Re-reading my admissions essay this week was a strange experience.
My aim was to communicate what had ultimately brought me to the point of applying to law school. For me, law school was not something that I’d set my heart on from a young age. I grew up in London, far removed from matters of American jurisprudence, and a severe stutter had frequently left me wanting to avoid any public speaking situations rather than enter a profession where it is so central. My decision to apply was ultimately the culmination of a realization – built gradually over an extended period of time – that law school offered perhaps the only real avenue to pursue my goals in public service and social justice.
Re-reading my essay now, I realize the extent to which the way I ultimately decided to tell my story was impacted by the unique post-March 2020 context: a period indelibly marked by the outbreak of COVID and police murder of George Floyd. Having spent most of the last seven or so weeks getting to know my new classmates, I recognize similarities in many other students’ stories. For the incoming 1L class, all of our applications were forged in this period of tumult and grief where the world seemed to be undergoing a process of deconstruction and re-making in front of our eyes. This cannot help but impact the ways in which we conceive of ourselves as lawyers in training, and ultimately, the way we decide to practice law. I see this reflected in a collective determination to question the status quo and re-examine structural inertias, and ultimately, a commitment to equity among many of my fellow students.
For those interested, I’ve shared my essay below.
It was 2011 when I first fully comprehended the power of the law. My local council had threatened to close our neighborhood library—a vital community resource in what is simultaneously the most diverse and most impoverished borough in the UK. In response, I co-founded a charity with other community members and, when our efforts to pressure local elected officials failed, we took the council to the high court to seek a judicial review of their decision. As I sat in court, enthralled, for two days as our attorney argued that the council had failed to comply with equality legislation, I had a moment of revelation. Decisions from higher up were not something to be simply accepted with resignation; rather, they were something to be interrogated and scrutinized, even overtly challenged. As our attorney deftly navigated webs of associated law and litigation, I had a deeper realization. The law was a guarantor of rights and protections, but it was also a living thing: an inherently participatory project reliant on there being individuals on both sides to make their cases. It requires people to “show up” on behalf of the less powerful, the under-resourced, and marginalized. In order to function, it demands individuals continue to make the case that all groups factor equally into public policy.
Looking back, this was a key moment in the development of my worldview. For almost as long as I can remember, I have been centrally consumed by how to reconcile the sheer luck that has enabled me to access so many opportunities that are frequently systemically closed to many of the people with whom I grew up. This is a concern motivated in part by the existential introspection that comes with being a person of color and second-generation immigrant, but also the experience of growing up amidst strident economic inequality while winning a full academic scholarship to a prestigious private secondary school. I have struggled to understand and reconcile the privilege that my experiences now afford me in society. I realized that the only way I can be authentic to myself and reconcile this internal paradox is to use these opportunities—whether studying at a 600-year-old university or working for a former U.S. President—as foundations for a future career in public service. To be authentic to myself, I had to live my values: to use my privilege for social good and to redress inequity.
You have to live your values. This has become my central motivating principle throughout my adult life: my rallying cry, lodestar, and internal compass. It is why I led the community organizing efforts that brought me to that courtroom in 2011 and why I ran for elected office twice. It is what pushed me to The Legal Aid Society where I worked to expand vital legal services and reduce the justice gap for New York’s marginalized communities. Most recently, it is what kept me driving a Coalition for the Homeless van each week delivering food to New Yorkers experiencing homelessness in the Bronx during the terrifying first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City. And it is now what drives me to apply to law school.
My work at The Legal Aid Society showed me the importance of people “showing up” to represent vulnerable individuals and disconnected communities. I have learned first-hand the real-world impact that effective advocacy had for our clients, both through individual representation but also in securing macro changes that remove systemic barriers and expand access. Ultimately, the totality of my life experiences has brought me to a point where studying law is now the only path that makes sense for me. It is the only way that I can truly live my values, “show up”, and ensure that the law functions as a protector for all.
Jonathan Bertulis-Fernandes is a first-year student and brand new Impact blogger. Contact him at email@example.com.