Ashley Baker is joined by the ABA Law Student Division’s newly elected national chair Johnnie Nguyen and delegate of communications Julie Merow to discuss the council’s goals for the coming year. They talk about the issues the council hopes to address including student debt, mental health awareness, and sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. They also highlight the council’s plans to connect more law students to the Law Student Division through social media campaigns and the rollout of new opportunities to get students more personally involved.
Johnnie Nguyen is national chair of the ABA’s Law Student Division and a 2L at the University of Colorado Law School.
Julie Merow is delegate of communications for the ABA’s Law Student Division and a 3L at West Virginia University College of Law.
ABA Law Student Podcast
The 2019-2020 Goals of the ABA’s Law Student Division Council
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Ashley Baker: Hello and welcome to another episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast. My name is Ashley Baker. I am a 3L at Southern University Law Center, where I am the Editor-in-Chief of The Public Defender Newspaper, and I am also a former Delegate of Communications with the Law Student Division.
I am so excited for today’s show. We have a new counsel. The 2019-2020 Law Student Division Council will be led by Chair Johnnie Nguyen. Johnnie is a 2L at the University of Colorado Law School, where he serves as his Class President, competes in mock trial and teaches constitutional law to high schoolers in underserved communities through the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project.
We also have with us Julie Merow, the new Delegate of Communications. Julie is a 3L at West Virginia University College of Law, where she is Vice President of the Federal Bar Association and Secretary of the Student Bar Association and she will graduate this May, this coming May and will pursue a career in Civil Defense Litigation.
Johnnie, Julie, thank you and welcome to the Law Student Podcast.
Johnnie Nguyen: Thanks for having us.
Julie Merow: Thank you for having us.
Ashley Baker: All right. Now, I know I just gave a brief introduction, but I also want to give the listeners a chance to hear directly from you. So can each of you tell us a little bit about yourselves and what prompted you to go to law school?
Johnnie, let’s start with you.
Johnnie Nguyen: Ashley, thanks for the introduction. Yeah, I am really excited to be here and we have an exciting year ahead of us.
Just a little bit about myself. I am born and raised in Denver, Colorado, and why I went to law school really came from the inspiration of my parents. Both my parents immigrated to the United States after the Vietnam War and they came here as refugees and just growing up they instilled in me a lot of privileges I have had just by being born in the United States, and just being born in the United States with that privilege I learned to just maximize that and really create as much opportunities for me and my siblings and my family and then for others around me. And for me that was to kind of chase the American dream and to go to law school and open doors for others.
Ashley Baker: Wow. Your story is so inspiring, and I know there are tons of law students across the country that may have similar stories or find inspiration from just you sharing that with us.
Julie, how about you, what prompted you to go to law school?
Julie Merow: Sure. Thank you for having me today. My story might not be quite as inspiring as Johnnie’s, but I am Julie Merow, I am born and raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, where West Virginia University is, and I went here for undergrad also and was really involved in student government and developed a love for policies from that experience.
So I originally went to law school because I thought that was a good way to get in the public policy sector and I thought that was kind of the most efficient way to make change where you see that there is issues, there could be improvements, and I got into law school never wanting to work at a law firm or do any of that litigation stuff, and then I got an opportunity at a firm and loved it and I am excited to pursue a career at litigation, but I will hopefully do some policy and lobbying and other fun things like that on the side.
And I think that it’s been really neat with the Law Student Division to find a way to tie in my communications and public relations background while in law school with the work that we are doing here. So I am really excited for this year and looking forward to working with everyone.
Ashley Baker: Awesome, awesome. Let’s turn to one of those policy issues. At this past ABA Day one of the major issues that was discussed was student loan debt. Johnnie, this question is going to be to you. Student loan debt is a major problem for law students. Studies show that 80% of law students take out student loans to attend law school. On average, those who graduate from private law schools incur debt of $120,000, and those who graduate from public law schools incur $88,000 of debt, and these sums are in addition to the $30,000 of undergraduate debt.
As Chair, how do you plan to address this issue in the coming year?
Johnnie Nguyen: That’s a great question, Ashley, and I really appreciate you asking that, because I think that’s probably one of the most important issues facing law students today.
