Meet Brianne, a first-generation, third-year law student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She’s currently a UNC Dean’s Scholar and has gotten the opportunity to participate in various initiatives including UNC’s pro bono board, the Death Penalty Project, and Women in Law. She helps run one of her school’s pro bono clinics which is the work that’s closest to her heart and has been the most impactful in her legal career. As a pre-law student myself with doubts about being able to navigate the industry, Brianne’s honesty and knowledge have been a breath of fresh air.
After graduation, Brianne will be doing big law in New York City, likely in complex litigation. Meanwhile, public interest remains incredibly important to her, particularly in anti-carceral work, and she’s currently navigating how that work will continue to fit into her career. Coming from a low-income background, she didn’t see people like her in real life or on social media, so she aims to pull back the curtain and demonstrate what’s typically not displayed in the gate-kept legal industry. I had the opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with her to talk about her legal experience thus far.
HCUCF: How does your background impact how you view your legal career?
Brianne: Oh my god, so much! I think it’s integral; if you’re ignoring people’s backgrounds it’s impossible to understand why they do the things that they do in law school. My decision to come to law school in the first place was shaped by my background. I grew up attending a Title I school and saw firsthand day in and day out the criminalization of Black and Brown youth and that got me interested in the legal field and criminal justice, and I eventually found my place in law school. Even with that being my background, it shapes the decisions I’ve made in law school from the experiential classes I’ve taken to the internships I would choose to take and then can take, considering they’re often unpaid.
HCUCF: During law school, what’s helped you the most to get to where you are and keep you going?
B: I think that a lot of people who go to law school face outside pressures like their parents wanting them to be lawyers or similar things like that. Instead, I’ve always been just an incredibly self-motivated person. Coming from a large family, I was the kind of person my parents didn’t have to worry about. I internalized that and I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed in a lot of ways. Knowing that what I do and the experiences that I have can shape the way for people like me in the future is a huge motivator. I’m incredibly passionate about mentorship and I’ve collected all of my littles throughout law school in hopes of helping the next groups of attorneys succeed in their law school path.
HCUCF: What inspired your choice of going into the legal field?
B: Originally, I knew that I was interested in criminal justice work but I was leaning towards research, and I think that was much more stemming from the fact that I didn’t think people like me could be successful lawyers. I remember my high school teachers were constantly saying “you need to go to law school, you’re the exact type of person to go to law school.” At some point, I made a joke to my teacher and I was like, listen, this school has produced more criminals than lawyers, like this is not happening. But I met Brian Stevenson in my freshman year who founded the Equal Justice Initiative and he told me “you don’t want to do research, you want to go to law school.” I helped start the Pre-Law Society during undergrad because I had absolutely no resources and had no idea what I was doing. I started networking with lawyers, taking some law classes in undergrad, which I was so incredibly privileged to be able to do, I realized that I like the person-to-person kind of work you get in the legal field while research is behind closed doors. You’re not getting to see the impact you’re making on people’s lives. That’s what drew me to law school initially, and I think a lot has changed in the past three years but that’s the initial reason for why I went there.
HCUCF: How would you describe the legal culture?
B: I think that the culture in the legal field can be what you make of it. You have to find your circle and who shares the same kind of values as you within the legal field. Generally, it’s not something I would describe as overwhelmingly welcoming to anyone that’s not the wealthy white child of another lawyer. It’s a game that you have to learn how to play, and I think a lot of why students and lawyers on social media get attention is because everyone wants to know how to play the game. We can try as hard as we want to give you tips on how to play the game, but it’s so complex. It’s so hyper-dependent on factors like your location, what you want to do, and the people that you know, and not a straightforward answer.
HCUCF: What’s one piece of advice you would give to a pre-law student and a piece of advice you’d give to a current law student?
B: For a pre-law student, at least for someone who’s like me, I would probably tell them to aim higher than they think they deserve. I think a lot of people who come from non-traditional backgrounds constantly downplay their own worth. Considering law schools are such holistic application processes, you should be fighting for everything. You should be applying to the schools you don’t think you can get into. You should be fighting them on your scholarship offers, not something I would have ever had the confidence to do when I was a pre-law student, but still incredibly important.
As for law students, it’ll be fine. Everything’s going to be fine. I think that’s probably the best advice I can give towards anything that happens in law school. It’s not going to dictate the rest of your legal career. Everyone has unexpected situations they never would’ve assumed would happen. These things, like a global pandemic, can interfere with your plans, but pivot them and it’ll all work out. You just put in the work and it’ll eventually all be fine.
People are going to be willing to talk to you. Law students, lawyers, professors, the people in the administration, they’re going to be willing to talk to you, you just have to ask.
HCUCF: What’s your hot take about the legal profession?
