Two Law Schools Commit to Diversifying the Legal Profession

As the majority of law schools struggle to diversify their student bodies, there are some that stand above the rest, eclipsing even the national minority law school enrollment of 31.4 percent. 

Although they benefit from the diverse makeup of the cities in which they are located, these law schools go beyond recruitment to ensure that underrepresented students have the tools not only to enter and succeed in law school, but also the legal profession. 

[Above: Southwestern’s campus in Los Angeles, Calif.]

University of Houston Law Center

With a student body that is 36.4 percent people of color, the University of Houston Law Center (UHLC) strives to paint a picture of the legal profession as one that is welcoming of all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity, or other characteristics. 

“There are … employers that don’t just give lip service to the idea of wanting the profession to represent the overall population; they’re also taking steps to ensure that they’re getting access to talent who are [from] underrepresented populations,” says Tiffany Tucker, JD, MEd, assistant dean for career development. “I think that empowers our minority students to recognize that this profession is for them — that while right now they don’t see themselves in great numbers in law, the legal profession is very welcoming and inclusive such that they don’t have to feel that the barriers [to the profession] … are insurmountable.”

To recruit and prepare a wider range of young people for legal careers, UHLC offers LSAT preparation, introductory law classes, internships, and professional development through its Pre-Law Pipeline Program (PLPP). This annual eight-week summer experience is open to all students but focuses on members of groups underrepresented in law, such as students of color and those who are first-generation or low-income. With two tracks — which are both for undergraduates and run concurrently.— the program exposes participants to the rigors of law school and provides an introduction to the profession.

“What we are doing is demystifying what law school and the legal profession are like. A lot of students come in with certain thoughts about being a lawyer; they may think, ‘I know what an attorney is; I watch Law & Order, and I see what they do in the courtroom,’” explains Kristen Guiseppi, PLPP program manager. “So [PLPP] helps them understand that there’s much more to [being an attorney] than what they see on TV.”

The first track, which is called LSAC’s DiscoverLaw.org Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program, introduces rising college sophomores and juniors to the law school experience, while the second track, known as Scholar II, focuses on helping rising seniors develop a strong law school application. 

For the first five weeks of the PLUS Program, students participate in intensive courses all day, Monday through Friday, Guiseppi says. These expose them to different practice areas, ranging from immigration to family law, as well as help them develop the critical thinking and legal writing skills necessary to succeed in law school. 

“At the end of the instruction component, they take a final exam,” she says. “So, we’re actually simulating the law school experience in that way; in law school, students only take one final exam at the end of their first semester. By giving them that advanced insight into what the classroom is like, the experience mentally prepares them for their first year.”

UHLC Dean Leonard Baynes (left) with a PLPP student (center)
UHLC Dean Leonard Baynes (left) with a PLPP student (center)

During the remaining three weeks of the program, students complete a legal internship with a Houston-area law firm, legal organization, or court to gain experience in the area of law they’re interested in practicing. Guiseppi has fostered partnerships with law firms such as Jackson Walker LLP, Bracewell LLP, and Vinson and Elkins LLP as well as nonprofits such as the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Disability Rights Project. “Some students may be assigned a judicial internship, so they get to be in courtrooms and sit next to the judge as they preside over cases, or they may get to draft a memo or conduct research,” she says. “Their duties really depend on the internship office.”

Scholar II was developed for students who are about to graduate and apply to law school. In addition to an eight-week LSAT course that prepares them to take the exam in the fall, they learn about and receive assistance with building their résumés and writing both a personal and diversity statement. Guiseppi believes that submitting a diversity statement as part of the law school application provides students an important opportunity to elaborate on their unique experiences and how those will enhance the classroom discussion.

“The diversity statement really answers the question, ‘What is the diverse component that you bring to the classroom?’ Is it difference in thought? Is it difference in experience? Is it the fact that you were raised in a different country?” she says. “… It is something that we strongly encourage all of our students to submit.”

Both program tracks have several overlapping components, such as mentorship. Participants are matched with mentors based on where they are in their educational journeys, with PLUS Program students paired with a law student mentor — someone currently enrolled at UHLC — and those in Scholars II matched with practicing attorneys. “Because [students on the second track] are about to take the LSAT, their focus is more so on which field they want to go into, so they’re matched with attorney mentors who can answer a lot of those questions,” Guiseppi says. 

