Gateways: Programs help achieve diversity by connecting the legal 'pipeline'


 By Debra Talcott

Legal News

When the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was completed in the 1970s, it provided a reliable way to transport crude oil to refineries in the Continental U.S., thereby delivering the raw material to new destinations. Likewise, educational pipeline programs encourage high school and college students from diverse backgrounds to consider a career in the law, and they expand student knowledge about new pathways to attain their goals. 

Two premier educational pipeline programs are now well established in the Metropolitan Detroit area, the Just the Beginning Foundation High School Summer Legal Institute (JTBF) and the ABA Council on Legal Education Opportunity College Prelaw Summer Institute (CLEO).  

The Detroit JTBF program for high school students was started by U.S. District Judge Victoria Roberts and Cooley Associate Dean John Nussbaumer. It is a partnership between the Just the Beginning Foundation, Federal District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, Thomas M. Cooley Law School, and Oakland University.   Funds contributed by many law firms and various legal organizations provide Detroit-area students with a week-long opportunity to meet with volunteer attorneys and judges, attend federal court, participate in a mock trial, present oral arguments, and attend workshops on college readiness and business networking.

“When Judge Roberts and I started the JTBF program,” says Nussbaumer, “our goal was to expand the horizons of what is possible for young men and women in and around the City of Detroit to include law as a viable career path.”

The CLEO program for college sophomores and juniors and is a month-long prelaw institute held on Cooley’s Auburn Hills campus.  It provides approximately 100 hours of intensive academic instruction in logic and critical reasoning, torts, legal writing, trial advocacy, and LSAT preparation. Founded in 1968 as a nonprofit project of the American Bar Association, the CLEO program works toward 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. More than 3,000 attorneys nationwide can say their training began when they were chosen for the pipeline program. Thanks to the generous financial support of many law firms and legal organizations, this program, too, is offered free of charge to all students.

According to the most current demographic statistics available from the American Bar Association, 88 percent of America’s lawyers are white, not of Hispanic origin.  

According to the State Bar of Michigan 2013 Member Demographics Report, only 5.6 percent of Michigan’s active resident lawyers are of African origin, while 1.3 percent are Hispanic-Latino, 1.6 percent are Asian-Pacific Islander, and 0.4 percent are American Indian. 

“These numbers should be troubling to anyone who understands the increasingly diverse nature of our society and who believes in our commitment as lawyers to ensuring equal justice under law,” says Nussbaumer.  “The keys to increasing the diversity of our profession are a sustained commitment to pipeline programs like JTBF and CLEO, working to connect different parts of the pipeline to one another, and then having law schools that are willing to provide both the opportunity and academic environment that will empower students of color to succeed.”

One student who exemplifies how pipeline programs can support a student from high school into college is Odessa Murphy of Detroit. Murphy was the runner-up in the MLK Drum Major for Justice Competition, which is co-sponsored by the Wolverine Bar Association, the Straker Bar Association and the Association of Black Judges of Michigan.  Coming in second (to her twin sister Vanessa), Murphy then went on to participate in the JTBF High School Summer Legal Institute in the summer of 2012 and is now a junior at Marygrove College, where she was recently inducted into the Honors Program.

“As a young African American woman born and raised in the city of Detroit, I have experienced many obstacles,” Murphy shares.  “I was raised in a single-parent home with only one income, which was my mother’s disability check. My father is an ex-military soldier that suffers from PTSD, so it was hard for me growing up to understand why he was absent from my life most of the time.”

Murphy calls her involvement in the JTBF High School Summer Legal Institute “the chance of a lifetime.” 

“Through JTBF I got to network and meet some of the Detroit federal district court judges. I also got the unique opportunity to learn about the different careers in the legal field from many legal professionals of color,” Murphy says. “This was unique to me because growing up I never realized how underrepresented minorities were in the legal field. Attending this program really opened my eyes to how broad the field is and the important role that minorities play within it. The JTBF provided me with the resources and tools that not only educated but empowered me to pursue a career within the legal field.”

Murphy is now single-handedly connecting the pipeline by continuing her education in this year’s CLEO College Prelaw Summer Institute.

“I wanted to be part of the CLEO program because there I will gain an in-depth understanding of the skills and knowledge needed to attend law school. I also want to connect with other people interested in pursuing a career within the legal field.”

This bright young woman embraces such opportunities and appreciates the ongoing guidance and support of her mentor, Ronda Tate, president of the Wolverine Bar Association. Two years ago, Judge Roberts created a mentoring program for the JTBF students and recruited Tate to serve as Murphy’s mentor.

“Ronda Tate is one of the most inspiring and empowering woman of color I know,” Murphy says.  “She is very humble and a prestigious lawyer.  Although Ronda wears many hats within the legal field, she is always working hard and motivated to achieve more.  Ronda has given me priceless advice to help me overcome some of my toughest obstacles.”

The admiration, clearly, is mutual, as Tate was immediately impressed by Murphy’s insight and intellect when the two first met at the 2012 JTBF Summer Legal Institute.