B: My hot take about the legal profession is that it intentionally defines diversity in a way that allows it to skirt any actual diversity. You see it come out a lot in school and firm reports and the summer associate diversity positions that they’ll list. Diversity can include a whole host of people that doesn’t reflect racial and ethnic diversity. A lot of the time it’ll include anyone who’s a first-generation, like you would be considered diverse if your dad was a doctor instead of a lawyer, or if you’re queer, but you’re white and you’re wealthy, you’re considered diverse. If you’re white, but grew up low-income, you’re considered diverse. That’s part of making a diverse workplace, but in my experience, I’ve seen a lot of the time that they rely way too heavily on first-generation, law, student status, sexuality, and socioeconomic status rather than actual racial and ethnic diversity. They’ll consider diversity at the firm level, and not give information about it like associate level versus partner level, which can tell you a lot about a firm.
HCUCF: Right now, where do your passions lie in the legal field?
B: I feel like that’s a complicated question because I never want anyone to feel like their passion has to be limited to just one thing in the legal field. I’ve always been super drawn to litigation, anti-carceral work, and mentorship. We’re all multi-faceted people and can find a way to incorporate all of our passions into our life.
HCUCF: What has been the most rewarding part of law school for you?
B: I love pro bono so much and the outlet it’s provided for me. When all of your schooling revolves around spending 30 hours reading every week and going to class, you may be interested in the subject matter of the cases that you’re reading, but that gets really old. It tends to be disconnected from the actual work that attorneys do. So pro bono ends up being a great outlet and hands-on teaching. It’s a great reminder of why you actually went to law school in the first place.
HCUCF: With your own individual program, what areas of law do you think you’ve gotten to explore the most through your pro bono program?
B: I definitely do mostly criminal and post-conviction work. I’ve done plenty of trial-level research projects for criminal defendants, expunction work, post-conviction work, and Habeas relief-related work. My pro bono work has been almost entirely criminal justice related. I’ve also done some eviction and housing work, UNC Law offers a lot more, but I have heavily leaned toward criminal-related work.
Hcucf: So you started content creation both to kind of like document your law school journey and shed light on what the question is actually like. How has that changed over time and impacted you?
B: I started a Tiktok because I wanted to give people access to information, particularly about law school, and I’m coming to the end of law school. Right now, I’m at this point where I’ve said everything that I wanted to say. There are things that are going to be similar when I’m an attorney, especially coming from a non-traditional background, and issues for me to tackle. But there’s less you can talk about productively online without running into workplace or ethical issues on TikTok. I’m at this point where I’m navigating if I have anything more to give. Do I want to give anything more? For me, it’s not about “oh, I just want to make different content so that I can continue having a following” because it was never really about having the following. It was: “I have a goal of the stuff that I want to put out” and now it’s been put out.
HCUCF: How has it been navigating networking within law school and through your platform?
B: Everyone’s going to have their different levels of comfort when it comes to networking. 1L tends to be the year you do the most networking but with mine being remote, we relied heavily on Zoom calls. I made connections that helped me get offers in the future. Networking happens way more naturally than we like to think. Whenever I was pre-law and I heard someone say that they got their job through networking, I’d be like, well, that’s never going to happen to me, and it sounds so far-fetched. I ended up partially getting my job because of networking and then I met plenty of attorneys through my platform. During my final interview at my firm, I actually opened up the Zoom link, and the first thing out of one of the attorney’s mouths was like, “I know you from TikTok.” It was terrifying at the moment, but it’s really helped my transition from law student to (almost) lawyer.
TikTok has made me better at networking. I’m not a very social or outgoing person at all, but I think TikTok kind of forced me out of my shell a little bit. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that within the past five years, I’ve come into my own, but I think it’s taught me how to turn it on and turn it off. Charm and persona and networking are a part of this game. I think you can let your grades carry, or you can let your networking carry, or you could try to find a balance between both. Me, I think I’ve tried to find a balance between the two.
HCUCF: You co-host the In Laws Podcast with Sophia, what was the original vision behind the pod and what do you hope someone gets from it?
B: The pod started out of our issues with TikTok and wanting to spread quality information that is typically gatekept about the legal field and have more nuanced discussions about it. As of right now, the Tiktok algorithm doesn’t favor nuanced discussions in any way. So that’s how it started, and sometimes we’re touching on really hard topics in the legal field, and sometimes we just keep it light and mix it up. There are endless things to say about law school and the legal field for us to lay out from the “Relationship Between Law School and Disordered Eating,” to “Big Law Pipeline,” and “Unspoken Rules of Law School.”
Hcucf: What are you most looking forward to post-graduation and stepping into your new role?
B: I’m looking forward to having time off! I feel like since starting law school, I haven’t had a break where I could completely shut off. Post taking the bar exam, actually having time off where I don’t have to be worrying about anything is something I’m definitely looking forward to. When it comes to starting my job, I’m looking forward to getting to explore even more of these different practice areas. There are so many opportunities that you don’t know exist until they’re presented to you. I’m lucky that my firm allows us to kind of be general the first year so I won’t be automatically sorted into complex litigation or white-collar crime. I get to have that year to explore all of my interests and I’m looking forward to that time.
As a first-generation student myself, I’ve been inspired by Brianne’s determination to create actionable change in the legal field. I can’t wait to see what awaits her as she continues to make her mark in the legal industry. Make sure to follow Brianne on Instagram, Tiktok, and look out for the next episode of the In-Laws podcast.