Law in Contemporary Society

Fight or Flight

-- By JulieIreneNkodo - 04 Apr 2016

I can acutely remember my conversation with my linesister Esther (see: historically black greek life) when I told her I was going to law school. I had just come back from dance class, my clothes sticky from the mixture of sweat and the rainy London weather. “Law school has a way of magnifying your insecurities. Be careful” she warned.

The Beginning: Chapter I.

I’ve always been insecure. Growing up, my mom routinely scolded me for never being able to make my own choices and caring too much about others’ opinions. I can remember crying because I desperately wanted a Tamagotchi and when my mom pressed me on why, I responded “Because Francois has one.” Not because I wanted one. Not because they were particularly intriguing or fascinating. But because other people had them.

As the child of francophone Cameroonian immigrants, I spent my early childhood at the French International School in Washington, DC. Naturally, this made my transition to an American high school painful. I had never been around people that weren’t also “immigrants,” that thought natural hair was “nappy,” that had never heard of Cameroon. I was made fun of daily. I still have my high school yearbook "fresh off the boat" scribbled across my picture with arrows pointing to my kinky afro. For some reason, my sophomore year my history teacher decided to play "Roots" in class...that ended with me running out of the room crying. My high school experience did nothing to help quiet my insecurities. Instead, it triggered fight or flight syndrome.

And unfortunately, I can't remember a time where I've chosen to fight.

College: Chapter II.

I attended Princeton University for college. I had never stepped foot on campus. I did not know a soul. No one in my family had ever been to an ivy league, I could(can) count the number of extended family members I have in this country on one hand. But I was so desperate not to deal with my own insecurities, I jumped at the opportunity to get away.

Socially, emotionally, mentally, and physically, college took a toll on me. It destroyed my confidence. My ignorance on how to navigate college at Princeton, my cultural and familial background, the at-times racist environment (don’t get me started on my French Professor who insinuated that as a Cameroonian my French was sub-par and subsequently refused to give me an A in a course in which I had received nothing less than 95% on all exams #gradedeflation), culminated in a general lack of confidence in my abilities, my intelligence, my physical person.

Instead of trying to fit in, I dove straight into the arts. Dance became “my flight.” Instead of thinking about my insecurity, I choreographed. I helped produce on campus dance shows, I became Artistic Director of the Black Arts Company: Dance. But, I never dealt with my issues, quieting them by dedicating myself fully to something else.

Law School: Chapter III

After college, I hopped around. I moved to Chicago but that didn’t last. I had joined professional dance companies and was beginning to doubt myself. Was I not getting cast because I wasn’t good enough? Pretty enough? Skinny enough? So I fled to DC. My bosses at the American Historical Association made me feel insignificant. So I fled to London. But now, I am here. A 1L at Columbia Law.

I’m antsy.

I’m panicking.

Esther was right.

Law school is meant to be an endurance test. How long can you handle being made to feel like an idiot? The whole system is set up to make us feel like we’re not good enough, like we’re lucky to be in the presence of x firms, x professors, x opportunity. I can’t reconcile this structure with myself. It’s not reflective of who I am, of what I believe, of why I came. And all of the insecurities that I’ve tried to hush away have flooded back. Am I smart enough? What do people think of me? Do I fit in? I find myself crying every day in an attempt to deal with my two selves. How am I to be present, when succeeding here requires the absence of my true self.

And I find myself doing it again. Every fiber in my body is telling me to flee.

Where to next?

The Future: The Unwritten Chapters

I relayed this feeling of anxiety, of helplessness, of confinement to a friend, and she smiled warmly, "You have to get uncomfortable if you want to be creative." Had I had a relaxing year at CLS, I may not have thought so deeply about what I wanted my career to look like or addressed my underlying insecurities. While I may not have all of the answers, my discomfort has led to small discoveries.

The first: Advocacy work.

I think its important for lawyers to take an active role in society and to help educate our peers on the limitations of the law. We tend to place policymakers in a distinct group away from lawyers, but as a law student I'm realizing how little we can effect change if we don't have a thorough understanding of the law. Via documentary-making and storytelling, I want to raise awareness on social issues but attack them from a legal perspective. I read an article recently on fare-beating on New York subways and how asking for a swipe could literally land you in jail. I was outraged and concerned about the disproportionate effect this penalty has on the most vulnerable people in our society. What was lacking from the article, however, was an understanding of how this law came about, what would it take to challenge it, and whether there were constitutional concerns. I want to use my creativity and my love for art and storytelling to affect law and policy and re-tell these important stories using a different lens.

The second: Creating my own law firm.

I know that I am going to be an amazing lawyer and I'd rather not spend the rest of my life making someone else rich. I want to start a global pro bono law firm that would address corporate social responsibility and that would tackle constitutional issues both here in the United States and worldwide. This summer, my job has required me to research the legality of class action waivers in arbitration agreements. The trend in our appellate courts seems to suggest that employees can waive their right to pursue class actions in arbitration agreements. Having studied international labor law, I know that the right to collective bargaining is a fundamental right protected in a number of jurisdictions. To allow class action waivers in arbitration agreements, while simultaneously acknowledging the unequal bargaining power between employers and employees makes me extremely uncomfortable. I would love to create a firm that would tackle these concerns, challenge them in our courts and raise awareness so that our congressmembers don't sign away our rights without us knowing.

While this only the beginning, I recognize that as I long as I stay creative, I remain true to myself. It took me an entire school year and a lot of trauma to get here but I finally understand.

Where to next?

I hope I never get comfortable, and never stop moving.


Webs Webs

r4 - 11 Jun 2016 - 21:54:55 - JulieIreneNkodo
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