A Poet’s Journey to Law: Finding Connection in Chaos

The Editors at Jury of Peers present insightful, inspiring stories about LLS students.

Poet, activist, humanitarian, and soon-to-be lawyer, Emily Bernstein has always been driven to decode a chaotic world and help others with her work. From Los Angeles to Jerusalem, to Salt Lake City, and back, she charted a path to find her passion for justice and international human rights, eventually landing in a community of like-minded scholars and practitioners at Loyola Law School with access to the most impactful legal clinics in Los Angeles, dedicated to social justice.

Coming of age in a technology-driven era that revolutionized communications yet brought about complex challenges with misinformation, polarization, privacy, and mental health, Bernstein initially found solace and purpose in writing. “I am a poet by trade,” she says. “When I write poetry, I can put voice to whatever I’m feeling. It helps me find my own voice inside the chaos of the world.”

The Arts as Universal Translator

With early aspirations for a career in publishing, Bernstein first set out to pursue studies in English and Writing at Chapman University, in Orange, CA. Initially, her writing focused on themes of mental health, yet as she advanced academically, she found herself increasingly drawn to coursework in political science, which soon began to inform and enhance her creative efforts. “Art in itself is political,” Bernstein contends, and as she delved deeper into political science, she began to recognize the profound interconnections with her artistic passions. Enrolling in a course that required the study of theory, exploration of landmark Supreme Court cases, and the development of her own legal arguments, further piqued her interest. Eventually, she found herself immersed in a transformative international human rights course that completely altered her academic and professional trajectory.

Just as language and poetry had served to help her translate disorder into meaning, international law seemed to have a similar potential. “Finding the human connection in the chaos is what law becomes for me. I can better understand how we got where we are now not just by studying the rules, but how they’ve been put to use in real peoples’ lives over the years. Constitutional Law is a great example — building from a set of best intentions through interpretation is where the truth surfaces and humanity comes to life.”

“Building from a set of best intentions through interpretation is where the truth surfaces and humanity comes to life.”

At graduation, with a thesis consisting of over 40 pages of pointed political writing and poems on topics such as mental health, Israeli politics, international criminal courts, and religion, Bernstein had made an important decision; she would go on to study Law. However, before taking the LSAT and applying to schools, she decided it was important to pursue opportunities that would give her lived experiences in the field. “I like to know how things work—how the sausage gets made,” she says. “It helps me see the bigger picture in the end, which helps shape my experience.”

Exploring Law in the Real World

Bernstein first found an administrative job working in a corporate law firm. Although she didn’t personally connect with the practice of corporate law, she enjoyed talking with attorneys, reading depositions, and interacting with the California Courts. She then landed an opportunity to work in Israel for a year. Supported by a fellowship, she lived in Jerusalem working for a non-governmental organization helping recently immigrated Ethiopian Jews assimilate into Israeli society. “Israeli society can be impenetrable at times,” she says. “The education system is all public, and it’s very competitive. If you don’t pass certain tests at certain times, your opportunities are limited.” The core organization was created to even the playing field, and the program helped level set for immigrants. While in Jerusalem, Bernstein experienced a profound connection to the advocacy work. She enjoyed researching Israeli law and was even given the opportunity to go to the West Bank to meet with the military lawyer and speak to attorneys who had practiced in the states before moving to Israel.

When she returned from Jerusalem, Bernstein resolved to study for the LSAT and start applying to schools while continuing to explore work options. She landed a job as an assistant in the Salt Lake City Prosecutor’s Office, under the DA. The office handled infractions up to Class B misdemeanors, and the prosecutors invited her to court, let her read motions, and assist with trial preparation. She was able to attend virtual hearings, observe defense lawyers in action, and witness the inner workings of court first-hand.

When it came time to apply to schools, Bernstein had a clear vision of exactly what she wanted to do. “I was so connected to the human rights advocacy and policy I did in Israel, working and learning about international and foreign law, that I felt much more passionate about that than any other kind of law I had the opportunity to work with.” With her interests crystalized by her experiences, she began to research her options.

“I was so connected to the human rights advocacy and policy that I did in Israel, working and learning about international and foreign law.”

Finding Her Passion and Community

Loyola Law School quickly stood out from the pack with its access to extraordinary opportunities through the Loyola Social Justice Clinic. “When I was asking questions, I never felt like I was just a statistic or a number to them,” she says. “They were really interested in me and what I wanted.” When Bernstein inquired about the program and shared her interests, she was promptly connected to current students and practitioners in international law who shared their experiences and insights. She immediately felt empowered and treated like an equal. With the largest alumni network in Southern California, it was clear that the LLS community went way beyond the classroom. “I have never once thought that Loyola was the wrong choice,” she says. “I’ve never attended a school, including college, and especially high school, where I want to be involved when I graduate. However, I feel the complete opposite about Loyola. That sense of community doesn’t go away. Most students here feel the same drive and passion for the law as I do, and that’s what bolsters the community. It’s so helpful in a school environment to be around similar people that are also driven.”

From the very beginning, Bernstein recognized Loyola’s commitment to training lawyers who not only excel in their philosophical and analytical capacities but also demonstrate proficiency in practical and professional skills. “Our classes are taught from a practical perspective, not a theoretical perspective,” she says. “I think this is a shift that a lot of schools are making, but Loyola’s been doing it for a very long time. There’s so much focus on experiential learning. On the first day of class, one of my professors said, ‘I’m going to talk to you like lawyers, not students,’ and that was so empowering. Everyone here understands, the administration understands that the students have this strong desire to hit the ground running and we will learn as we go under supervision for sure.”

“On the first day of class, one of my professors said, ‘I’m going to talk to you like lawyers, not students,’ and that was so empowering.”

Currently in her second year of the J.D. program, Bernstein has already worked with Loyola’s Genocide Justice Clinic to assist survivors of the Nazi Holocaust seeking reparations, developed a brief and authored a memo articulating a substantive law to an international tribunal for a Ukrainian case in the European Court of Human Rights, and is now working in an internship at the Department of Justice. “I am not only getting client-facing real-life experience, but I am also learning by doing. Other law schools have clinics, yes, but there’s not as much of a focus on them. The professors and attorneys that run our clinics trust our students, and the attorneys supervising us trust us to do a lot of the work on our own and only redirect us when we get off track. My father used to say, ‘… in law school, you learn how to write about the law, you don’t learn how to practice the law…,’ but I don’t feel that way at all. I can write about the law, sure, but I know how to practice the law because my professors have taught me, and that’s a huge difference.”

To practice law is to build from best intentions; to interpret, translate, and improve upon structures and rules to make them work for everyone. For Emily Bernstein, practicing law is what makes sense of the chaos and ensures a better, more just, and equitable future for all.