I think there is no way I can answer that question without touching on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, because I think that’s one of the most immediate ways to make a change here. I want to touch a bit on kind of where the country’s politics and litigation is right now on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and then I will talk about kind of my plans.
So in 2018 United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the United States Department of Education, they rejected over 99% of the applications for the Loan Forgiveness Program; that means that only 661 of the applications out of 54,000 actually got accepted.
When this news dropped, I think the entire country was in shock, because there were so many people who invested years of public service work with the anticipation of financial securement, but they didn’t get it. And what really shocked me is where or what did the Department of Education spend the money that was allocated for this program.
Congress gave the Department of Education $700 million for this program and they only spent $27 million, where did the other $670 million go? And just this summer actually an article just dropped, it was about a litigation suit pending right now. The American Federation of Teachers, which is a gigantic teacher union, they actually sued the Department of Education and Betsy DeVos for gross mismanagement and sabotage of the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. That case’s name is Weingarten v. DeVos and there is actually a large team of law students working on that case. One of them is a good friend of mine.
And so it’s an important issue that we need to talk about, especially when law students, as you said, they are graduating with over six figures in debt, and public interest, their hearts are made of gold, but the salary is not made of gold.
So what’s the Law Student Division going to do about it? I have a plan, but before I share it I have to give a full disclaimer that I have not proposed this plan with my Council yet and my leadership style is to not move forward on any plan until I have my team’s approval on it. So these are just my thoughts.
Last year when Justice Kavanaugh was up for nomination, SBA Presidents across the country signed on to a letter sharing their opinions to the Senate Judiciary Committee about their feelings about Justice Kavanaugh and it was national news, because it just showed the ability of collective effort of law students across the country and how much we were willing to work together for expressing an opinion that we cared so much about.
And regardless of where you were on that political issue, you can’t deny how impressive it was to see law student leaders across the country work together to fight for something they cared about.
My plan is to use the same type of collective energy from SBA Presidents and ABA Presidents to lobby our members of Congress and securing and strengthening the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Every year in April the National ABA, they have a Lobby Day where law students and lawyers across the country come to our nation’s capital and speak to our members of Congress, and from now until April there is just so many things that could be done in preparation for that Lobby Day and I hope to work with my Council to develop that lobby plan to more specifics and apply the voices of all students across the country as we work towards those lobbying efforts.
As for the specifics of what those policy items would look like, at the moment those are very new and they need to be hashed out with my team and the ABA’s Government Affairs Team, but for now I think there is a lot of things we can do in preparation, such as getting that letter across the country and really — in fact, any of the law students who will be listening to this podcast right now, I would encourage you to call your members of Congress too and express to them the amount of debt that you are in and how troubling it might be for you to pay it off and just really talk to them.
So stay tuned, you will hear more from the Law Student Division about this issue and I hope you guys join in this effort.
Ashley Baker: Awesome, awesome. Let’s turn to another important law student issue. Julie, I am going to pose this question to you first, mental health. Mental health is one of the major issues that affects law students. Studies show that 96% of law students experience stress compared to only 70% of medical students and 43% of graduate students.
The amount of law students that experience stress increases with each year of law school and by the time we reach graduation a number of us will be experiencing psychological dysfunction. Law students experience mental health issues at a higher rate than any other graduate student program. How do you plan to address this issue this year?
Julie Merow: Sure, yeah. I think overall, and Johnnie can speak to this too for our Council, we were kind of all of the consensus that the mental health issues amongst law students are — that’s our number one issue for the year. And I think there is a lot of different factors that go into that that can be addressed in different ways and the student debt, how we just talked about that having this debt way over your head constantly I think adds a lot to that stress.
And then the job search is the other component of that, because students have all this debt and they are searching for jobs and sometimes the job market isn’t the best. And so those things together I think cause a lot of stress and anxiety and depression.
And one thing I have noticed at least at WVU and I think all schools are doing this is there is a lot of programming and it is good to a point, there is a lot of programming and just activities going on at the schools to try to combat these mental health issues. But I think overall some of the system has to change with the way, and not even necessarily ABA policy changes, but just school to school, like what really is stressing you out and what’s causing you to feel secluded and lonely and depressed.
