I have the opportunity to run a pre-law program at the New Jersey Institute of Technology that is unique in two ways. First, it resides at a tech university. Second, this university is one of the top twenty most diverse research universities in the nation. This presents distinct challenges and opportunities. Being at a tech school brings in students who may have only considered going to law school in recent years—they didn’t necessarily have family or cultural heroes who were lawyers. More likely their heroes were chemists or biologists or doctors or engineers. Only later did they discover an interest in patent law, health care law, digital crime, or intellectual property. Being diverse means that even those students who may have long sought out a profession in the legal arena may not have the resources or connections to ensure an easy application process. Many of our students are first-generation college students. Many are first-generation Americans. Many work jobs part- or full-time in addition to their studies. Many provide their families with a substantive portion of their household incomes. Our students are amazing. But because they lack a long-term interest in law school and extensive connections with the legal field, our students sometimes need to be introduced to the legal profession.
This has led us to innovate to provide stopgaps for some of our students’ worst disadvantages, though we are always looking for additional resources. We bring many speakers of all kinds to campus; everyone in the pre-law major must have an internship; we advise the Pre-Law Society on campus; we set up mentors for all incoming students; and we have provided a one-day LSAT prep course taught by professional tutors. But I think one of our most important programs is to offer a one-credit course titled “Professional Development in Law.” The idea behind the course is that students will have every component they need to apply to law school in place by the end of the semester—the spring before their senior year. This course started in the spring of 2013 as a workshop—but attendance and participation was voluntary. Students participated enthusiastically at the beginning of the semester. By the end, attendance slowed to a trickle. So we proposed the workshop as a course and added some pedagogical heft. Readings now include some basic chapters on logic, instructions on how to read a legal brief, sample personal essays, etc. Instead of every other week, we meet in three-hour blocks for the first six weeks of the semester. Students work a little harder, since they know they’ll get a grade. Mostly, however, it looks the same.
The layout of the six-week course is simple. The first day begins with an introduction to the basics—what LSAC is, what applying will look like, what resumes should look like, how to pick schools to apply to, and how to consider whether the debt they will face is worth it or not based at least in part on Michigan’s debt wizard. The next week is a primer on how to write a personal statement and how it would compare to a diversity statement. The third week, we take a full practice LSAT exam. I try to be as mean and discombobulated as the real proctors. It’s not such a stretch for me, so it works out. Then the next week, we workshop each student’s personal statement draft that they’ve written in the interim. Students have turned out to be each others’ own best critics. They are gentle, kind, and mostly right on the money about their suggestions. The next week, I present some basic LSAT preparation advice, and we work through some LSAT logic game questions as a group. Some students have already taken the LSAT, and they prove to be much better tutors than I am. We also go over some basics about writing a legal brief to provide students with the tiniest bit of confidence going forward—they WILL get into law school and therefore they will need to know this. Finally the last week they submit a portfolio to me—it includes a receipt for registering for LSAC or an LSAT exam, a resume, a list of schools they plan to apply to, three sample LSAT scores, a personal statement, a diversity statement, any addenda, and drafts asking professors and internship supervisors to be their letter writers. They then consult with me about the final product, getting last minute advice and a calendar—about when they should be getting back to me over the summer with new drafts.
In sum, our students are helping each other get into law school at first because we make them in class and via mentoring, but later because they want to. This fall, the New York Times published a piece on why historically black colleges and universities are better—statistically and in real numbers—at getting black students into medical school than more elite institutions. One of the things the Times cited as making the difference is a real investment by students in each other. The students are taught and take heed that they owe it to each other to get each other into medical school. It’s a template we accidentally stumbled over and as yet enact imperfectly. But even though the HBCU model shows how much more we have to work for, students’ impressive dedication to the process in our “Professional Development in Law” class has already shown us that our students are each others’ own best resource. Our job is simply to facilitate that.