I have learned that by joining a New York City law firm with a global presence, I can take on international arbitration matters while participating in asylum pro bono work. In order to achieve my goals, I have applied to the American Review of International Arbitration and have begun researching my future note topic.

I was able to learn more about International Arbitration from Columbia alumni the Office of Career Services have put me in contact with. I was able to build my network through the various panels and mentorship opportunities hosted throughout the semester. I intend on earning a big law salary for about eight years in order to be financially secure. Upon speaking with different partners and associates, I discovered that many associates in international arbitration leave to become a professor, arbitrator, or work in the government within ten years of practicing. Nonetheless, I look forward to building my practice in international arbitration.

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r4 - 26 May 2021 - 02:17:41 - JessicaEgbebike
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