And I think some of the system is the way that law school works and just, I don’t know, the day-to-day things that schools do and it seems like there is more and more of a burden on students, and it’s like you need to do this, this, and this, you need to have this GPA and this résumé and do everything perfectly, and if you have a slip up, well, you are probably not going to get a job, and that’s not the reality of it.
And I think the way, at least in my experience, and I mean WVU has been wonderful to me and I have had a great experience here, but I think the way that some things are presented to students needs to be corrected and just overall the setup with certain curriculum and not the classes, but more the schedule, and just, I think that people are trying to do a lot of different things at law schools to help law students but it’s like you just need to fix the way but some of the programming here is running and the structure of certain things.
So I think it’s two-fold and like I said there’s a lot of different components but I think the job market and educating students on how to get jobs and how to be efficient with their networking and to make themselves really marketable and also how to decrease that student loan debt and get that off their minds as much as possible, those are two big components to reducing the stress. And then after that it’s kind of a school-to-school basis of what’s the big, what’s really causing the students to be stressed here and what can we do to adjust that so that maybe they’re not feeling this burden constantly from other factors besides jobs and reading and debt.
Ashley Baker: Johnnie, is there anything that you wanted to add to that?
Johnnie Nguyen: Yeah, well first, I just commend Julie, I’m just constantly impressed by Julie. She’s an amazing member of our council who is incredibly smart and is always doing my job for me, but there that I could even do it. Julie really nailed on that with mental health.
All I would add really is just what our council is currently doing in regards to a current — this is not announced yet, so I guess this is their official announcement so I’m saying this. We are doing a project that’s going to engage all law students across the country and what that project is, is a Mental Health T-Shirt Contest.
Ashley Baker: Oh wow.
Johnnie Nguyen: And what this would look like is it’s a t-shirt contest that would have law students across the country submit their design and whichever winner that would be we would pick through a select criteria and we would use — we will use a t-shirt as a big kind of a national fundraiser and all — a 100% of those proceeds will actually go to the Commission on Lawyer Assistance, I don’t know, I butchered the acronym, it’s like Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs and the Fund for Justice and Education.
All those funds will go there to help budget towards wellness initiatives, those programs are doing and the reason why we’re working with them it’s because while mental health is certainly a big priority for the Law Student Division. We would be a fool to think that we’re experts in this area and we need all the help we can get and there’s no shame in getting help, and that’s part of this initiative.
The other things we’re doing is character and fitness questions and modifying that. In 2015, an ABA resolution passed and I apologize I can’t cite the exact number of that resolution on the top of my head, but essentially it was to encourage supreme courts of every State to remove any questions that ask about mental health on the character fitness portion of the bar fitness.
And the reason for this is because law students who learn about these questions, they may be less inclined to go seek mental healh and it just creates a whole new barrier and we don’t want to do that. The argument that some lawyers who are opponents of that resolution, I’ve heard them argue that Supreme Court should be filtering out which people should and shouldn’t practice law on the basis of mental health because we don’t want people to practice law as they have these conditions.
My response to that is that mental health is different for everybody and everyone walks their own life. There is no objective standard for what that should look like and this should be at the people’s discretion to whether or not they should practice law.
So that’s what the Law Student Division is working on, and thank you so much, Julie, for handling that so well, you are amazing.
Ashley Baker: That’s awesome. I am really looking forward to this t-shirt contest personally. Are there any other issues that you all as the new council plan to address this year?
Johnnie Nguyen: Yeah, collected on the council, we’ve talked about a myriad of different issues that we want to address. These I admit don’t have like hard concrete plans yet because the council just got ballot in last month, but one thing I really want to address and we need to have more discussions about how we’re going to address this, but it’s about addressing sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.
When I was campaigning for this position, I was very adamant about being unapologetic on this issue and it’s something that I’m going to definitely take on myself and work with other commissions to really hit this issue hard and admittedly, I don’t know how at the moment but it’s definitely going to be an issue we’re going to explore.
Ashley Baker: Okay, awesome. Julie, this next question is to you. The Law Student Division and the ABA in general have amazing opportunities for law students including scholarships, internships, and leadership positions throughout the association, how do you plan to market the Law Student Division and connect students with these opportunities?
