Changing the Face of the Legal Profession: Two Law Schools’ Commitment to Serving the Underserved

In the early 1990s, after a decade of teaching and writing about law, Don Lively began to develop concerns about the state — and future — of legal education in the U.S., specifically about the overwhelming lack of diversity in law schools.

[Above: FCSL students during a class session]

“One concern I had was around the disconnect between law schools and the legal profession and whether schools were going to be student- or faculty-centered,” Lively says. “But my overarching concern was with the diversification of legal education.”

Seeing little opportunity for effecting positive change in the law school system of that time, Lively began working on plans to create a new law school, one that would focus specifically on addressing and improving student diversity. In 1996, after several years of planning, securing capital, and gaining licensure, Florida Coastal School of Law (FCSL) opened its doors in Jacksonville, Fla.

Florida Coastal School of Law’s campus in Jacksonville, Fla.
Florida Coastal School of Law’s campus in Jacksonville, Fla.

By deviating from law school admissions’ traditional focus on LSAT scores, FCSL has been able to actively pursue its mission, and Lively’s goal, to “change the face of the legal profession.”

“You really don’t have an opportunity to pursue a mission of diversity [when you only consider the LSAT] — not to mention it deters innovation,” Lively says. “[Instead], you can choose the course of diversity, and that, to me, is a greater mission of social utility.”

Using a holistic admissions process, of which LSAT scores is only one element, the school has enrolled more students from groups that are historically underrepresented in the legal profession. In 2015, white students at FCSL made up less than half of the student body at 48.8 percent, while African Americans and Hispanics made up 27.8 and 11.6 percent, respectively.

“We do look at the LSAT because it’s one indicator of [success], but we also look at other factors — those related to grit, personal statements, the backgrounds of students — to try to get [individuals] in who can succeed,” says Dean of FCSL Scott DeVito.

Across the country, Arizona Summit Law School (ASLS) in Phoenix — launched in 2005 under the name Phoenix School of Law — shares in FCSL’s mission.

Arizona Summit Law School’s campus in Phoenix, Ariz.
Arizona Summit Law School’s campus in Phoenix, Ariz.

FCSL and ASLS are part of a consortium of three law schools — which also includes Charlotte School of Law in North Carolina — known as The InfiLaw System. InfiLaw’s mission is to “establish the benchmark of inclusive excellence” in legal education. Each school supports this mission through its commitment to three core pillars: serving the underserved, providing an education that is student-outcome centered, and graduating students who are practice ready.

“[As a consortium], we get the benefit of a broader range of good ideas,” says Lively, who is now president of ASLS. “We’re able to measure success not with a single institution, but we can look at ways that other schools have been successful in order to pursue our mission on a faster track.”

Beginning with InfiLaw’s first pillar, the schools devised a way to serve the underserved and increase access to law school while ensuring that these individuals are able to successfully matriculate. Through the Alternative Admissions Model Program for Legal Education (AAMPLE), which is offered at all three schools, students who may not have the standard credentials for acceptance into law school — such as high GPAs and LSAT scores — have an alternative method for gaining admittance to InfiLaw schools.

“We identify students who we think have promise … and put them into a five-week program where they have two [legal] courses — [Introduction to the Fourth Amendment and Negotiable Instruments],” DeVito says. “If they perform successfully in those two courses, we offer them admission.”

Lively says the program has proven effective. “We studied [it], we saw the impact, … and what that demonstrated to us was that we don’t have to be held hostage by the LSAT,” he says.

But serving the underserved comes with challenges.

“If you’re going to focus on historically disadvantaged groups, one understanding that’s really essential is that many of these people are in what I call ‘catch-up mode;’ that is, they haven’t been well served by primary [and secondary] education. One of our jobs is to enable people to catch up,” says Lively. “So if you’re going to measure our success, it has to be based on a different set of criteria.”

ASLS’s and FCSL’s students often struggle academically and financially, and some face difficult personal and domestic issues. Thus, in order for both schools to fully deliver on their commitment to serving these students — as well as InfiLaw’s two other pillars — they provide a range of on-campus support, from counseling and mentoring to financial assistance.

At FCSL, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs James Artley helps facilitate these support structures so that students can focus on their studies.

To help students, Artley and other FCSL faculty and staff provide tools and resources to students in a number of areas — from alcohol workshops that help them know their limits, to budget workshops to improve their financial literacy, to emergency funding for those who need it; to receive funding, students must apply and be approved. Support at FCSL also comes in the form of dialogue and collaboration among different racial, ethnic, and religious groups.

