Legal aid: California helps students get from community college to law school

justice scales on table

Historically, the legal field has struggled with issues of homogeny and steep barriers to entry, but a California educational initiative aims at tipping the scales. In response to the state's traditional lack of diversity in the profession, the Community Colleges Pathway to Law School initiative provides California community college students with a clear educational track to law school with academic support along the way.

"A lot of times students dream of going to law school," says Thuy Thi Nguyen, general counsel at the Peralta Community College District. "…what we're offering is a pathway and its mentorship to come along with that, to give them a greater sense of confidence that maybe that dream is not so far-reaching."

Program pairs advising with academics

Community Colleges Pathway is a new agreement between 24 California two-year institutions, six four-year schools and six law schools, and it's slated to welcome its first class this fall, says Thuy Thi Nguyen, who is general counsel at the Peralta Community College District and who worked as part of legal team that structured the program. The project was sponsored by the State Bar's Council on Access and Fairness.

The "2+2+3" program provides students with a set of seven law-oriented community college courses, plus two electives, they'll complete as part of their general education curriculum. They'll also receive advising that's tailored to keeping them on the law track. From there, new "COAF Scholars" can transfer to a partner college or other four-year institution where they'll continue to receive specialized advising; then it's on to a partner law school where application fees will be waived for COAF attendees.

"Many times, there's not a lot of formal advising around professional schools like law school [at the community college level]," Nguyen explains. "A lot of times students don't know that, for instance, you can be any major to go to law school. … [By giving] them this sort of clear pathway to go to law school including what courses to take, it is very much the hope that they don't find themselves lost in the system."

Money matters

Increasing diversity is the real focus, but a major side benefit is the financial savings. The average student attending a public law school graduates with more than $75,000 in debt, and at private institutions that figure rises to $125,000, reports the American Bar Association. At many of the most selective law institutions, the situation gets even worse. For example, among students who borrowed funds to foot the law school bills, the average student at New York Law School carries nearly $165,000 in debt while attendees at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego are saddled with more than $180,000 on average, according to research from US News and World Report.

The situation is exacerbated by relatively recently changes in the legal job market. According to the National Association for Law Placement, only 64 percent of 2013 law grads found work that required bar passage within nine months of graduation. More than one in four were either un- or underemployed, an analysis by Law School Transparency reports.

Even for those who land good jobs, it can be difficult to find salaries big enough to pay off six figures worth of debt as clients react to more choices and tightened budgets.

"Clients are much more able to shop round for legal advice and to get stuff piecemeal in a way that they never used to be able to do," says Nancy Rapoport, a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and co-author of "Law Firm Job Survival Manual: From First Interview to Partnership." "That means that there's been a rise in the number of contract attorneys versus associates at large law firms. I think that landscape has changed permanently."

Among employed law school graduates, only about one in five landed in a firm with more than 500 attorneys, reports the National Association for Law Placement. For every Class of 2013 law school grad who got a job in a large firm, two got jobs in small firms. Which is why a program like California's that could save students substantial funds on their undergraduate education could be a tremendous help for low and middle-income students. Nguyen says that the program is working with the state bar to incorporate networking, internship and mentorship opportunities for COAF scholars to increase their job prospects after graduation.

Deciding to take the leap

Even with the undergraduate savings, law school is still pricey enough to warrant some research and soul searching before starting that educational track.

"One good thing to do would be to work as a paralegal just to get a sense of the kinds of work that lawyers do and what it's like to work at a law firm," says Michael Simkovic, an associate law professor at Seton Hall University. "… Being a paralegal will kind of give you a sense of the most routine, most dull, least interesting parts of the job of being a lawyer. If you don't find that to be unpleasant, if you're reasonably happy in the most routine, most boring, least fun parts of the job, you'll probably really like the more fun, more exciting parts of the job."

Simkovic says that a Juris Doctorate statistically pays off. Even the bottom-earning quartile of law degree holders have annual salaries that are 65 percent higher than those of bachelor's degree holders from similar academic and socioeconomic backgrounds, according to research by Simkovic that he presented at the 2013 American Law and Economics Conference.

Nancy Rapoport recommends that all undergrads eyeing law school think seriously about whether they enjoy the activities required to be a lawyer, including extensive reading, creative problem solving and detail-oriented tasks, and have a clear idea of the day-to-day work of an attorney prior to filling out that law school application.

"They have to be comfortable not thinking that every day is scenes from 'The Good Wife,'" she says.

For in-depth information about higher education in California, be sure to visit our "online schools in California" page.


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Thuy Thi Nguyen, General Counsel for the Peralta Community College District, Interviewed by the author, June 24, 2014

Nancy Rapoport, Law Professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Co-author of "Law Firm Job Survival Manual: From First Interview to Partnership," Interviewed by the author, June 25, 2014

Michael Simkovic, Associate Law Professor at Seton Hall University, Interviewed by the author, June 25, 2014

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