Law Schools Update Curriculum to Reflect Emerging LGBTQ Issues

By  - 

When Nima Eshghi, JD, chose Northeastern University School of Law to pursue her legal degree, she did so knowing that the school was recognized as educating lawyers who have gone on to become leaders in civil rights law for the LGBTQ and other marginalized communities.

Nima Eshghi
Nima Eshghi

“The school is historically rooted in public interest law,” says Eshghi, now assistant dean of the Center for Co-op and Career Development at the school. A combination of classroom discussions about current trends and legal opinions and hands-on experience with community organizations allows students to learn about the relationship between law and social issues. And Eshghi says many of these opportunities explore issues affecting the LGBTQ community. 

[Above: Students at Golden Gate University (GGU) School of Law]

The law school’s experiential learning model requires that students complete a public interest co-op, and it offers a wide range of clinics and initiatives for them to do so. Some of these include the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which is focused on anti-civil rights violence and other injustices in the U.S., as well as groups that focus on matters affecting LGBTQ issues. 

In addition to the co-op, first-year students work on teams to complete a one-year social justice project. Although not all of these focus on LGBTQ issues, there are always some that do, Eshghi says. Examples include the development of a legislative education plan that supports efforts to expand civil rights protections to transgender people and a plan to improve access to family law services for low-income LGBTQ families.

Social issues related to the LGBTQ community are also addressed throughout the law school’s curriculum, with discussions of recent cases and court rulings, explains Eshghi. “Professors always build topical issues into their classes, and [those] change throughout the years to reflect relevant cultural issues,” she says. “For example, in the 1990s, HIV/AIDS as related to disability laws was often discussed, but other more current topics have been added to class discussions.” 

Tanya Washington
Tanya Washington

At Georgia State University (GSU) College of Law, subjects including gender identity and transgender issues — such as bathroom access in K-12 schools or access to healthcare — are part of today’s curriculum for all courses and students, says Tanya Washington, JD, a faculty member at the college. As a professor of family law, Washington has seen the curriculum change significantly as same-sex couples marry and have children. “These [issues] are discussed as a way to prepare all students to represent LGBTQ clients,” she explains. 

According to Anthony Niedwiecki, JD, dean of Golden Gate University School of Law (GGU Law), raising awareness of LGBTQ issues from a legal perspective is something that applies to all law students, not just those who identify as LGBTQ. “A challenge faced by all lawyers is the lack of trust in the system that LGBTQ clients have,” he says. 

Anthony Niedwiecki
Anthony Niedwiecki

At GGU Law, inclusion of LGBTQ topics in all courses, as well as internships and externships at LGBTQ nonprofit organizations, promotes greater awareness and empathy with the community — no matter how a student identifies, says Niedwiecki. “Understanding the client helps lawyers build that trust,” he says.

Washington agrees and points out that a law school’s mission is to train all students to be zealous advocates for their clients, regardless of their personal opinions. And she sees open, intense classroom discussion about LGBTQ concerns as especially helpful for LGBTQ students. 

Tanya Washington participates in a panel discussion at GSU College of Law.
Tanya Washington participates in a panel discussion at GSU College of Law.

“I encourage all viewpoints to be expressed in my classroom, even if it is uncomfortable for students,” says Washington. “I point out that this is an opportunity to learn how to respond to opinions that make us uncomfortable and move past emotional reactions that can affect how we represent a client.”

Eshghi believes that attracting and preparing more LGBTQ students for the legal profession is also important. “Law is a powerful agent for social change,” she says, “and having representatives of a group that has previously been shut out of the protection of legal rights [who are now] practicing law breaks down barriers.” She points out that lawyers often go on to become judges and lawmakers, so training LGBTQ law students today leads to greater representation in all areas of the judicial and lawmaking system tomorrow — which may eventually lead to more inclusive and equitable policies. 

Furthermore, as law schools seek to attract more LGBTQ students, it is important that they have support systems in place to address the unique challenges these individuals will face as they enter legal careers. “It is not easy to be among the first of any group in a profession, but our LGBTQ students are pioneers, just as women and African Americans were in past years,” Washington says. 

Student groups such as OutLaw, an organization focused on the legal rights of LGBTQ persons, are supported by GSU and facilitate educational events as well as networking opportunities. “We don’t have a formal LGBTQ law alumni group,” Washington says, “but there are a number of LGBTQ student organizations in addition to Outlaw that provide support as students face the transition from school to career.”

At Northeastern, mentoring programs are designed to help law students move into legal careers; thus, Eshghi says, in addition to typical career advice, mentors to LGBTQ students offer advice on unique situations they may face entering the profession.

“One issue is what to wear if you are a woman but prefer to wear a suit versus a dress or skirt to an interview,” she says. “We advise men who usually wear earrings or women who wear pants to wear what they prefer but to be sure that their appearance is professional and that they are confident and articulate in the interview.”  

Northeastern mentors also work closely with LGBTQ students who plan to seek careers in other states and in areas where LGBTQ rights are not recognized in the same way as they are in Massachusetts. “We find alumni in the area who can help them navigate the legal community, serve as a mentor, and provide a support system,” says Eshghi. “Alumni and mentors don’t have to be LGBTQ; they just have to know the area and be willing to support the new graduate.”

LGBTQ students, alumni, and speakers at the ReachOUT Conference, hosted by Northeastern School of Law in January 2018
LGBTQ students, alumni, and speakers at the ReachOUT Conference, hosted by Northeastern School of Law in January 2018

Niedwiecki believes that faculty and alumni mentors — who can offer students much needed support as they encounter challenges in their academic and professional careers — also serve an important purpose. “I came out when I was in law school and found the faculty to be very supportive, but I was treated badly by the law firm at which I clerked,” he says. “The support and encouragement provided by my law school made a difference as I continued my law and academic careers.”

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our July/August 2018 issue.