Julie Merow: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that that question sort of sums up my whole platform that I’m agreeing on when I was running for this position. I think how you said there are so many opportunities and the ABA is such a great resource for law students and so many students don’t know about it, and I didn’t really know that any of this existed until six months ago.
So I think that we’ve been working already with the magazine team, the blog team, the social media team, and I think we’ll be doing a lot of collaborative efforts this year to put different themes and really push the same message again and again with students, and hopefully, increase our following as far as social media and the podcast goes.
I think our biggest resource is the ABA representatives from each school because they are that voice to their peers in their class and the classes above and below them to let them know like what the ABA is and the benefits of the premium student membership and sort of I think a lot of people of our age and law students, we want to know like what can you do for me, what is this going to do for me?
So I think just doing some very specific targeted marketing in a way and making sure that the message is getting to students that this is why you should be a premium member and this is why you want to, because students hear about the ABA and they think, oh well, that’s just for attorneys, it’s like, no, there’s the Law Student Division, then you transition them the Young Lawyers Division and this could be a lifelong and career-long thing for students.
So, I think promoting those benefits as best we can and trying to bring in — and we’ve spoken about this before — trying to bring in just the big diverse group of guests to the podcast and featuring different people in areas of the law and magazines and trying to just have something that appeals to everybody in our sense, and that’s a lot easier said than done.
Some students will never engage and we can accept that and move on, but I think just making it as broad as possible and making sure like I said with the ABA reps and the SBA presidents too that were keeping them in the loop and really using them as a resource because I think sometimes the council might try to just take on something by themselves and it’s like why would you do that when you have all, hundreds of law students at your disposal who will make a simple Facebook post or a simple announcement at their school and I think using those resources as much as possible to just continue to take grow the following.
Ashley Baker: Okay, speaking of social media, the next question is probably the most important question. How can our listeners find you on social media?
Johnnie Nguyen: Well, how they could find us? First, we have a website and if you just Google “ABA Lawsuit Division” you’ll find us right-away with information and contact, but how you can personally find me, is my cell phone number is 303-931-4385, that’s my personal cell phone number and you can call or text me anytime you want and I’ll respond to you with a promise within 24 hours that’s — that’s out there for everybody because I want to make sure that I’m being accessible and there’s a good channel of communication so — or add me on Facebook too, that’s also another easy way.
Ashley Baker: What about you, Julie?
Julie Merow: Yeah, I think social media it seems like at least with people of our age that’s the way to go and so we have different — we have a Facebook page and the Law Student Division website, obviously Twitter the Law Student Division has its own Twitter and a goal for this year is to make an Instagram account because I think — and Ashley like I said, we’ve spoken about this but a lot of people they want to flip through stuff and see photos and hashtags and that sort of thing. So I think that, that that would be beneficial to us and then you just push that out to the schools and they say, follow this account, so you know what’s going on for law students everywhere and I think with the social media to bring in more of what other schools are doing, I think that would really make students want to follow those accounts more if they’re like, oh, this is my way to access what law schools across the country are doing, good ideas and things. So, you can add me on Instagram and Twitter too, I won’t decline.
Ashley Baker: Alrighty. I have thoroughly enjoyed this podcast and hearing about all the amazing ideas that you have and the initiatives that you are planning for this year, thank you Julie and Johnnie, for taking the time to be guests on the Law Student Podcast.
Johnnie Nguyen: Thank you so much for having us.
Julie Merow: Yeah, thank you. Thanks for all of your help.
Ashley Baker: And I can speak for the entire 2018-2019 council when I say, we are so excited about you guys and we cannot wait to see what you accomplish this year.
Julie Merow: Thank you.
Johnnie Nguyen: Thank you.
Julie Merow: We have big shoes to fill.
Ashley Baker: Well, I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. I would like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on iTunes.
You can reach us on Facebook @abaforlawstudents and @abalsd on Twitter. You can also find us in our student leaders at #abaforlawstudents on Facebook and Twitter.
Signing off, I’m Ashley Baker. Thank you for listening and I’ll leave you with this quote by former Secretary of State Colin Powell.
“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
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