Ultimately, I am continuing to learn the importance of creating opportunities beyond those given to me. And once I am awarded those opportunities, I will hold the door open for others, just like others have held the door open for me.
Ryan Jay McElhose
University of Tennessee College of Law, Class of 2023
When I was asked to contribute to the Leading as Lawyers blog, I said I would be open to the idea. Later in the day, however, in relating the exchange, I had a good laugh in a session with my therapist. I have never considered myself to be a leader on campus. Mainly, I go to class and return home. I am only active in one student organization. I am on no journals. I have never made the Dean’s List. And I am slowly recovering from my grades from my first semester of law school.
How did my first semester of law school turn out, you ask? Recall, if you will, that scene from Mean Girls where Regina George found out that Cady Heron indeed was not consistently feeding Regina Swedish weight loss bars but rather Kälteen bars to “sabotage her.” Let’s just say that Regina and I shared similar reactions when I had access to my first semester grades.
The process of recovery is not only academic but, in my experience, very personal. For me, it was especially difficult to bounce back while reading that law professors from peer institutions across the country, such as Georgetown Law and the University of Pennsylvania, made inflammatory remarks about Black law students and academic achievement. Law school, as it stands, offers a new and more challenging way to think, write, read, and reason. It is hard enough to navigate the first year of law school under the best of circumstances; but it is even harder when some educators and legal professionals actually expect you to achieve mediocre results not because of the rigor of the academic program but because of your race.
During this time, I also needed to apply for a summer legal internship position. I was fully aware that my GPA was not going to bring all the firms to the yard, so I tasked myself with creating opportunities beyond those typically sought by first-year law students. I knew in that moment that I needed to bet on myself. So, I did. I called law firms across the country, perused opportunities through LinkedIn, sent cold emails, and assiduously applied for 79 positions from coast to coast. As a result, I had eight interviews and landed four offers: two from small law firms, one from a judicial program, and one from a governmental agency with offices in Colorado, Iowa, and Nevada. Ultimately, I had a formative summer experience as a legal intern at Parrish Kruidenier Dunn Gentry Brown Bergmann & Messamer LLP– a criminal defense and civil rights litigation firm in uptown Des Moines, Iowa. I also began building my own legal network through LinkedIn, which contributed to securing my 2L summer internship at the Federal Public Defender’s Office of the Northern District of Texas in Dallas, Texas! Even though I had the perfect 1L summer experience, I was also aware that I have a limited legal network that I want to expand for myself and for the Black law students who come after me.
As a result, while in Des Moines, I created The University of Tennessee College of Law Black Alumni Association. The objective of this group is to provide internal and external legal resources, networking channels, mentorship, and opportunities to current Black students as well as graduates of the College of Law. Why is it important to create an alumni association for Black law students and graduates? According to the American Bar Association, Black lawyers make up less than 5% of the legal community and that number has not increased since 2011. The number actually decreased in 2021. To date, the College of Law Black Alumni Association has over 50 members. We are making plans to support law students and graduates, and we have already hosted a panel discussion at the College of Law about the criminal legal system, stemming from a children’s book written by alumna Jatrean Sanders (2009) titled Today Was Not The Same. This panel featured alumni of the College of Law, including: the Chief Public Defender of Nashville, Martesha Johnson (2008); the Director of the City of Knoxville Office of Community Safety, LaKenya Middlebrook (2006); and Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner (2002).
Law school is academically challenging. I like to remind myself of that fact, alongside the other lessons, so I do not get caught up falling victim to my success. I have realized that a lot of my stress is the result of good decisions I have made in life. I also remind myself in times of stress that, at one point in my life, I prayed to be in this very position. It is a sobering reminder that I am currently and actively living in my prayers.
While reading blogs from across the country that posit that law school does not teach students how to be effective lawyers, I have learned the value of balancing bar prep courses, thought-provoking seminars, and a host of practical coursework offered at the College of Law that will shape me as an asset to the workforce. Courses that I especially value include: Advanced Legal Research, Trial Practice, Advanced Appellate Advocacy, Law Office Technology, and one of our many legal clinics. I am challenging myself to engage in courses taught by professors with different scholarship and ideologies. I am refining my skills, too, so that I can have robust conversations in which I confront an issue rather than criticizing the person. I am forcing myself to no longer sit in the back of the classroom but to instead sit in the front with something to say! I am celebrating my appointment as a Graduate Research Assistant with the Division of Diversity and Engagement. I am throwing my hat into the academic writing world, too. The paper that I wrote to fulfill my expository writing requirement for graduation has been selected for publication in a legal academic journal. I am learning that some of my peers may actually see me as a leader because of how I show up for others, even as I continue to try to figure out how to best show up for myself. Ultimately, I am continuing to learn the importance of creating opportunities beyond those given to me. And once I am awarded those opportunities, I will hold the door open for others, just like others have held the door open for me.