The Multicultural Roundtable — overseen by Tammy Hodo, FCSL’s director of diversity, equity, and inclusion — brings together students from nearly 30 on-campus organizations, such as the African American Law Association and the LGBT and Muslim law societies. Hodo leads a group meeting once a month where students discuss issues and concerns, ways of collaborating, and programming they’d like to see on campus. Recent topics of conversation have included walkouts on other campuses and anti-immigration rhetoric in politics.

Dean Scott DeVito; Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tammy Hodo; Assistant Dean of Student Affairs James Artley; and administrator Heather Nuances at Florida Coastal School of Law
Dean Scott DeVito; Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Tammy Hodo; Assistant Dean of Student Affairs James Artley; and administrator Heather Nuances at Florida Coastal School of Law

One result of these roundtable discussions was an event the school held in March to discuss race, gender, and professional responsibilities around the Black Lives Matter movement, which featured a panel of law professors. Hodo, who served as moderator, says the event provided a safe space for people to ask questions about the movement, reinforcing the idea that “it’s OK to have conflict that’s healthy.”

“I think [the Multicultural Roundtable] has created a culture of understanding and acceptance with the students, because we’re creating an environment where they can come and learn, ask questions, and not be judged,” Hodo says.

In addition, DeVito says that faculty and staff are also fully committed to the school’s mission and ensure that they are easily and readily accessible to students.

At ASLS, all incoming students are paired with a faculty mentor through the school’s Pathways to Practice class. Mentors provide academic and professional guidance and engage students in legal activities and events.

“Every faculty member is assigned a group of students through the Pathways to Practice program,” says Dean of ASLS Shirley Mays. “We have courtroom visits, where students can see how a courtroom operates. The students also attend [bar association] meetings and receptions with their faculty mentors so that they get an introduction to the legal community while they’re still a student and develop a network of lawyers.”

In addition, the school participates in the American Bar Association’s Judicial Internship Opportunity Program, which provides hands-on legal opportunities for students from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in the legal profession; it is also open to women, individuals with disabilities, people who are economically disadvantaged, and those who identify as LGBTQ, says Chidi O’Gene, president of Charlotte School of Law.

Another way ASLS serves the underserved is via scholarship opportunities. To that end, the school recently announced the creation of a new scholarship program, Summit Scholars, for students planning to enroll in fall 2016. One hundred of the most qualified students will be awarded a full-tuition scholarship to ASLS. Lively says that a significant portion of these scholarships will be given to students who graduated from historically black colleges and universities.

The scholarship is funded by the school and jointly administered by ASLS and Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Fla. The deadline to apply is July 15.

For Lively, this overarching commitment to supporting students and ensuring their success doesn’t end at graduation.

“If we think a person is not quite ready to sit for the bar exam, we have subsidized students until they were ready,” Lively says. “It’s not like, ‘OK, thank you for matriculating, thank you for paying your tuition, goodbye and good luck.’ … There has to be some carryover to that commitment. You have to continue to maintain and support that relationship on the path to success.”

Students at both ASLS and FCSL don’t take this commitment for granted — and they, too, share in this mission to serve the underserved, in the form of pro-bono work.

“[Our students] understand that they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before them, and participating in this pro-bono allows them to be able to pay it forward,” Mays says.

Much of students’ pro-bono work is done through clinics. At ASLS, where students are required to complete at least 50 hours of service by graduation, many choose to serve in the on-campus homeless clinic, where they provide much-needed legal assistance. Students completing more than 75 hours receive a certificate and are recognized at graduation. According to Lively, ASLS students have logged more than 100,000 hours of service thus far.

FCSL offers various clinical programs to help underserved communities; these cover a range of areas including criminal defense, business and entrepreneurial law, disability and public benefits, immigrant and human rights law, and more. The school also recently created a street law clinic, through which FCSL students educate young people on what their rights are, as well as a clinic focused on helping young people who have criminal records with the expungement process.

DeVito believes that offering these types of opportunities is not only the “morally and socially right thing to do,” but also makes sense from a career preparedness perspective.

“If you are not willing to live in the modern world, then how are you going to be successful as a lawyer?” he says. “Fifty percent of Americans are going to be non-white, and if all you understand is white people, you’re going to have a really hard time having a successful legal career; you’re going to have a hard time moving forward with any career.”

For Hodo, this inclusive approach to legal education by InfiLaw schools has the potential to not only change the face of the legal profession, but also help address justice on a higher level.

“I think the reality is that we continue to see injustices surrounding certain groups of people,” says Hodo, “and until we begin to have those groups actually in the position to write policy and defend and develop laws, things aren’t going to change. [FCSL and ASLS] are working really hard to change that.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. Arizona Summit Law School and Florida Coastal School of Law are 2015 INSIGHT Into Diversity HEED 

Award recipients.