Prep School Pre-law program aims to diversify legal profession

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

A few weeks ago, Shannon King could have told you she was entering law school in the fall, but she couldn't precisely have told you why.

"I just knew that I've had an interest in the law for a long time," said King, 40, who will be a first-year student at Cooley Law School.

Now that she's been enrolled in the month-long College Pre-Law Summer Institute (CPSI) at Cooley Law School in Auburn Hills, she not only knows why she's interested in a career in law, she's 100 percent sure she's making the right decision.

"Starting this program and meeting all the judges and lawyers and learning about all the aspects of the law in which they operate has made me see that lawyers have a lot of power and they use this power to help people who wouldn't ordinarily have it," she said. "They can be an advocate and a voice for people who don't have that power."

King is one of 20 undergraduate students from 16 colleges and universities across the country spending part of their summer participating in the nationally recognized CPSI.

The goal is to help diversify America's next generation of lawyers by offering students an opportunity to study the critical thinking skills necessary to succeed on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and in law school, and to hear from a variety of Michigan judges and attorneys.

"The CPSI is aimed at diversifying the legal profession by expanding legal education opportunities to students of color, low income students, and otherwise disadvantaged students," Cooley Professor Chris Johnson, who directs the school's Corporate Law and Finance LL.M. program, said in a statement.

Johnson said it's important for legal professionals to reflect the diversity of the clients they will serve, and it's Cooley's hope that this program will help increase the applicant pipeline to law school for a new and diverse group of students.

Cooley Auburn Hills Associate Dean John Nussbaumer noted that nearly two-thirds of all African American and half of all Hispanic and Mexican American applicants to law school are being totally shut-out from every law school they apply to for admission.

Programs like CPSI provide hope that one day the legal profession will reflect the diversity of the clients served, he said.

King is the only CPSI student entering law school in the fall. The others are entering either their junior or senior year of college. But the professors treat them all as if they are first year law students, she said.

"That's given me a leg up for when I enter law school in the fall," she said. "And it's really solidified my decision to go to law school."

This year's program was in jeopardy when the U.S. Congress eliminated funds to the Thurgood Marshall Scholars Program, which helps fund the ABA Council of Legal Education Opportunity. But law firms, State Bar of Michigan sections, and voluntary bar associations stepped up to provide more than $10,000 to continue the program.

Major funding comes from Cooley's Dean's Annual Fund and Oakland University.

Each student receives a $750 stipend to help defray their expenses while attending CPSI. Students will have received nearly 100 hours of instruction free of charge from LSAT Test Prep Services and Cooley faculty members on LSAT test preparation, logic and critical reasoning through classical philosophy, torts, legal writing and trial skills.

They also benefit from group panel discussions led by practicing lawyers and judges from throughout metropolitan Detroit.

King's advice to other college students considering applying to CPSI next summer?

"Go for it!" she said. "It is difficult. It is very challenging. It will challenge everything you thought you knew. It will challenge your way of studying and learning, but it's a great opportunity to see if you're really cut out for it. And to see if you can enjoy law school."

Not that King has any doubts herself. She took her first tort exam the other day and it was actually fun.

"And I've never in my life said any test was fun," she said.

Published: Thu, Jun 30, 2011