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Eckman builds on personal experience to help found first-generation professional group

April 10, 2017

On the last line of his resume, Chet Eckman L’17 lists a job he took during the summer after his first year of college: working third shift at a cup factory near his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And while that job might not have the same prestige as his summer associate position at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz or his role as Editor-in-Chief of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, it’s not a line he’ll be removing from his resume any time soon.

“It’s a way for me to say: this is where I come from,” he said.

Eckman was the first in his family to go to college, and his path to law school wasn’t one that was set out for him — it was one he had to find and learn to navigate. Students coming from working-class backgrounds often confront a lack of information about paths to professional careers. And once they’re on those paths, they then face cultural challenges.

To establish a community for those students, as well as to provide assistance and information in navigating law school, Eckman, along with Akbar Hossain L’18 and Steven Mills L’19, recently founded the First Generation Professionals affinity group at Penn Law.

As first-generation professionals, students often don’t have family members to look to for guidance and mentorship on the complex world of college and graduate school admissions, and this new student group at Penn Law is hoping to bridge those gaps in knowledge.

“We’re trying to build a pipeline for first-gen undergrad students who are interested in law school, starting with students at Penn undergrad,” said Eckman.

Eckman understands those struggles with lack of information about the system first hand. After graduating from high school, he knew he wanted to go to college, but all he really knew was that he wanted to be in a city on the east coast. As he and his parents were driving through Boston, he did an internet search for universities in the area, and they ended up visiting Northeastern University.

On the tour, he learned about Northeastern’s co-op program. There, students alternate between six months in class and six months working throughout their undergraduate years — and get paid for that work. Eckman was drawn to the program, especially the prospect of making money while in school and graduating with less debt. He applied and was accepted with a scholarship into the school’s honors program.

After his first year at Northeastern, he came back to Lancaster for the summer, where he worked at the cup factory to cover his tuition and expenses. When he returned to school, he began in the co-op program, first working at an investment company in Boston, then at Goldman Sachs in London on the trading desk.

Between the co-ops, his work, and his scholarship, he graduated from Northeastern with very little debt and took a job at Citigroup in New York City. He eventually began thinking about law school and was encouraged to work at a firm for a while to see if he would even like a legal career.

He took a paralegal job at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. He had no idea what to expect from the law school application process, but the lawyers at the firm served as mentors as he worked through his applications and eventually accepted a full scholarship to Penn Law.

That’s the kind of mentorship that Eckman hopes the first-generation students group will be able to provide to students at Penn Law and the university as a whole.

Very often, law students come from families with lawyers in them, or from families with professional backgrounds, he said.

“It can make you feel pretty insecure, right off the bat,” he added. “It makes you not want to talk about your background.”

But as Eckman grew more comfortable in law school, he shared more and found other people with similar backgrounds to his. He joined Lambda, and he joined the Penn Law Tennis Club and Bowling League. And he hopes that the new first-generation group will make it so students from working-class backgrounds don’t have to work hard to find each other.

After graduation, Eckman will go back to Wachtell to work as an associate, doing M&A and corporate governance. The choice of going to a law firm was always a forgone conclusion for him: paying off his debt and being able to help his family were the major factors in his career choice.

“From a financial aspect, some of my post-law school decisions were really made for me based on my background, and a lot of people here don’t understand that,” he said.

But on his job interviews, Eckman saw that his working-class background — including that stint in the cup factory — was something that employers were interested in. First-generation professionals have to work hard to find their path, he said, and they’re good at fitting themselves into whatever environment they’re in.

“I realized that there is a place for me in this profession,” he noted. “There’s a place for people like me in this profession.”