Program offers pre-law look for area students

By Debra Talcott

Legal News

When young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are given hope for a better future, it benefits the students themselves, the professions they enter, and society as a whole. That is why pipeline programs, particularly those designed to increase diversity in the legal profession, are so important. That is also why Cooley Law School is on a mission to continue current support and generate new support for two successful pipeline programs: the Just the Beginning Foundation (JTBF) High School Summer Legal Institute and the ABA Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) College Prelaw Summer Institute.

For the past two years, Cooley has offered a month-long, pre-law institute for college sophomores and juniors at its Auburn Hills campus in June.

The College Pre-law Summer Institute is a partnership with Oakland University and the ABA Council on Legal Education Opportunity. The institute provides approximately 100 hours of intensive academic instruction in logic and critical reasoning, torts, legal writing, trial advocacy, and LSAT preparation.

Last year, 20 students from 16 colleges and universities across the country attended the summer institute free of charge and earned stipends of $750 each to compensate for lost summer income.

Founded in 1968 as a nonprofit project of the American Bar Association, the CLEO program has the goal of "training tomorrow's lawyers and preparing tomorrow's leaders."

CLEO helps minority, low-income, and otherwise disadvantaged students gain admission to law school, matriculate, and pass the bar exam. To date, more than 3,000 attorneys nationwide can say they began their training through CLEO. Currently, lawyers of color comprise only 10 percent of the profession. This statistic must change in response to Census Bureau projections that a majority of U.S. citizens will be people of color by 2042.

State Bar Director of Diversity Gregory Conyers explains that a more diverse bench and bar are needed if the profession is to be representative of the population it will serve.

"The legal profession, both nationally and in Michigan, continues to lag behind others in terms of being diverse and inclusive," Conyers said. "It is important that improvements occur for many reasons, including the changing demographics of our country and the impact diversity in the profession has on respect for the rule of law. The old model of diversity welcomed people to the profession in spite of their differences. Inclusion requires welcoming people because of their differences. Bringing diverse perspectives to the table is key; it has proven to be the most effective way to problem solve and reach the best results-which is really at the core of practicing law."

The CLEO program is one way Cooley supports this initiative. When last summer's program was in jeopardy because of federal budget cuts, Cooley sought alternate funding in order to continue the program. Fortunately, local bar associations, sections of the State Bar of Michigan, and private law firms rose to the occasion and contributed more than $15,000 which, together with substantial funding from Cooley and Oakland University, was enough to save the program.

"The generous support we received demonstrates the breadth of support for these programs," says Cooley-Auburn Hills Associate Dean John Nussbaumer, who serves as co-chair for the State Bar's new Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Committee. "We received funding from the State Bar Young Lawyers, Business Law, Law Practice Management, and Health Law Sections; the Michigan Association of Corporate Counsel; the Oakland County Bar Association; the law firms of Clark Hill, Jaffe Raitt, Miller Canfield, Plunkett Cooney, and Warner Norcross; and the Arab American Bar Association, Association of Black Judges of Michigan, Detroit Metropolitan Bar Association, Federal Bar Association for the Eastern District, Hispanic Bar Association of Michigan, Straker Bar Association, and Women Lawyers Association of Michigan-Oakland County Chapter."

Cooley Associate Professor Chris Johnson and Nussbaumer see pipeline programs as an important way to combat the growing disparity between diversity in the legal profession and the community the profession serves. Johnson and Nussbaumer recently authored a Law Review Article titled, "The Door to Law School" (published in the Fall 2011 volume of the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth Law School Roundtable Symposium) to discuss the implications of this disparity.

"Nearly half of all Hispanic law school applicants and nearly two thirds of all African American law school applicants were denied admission to every ABA-accredited law school to which they applied compared to just about one third of Caucasian applicants," says Johnson. " If this trend continues, it will only exacerbate the growing disparity between the diversity of the legal profession and the society it serves, which is becoming more--not less--diverse. This will lead to a crisis of confidence in the ability of our profession to adequately serve that diverse society."

Johnson considers it incumbent upon all lawyers--regardless of their background--to support pipeline programs in order to help the profession remain relevant in the 21st Century.

"So, I want to once again thank all of the firms and organizations that contributed to our programs last year. They clearly understand, as I hope all reading this do, that we need to let these young students ride on our shoulders into our profession-just as many of us rode on the shoulders of others."

Similar to the CLEO pipeline program for college students is the Just the Beginning Foundation (JTBF) for high school students, which was started by Nussbaumer and U.S. District Court Judge Victoria Roberts last year. This program is a partnership between the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Cooley, and Oakland University, with support from the State Bar Young Lawyers Section; the law firms of Dickinson Wright, Miller Canfield, and Plunkett Cooney; and the Federal Bar Association and Straker Bar Association. JTBF is responsible for the week-long High School Summer Legal Institute that was held at the federal courthouse in Detroit last July. Area high school students met with volunteer attorneys and judges, visited the federal court, participated in a mock trial, presented oral arguments, and attended workshops on college readiness and business networking.

"The hope is to connect these kinds of high school programs to college programs to law schools and, ultimately, into the profession," says Nussbaumer.

This year, Johnson and Nussbaumer are pleased to announce that thanks to Howard Bell, executive director of Pre-Law Programs at Kaplan Test Prep Services, Kaplan will provide low-income or otherwise disadvantaged high school students who successfully complete the JTBF program with a free ACT/SAT prep course to help even the college admissions playing field for these young men and women. In addition, Kaplan will provide a free LSAT prep course to each low-income or otherwise disadvantaged student who successfully completes the CLEO Prelaw Summer Institute. Johnson, Bell, and Nussbaumer have also discussed future plans that could include other law-related programs during the school year, mentoring initiatives, and assessments of the progress and performance of students moving through the educational pipeline on their way to law school.

"These kinds of concrete programs hold out the best hope for opening the door to law school or other professional careers for students who otherwise might never even consider them or have the opportunity to pull themselves up out of poverty to a better life," says Nussbaumer.

Published: Mon, Feb 6, 2012