Mentorships last a year, and mentors are required to meet with their mentees in person at least once a month during the on-site summer program. “The rest of the year,” Guiseppi says, “[it] converts to a digital mentorship because some of the participants are not local.”

Both programs’ cohorts also attend a weekly luncheon speaker series during which students gain insight into the profession from those working in the field. “The professional development is more or less the same for both tracks,” Guiseppi says, adding that these sessions address important topics from social media etiquette and professional attire to effective communication and networking. 

Legal professionals share insights with program participants as part of the luncheon speaker series.
Legal professionals share insights with program participants as part of the luncheon speaker series.

Since PLPP began in 2015, she says 86 students have completed it — not including those who attended the 2018 summer session — and the vast majority of those have been from groups underrepresented in the legal profession. Of those 86, 22 have been accepted into law school and 11 of them have enrolled. 

For UHLC students, the supports are even greater. Every entering student is assigned a career counselor — all of whom are attorneys — who provides assistance with professional development and career advice.

“We assist them with identifying employment opportunities and help them process their own practice area interests,” says Tucker. “We help them review and update their résumé and cover letters, we facilitate mock interviews, we offer help with polishing interview techniques, and we provide salary negotiation assistance.”

Counselors maintain contact with their students not just during their time at UHLC but also after they graduate, which Tucker believes can positively affect their retention in a job. “We have a postgraduation alumni counseling team that works with graduates in their first year,” she says. “We have seen, and research definitely shows, that the more graduates are supported their first year out [of law school], the more likely they are to secure a job that they will be happy with.”

Additionally, through UHLC career services, students gain access to professional mentors, apprenticeships and externships, professional organizations, career fairs and conferences, and other networking opportunities. These include the Houston Bar Association and its minority clerkship program, the Sunbelt Minority Recruitment Program, and the Lavender Law Career Fair and Conference, which is focused on the LGBTQ community. All of these career services and supports have resulted in an employment rate of nearly 88 percent for UHLC graduates. 

Tucker says that what drives her staff’s dedication to this work is a desire to provide students support that they themselves would have benefited from in law school. “We have a passion for the work that we do, so we try our best to think, ‘What would I have wanted, what would I have needed, or what would my friend or classmate have wanted or needed that we didn’t get or that could have been done better?’” she says.

Southwestern Law School

At Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, Calif., a commitment to maintaining a legacy of inclusion has resulted in a student body that is 46 percent minorities. 

“From its inception, Southwestern’s mission was to make legal education available to students of all backgrounds, and we’ve really worked to continue that legacy — ensuring that we not only recruit students from historically underrepresented groups but that we also support them once they’re admitted,” says Nydia Dueñez, JD, dean of students and diversity affairs.

This commitment begins during the admissions process, when Dueñez, who is also a member of the school’s admissions committee, strives to identify students who may benefit from a transitional summer bridge program. This includes applicants whose LSAT score or undergraduate GPA falls within the 25th percentile. 

“If …  they have other nontraditional indicators of success in their file — outstanding letters of recommendation or stories of overcoming very difficult circumstances growing up — whether … they were raised in foster care, or they are an immigrant or the child of an immigrant who faced limited educational opportunities — we try to identify those students who have achieved a lot of academic success despite those challenges,” explains Dueñez.

After interviewing these applicants, she typically will recommend them for one of two summer programs: the Academic Excellence Academy (AEA) or the Introduction to Legal Writing course. The latter introduces incoming students to legal writing to prepare them for the first-year course Legal Analysis, Writing, and Skills and law school in general. 

AEA, on the other hand, dives deeper to provide a preview of and preparation for the transition to the law school environment. This optional program is open to all students but primarily targets those from groups that are historically underrepresented in the legal profession. 

For nearly two weeks in the summer, AEA participants meet on Southwestern’s campus for a few hours each day. They learn about and begin to develop the skills necessary to succeed in law school, including legal reasoning and writing, as well as build relationships with other law school applicants. The most significant focus of the program, however, is on emphasizing the differences between being an undergraduate and being a law student, Dueñez says. 