“Her conviction and intellect were simply remarkable for a young woman of her age,” Tate says. “During our first lunch meeting, I became impressed with Odessa’s passion for social justice and her extensive knowledge of plights faced by underprivileged groups in America and abroad. She spoke with extreme fervor about our mutual desire to eradicate inequality, especially for Detroit citizens, and I knew that our connection would be a special one.”

Tate has continued mentoring Murphy by offering assistance in personal decisions about family and work that have an impact on her education and her growth.

Tate has high hopes for Murphy and the future impact she could make on society.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Odessa will successfully complete college—and law school—if she, indeed, decides to attend,” says Tate. “I hope that she will use her education to effectuate the social change that she is already pursuing through her volunteer work and internship experiences with organizations such as the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion.  I can envision Odessa contributing to society outside of our great state by working for an entity like the United Nations.”

Perhaps Murphy will continue the pipeline to the next goal by following in the footsteps of previous CLEO participants Shannon King and Rosston Ramsey, both of whom have gone on to attend Thomas M. Cooley Law School after their participation in the College Prelaw Summer Prelaw Institute.

The first in her immediate family to earn a four-year degree and now attend law school, King says she learned about the CLEO program through Cooley Professor Florice Neville-Ewell, who is a friend and business associate of her pastor.

“My pastor mentioned my desire of pursuing a law degree to Professor Neville-Ewell and she, in turn, mentioned the CLEO program to him,” King says.  “At the time I had taken the LSAT once and was studying to take it for a second time. Although the CLEO program was designed for college students, it was the perfect opportunity for someone like me (a nontraditional student pursuing a law degree as a second career) to get acclimated with law school and prepare me for the rigorous study habits and reading schedule required to be successful.”

During her time in the CLEO institute, King earned the highest grade in the class on Research and Writing before going on to earn an “A” when she took the course at Cooley. The year after being a CLEO participant, King returned to serve as the program’s lead teaching assistant.

“CLEO had been the foundation of my law school career, and when I served as the lead teaching assistant, I realized I’d gotten to a point where I could actually help others,” King says. “I experienced an immense sense of gratification knowing that I had sat in one of those very seats one year prior and was now able to help someone else realize that they, too, could accomplish their goals and dreams and perhaps be the first in their family to do so.”

King has earned the D. Augustus Straker Bar Foundation A. Kay Stanfield Spinks Law Student Scholarship as well as the Women’s Lawyer Association of Michigan Foundation Outstanding Woman Law Student Award.  She has interned with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in their child abuse unit.  She has clerked for U.S. District Judge Terrence Berg as part of the Wolverine Bar Association Summer Clerkship and Judicial Externship Program.  

“I also interned at the Miller Law Firm in Rochester Hills,” says King.  “And at the end of my internship with the firm, the founding partner offered me a part-time law clerk position, so I am currently working there while I finish my law degree.”

Rosston Ramsey, a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, calls the CLEO College Prelaw Summer Institute “instrumental” in his legal education, saying the 100-plus hours of classroom experience eased his transition to law school by lowering the anxiety that other first year students experience.

“I also believe having classroom experience provided me with a competitive edge because I was able to develop the discipline and study skills needed to be successful in law school before many of my peers,” says Ramsey.

Ramsey calls life at Cooley “the most challenging yet rewarding process” he has ever experienced.  While working full time in addition to attending law school, he makes time to participate in the Phi Alpha Delta Law Fraternity, the National Black Law Students Association, and the Criminal Law Society.

“I chose Cooley Law School for a few different reasons,” says Ramsey.  “The first is that Cooley accommodates the working professional by providing nighttime classes.  As a result, I have been able to balance both work and school successfully.  The diversity of classes also played a big role in my decision to attend Cooley.” 

Cooley Professor E. Christopher Johnson Jr., who helped Nussbaumer launch the school’s CLEO program, notes that Cooley has made a sustained commitment to the program, even though the students can and do apply to and matriculate at other law schools.

“I know of grads of our CLEO program who have been accepted at other, better known historically black law schools, such as Florida A&M, North Carolina Central, and Howard University,” says Johnson. “This kind of unselfish commitment to diversifying the profession is what’s needed to reach our common goal of a profession that is truly representative of the clients we serve.”

The benefits to the young people fortunate to be involved in pipeline programs such as these are clear. Students leave these programs with knowledge about career paths they previously might have thought were beyond their reach. They leave having worked with many positive and successful role models from the legal profession, and they leave knowing that opportunities exist for pulling themselves out of their current situation and into a better life.

As President of the Wolverine Bar Association, Tate says it best.

“Pipeline programs such as JTBF, CLEO, and the MLK Oral Advocacy Competition provide underrepresented students with positive exposure to the legal profession that they may not otherwise be afforded. In many instances, pipeline participants have never met a minority attorney or realized that they can achieve a career in the law. But through pipeline programs, they are encouraged to pursue the goal of becoming a lawyer by similar individuals who once stood in their shoes. In addition to developing their written and oral advocacy skills, these students are able to build relationships with attorneys and judges who will offer guidance and support throughout their academic and professional careers. The programs further benefit the legal profession by increasing the number of diverse and talented attorneys, which is especially important when traditional affirmative action programs are no longer available at public institutions in our state.”