“In undergrad, you have participation points, quizzes, group projects, papers, and maybe a midterm and a final exam, so the pie is composed of all these different pieces. In law school, it’s a high-stakes exam, much like the LSAT,” she explains. 

Dueñez and her staff also try to convey to students’ families that law school will be trying. “We have discussions where I try to prepare spouses and families by saying, ‘This is going to be different, it is going to be a transition, it is going to be difficult,’ and to my students, I say, ‘You need to be OK acknowledging that this may not initially come as easily as college did,’” she says. 

An additional component of AEA is mentorship. Interested students can sign up to be matched with a faculty mentor who shares the same professional interests and, ideally, a similar background.

“We try to pair them with a faculty member who either teaches or has some work experience in their area of interest. They will meet with their student within the first two weeks of the semester to introduce themselves and build that relationship,” says Dueñez. “The hope is that if we pair a student interested in entertainment law with an entertainment faculty member, that they could discuss the type of curriculum that would be helpful toward pursuing a career in entertainment law as well as the different approaches to securing an externship and employment in that practice area.”

Once students enter Southwestern, they are assigned an academic counselor who advises them throughout their time at the school and helps them balance coursework with home and work life. This support may include helping students transition to a different program structure based on issues they may be dealing with in their personal lives, explains Dueñez. 

“We are able to offer students that ability to transition into different programs based upon whatever life has thrown at them — if they’re having a baby, they have a family member who has become ill and they are a caregiver, or they need to get a full-time job and reduce their hours from traditional to part-time or evening,” she says. “We do a lot of that type of counseling because it’s rare that a student is not doing well just based on academic issues; sometimes it is that they are working too many hours, juggling work and school, or are dealing with family issues.”

Similarly, all first-year students are assigned an adviser in the Career Services Office (CSO). This person works with them to help determine what area of law they want to practice and to develop a plan and a timeline for achieving their career goals. CSO advisers also offer information about networking and professional development opportunities, particularly those for diverse and underrepresented students — the American Bar Association’s Judicial Clerkship Program (JCP), for example. 

This three-day experience, which Southwestern pays for its students to participate in, encourages judges to consider diverse students for judicial clerkship positions. 

“[JCP] allows the law students to explore legal issues, do legal research, but most significantly, have face time with judges. It’s designed to bring judges and minority law students together through structured networking and educational activities,” says Shahrzad Poormosleh, Esq., associate dean of career services. She says Southwestern has supported the program for the last three years, which has included paying for students’ airfare and accommodations. “That’s an example of [us] not only saying we’re committed to diversity but actually [putting] the financial … resources behind it,” she adds.

Students at Southwestern
Students at Southwestern

According to Dueñez, a large number of Southwestern’s students are the first in their family to attend graduate or law school — a population that the school does its best to support. Every fall, the Diversity Affairs Office invites all first-generation students, faculty, alumni, and administrators to attend its First Generation Mixer, where they discuss the challenges and benefits of being a first-generation law student. The event helps current students connect with on-campus resources and develop connections with people who’ve had similar experiences and can provide assistance.

For these and other students, CSO offers a comprehensive career guide that provides them information about a variety of professional and networking opportunities such as career fairs, conferences, clerkships, externships, and scholarships. It includes timelines, eligibility requirements, and application samples to make pursuit of these experiences easier. The guide also provides detailed information about available diversity-related opportunities, which Poormosleh says are very competitive. 

“With respect to the diversity-based opportunities, we do our best to actively engage our students, make them aware of the resources, guide them through the process, and ensure their application materials are competitive,” Poormosleh explains. 

“The fact of the matter is, law school is high-stakes and high-pressure, no matter your background,” she adds. “All the while, your academic career and employment search are parallel — they take place at the same time. Our goal is to be a strong source of support as students navigate through it all.”

Alexandra Vollman is the editor-in-chief of INSIGHT Into Diversity. The University of Houston Law Center is a 2016-2017 HEED Award recipient. Southwestern Law School is a 2012-2017 HEED Award recipient. This article ran in our July/August 2018 issue.