Andy Cornblatt, the dean of admissions at Georgetown University Law Center, was speaking on a panel for college pre-law advisers last spring when another presenter’s statistic caught his eye.
More than half of law students started thinking about pursuing a legal career back in high school or earlier, according to an extensive national survey conducted by the Association of American Law Schools and the Gallup Organization. He got to wondering, just how many minority and economically disadvantaged high school students never even consider law school because they have no sense of how to pursue that path or what lawyers actually do? Getting law school on their radar in high school could put a dent in legal education’s persistent diversity problem, Cornblatt thought.
Less than two months later, Cornblatt found himself in a Washington high school where nearly the entire student body qualifies for free lunch, talking to seniors about what it costs go to law school, the financial aid available, what being a law student is like, and the myriad career path a J.D. offers. He also walks them through a hypothetical legal case.
“I said, ‘If you want to be where the leadership is and help run this country, take a look down the street from where I live,’” he said. “Thirty-eight percent of the House of Representatives have J.D. degrees. Fifty-five percent of the U.S. Senate has J.D. degree. Forty percent of governors have J.D.s. They’re running the country. If we can get these kids interested in—and feel as though law school is affordable and doable—that’s maybe a good way to add to diversity and increase the pipeline.”
From that first visit grew Georgetown’s Early Outreach Initiative—a new program that aims to leverage the school’s national alumni base to bring Cornblatt and Georgetown law students into underprivileged high schools across the country. If the pilot program is a success next year, Cornblatt hopes to create a network of partner law schools, each visiting high schools in their own regions and building up a pipeline of underrepresented law school applicants.
The initiative is different from other programs such as StreetLaw, which sends lawyers and law students into high school classrooms to teach them about the law. Those programs have more of a civics focus rather than a specific goal of inspiring students to go on to law school, Cornblatt said.
AALS Executive Director Judith Areen said Thursday that she’s rooting for the program’s success, particularly because the Before the J.D. study found that minority students especially get on the law school track early. Of the black law students surveyed, 68 said they began thinking about law school before they got to college. That figure was 56 percent for Hispanic students. (The study also found that half the undergraduates considering law school had at least one parent with an advanced degree, highlighting the challenge law schools face in reaching first-generation college students.)
“Andy Cornblatt’s initiative of visiting low-income and diverse high schools sounds to me like a great way to increase the number of minority or economically disadvantaged students eventually going to law school,” Areen said.
Legal education has made small gains on the diversity front over the past decade, but progress has been slow. Among current first-year class, 31 percent are minorities, according to the latest data from the American Bar Association.
Cornblatt has thus far visited 13 high schools in Washington, Chicago, New York, Boston, San Jose and Los Angeles. But those one-off, hour-long sessions with high school seniors felt episodic and he worried they may not leave a lasting impression. A principal at a largely Latino and immigrant high school in Los Angeles confirmed that hunch on a visit this fall.
“He said to me afterward, ‘That was great, but I hope you’ll come back. A lot of people come visit us once.’” Cornblatt recalled. “I thought, yeah, that’s probably true.”
Thus, he developed a plan to create more sustained contact with the high schools. Georgetown has formed six regional committees of alumni and people who want to help. The committees will identify underserved high schools in their area, and next year Cornblatt will visit 25 to 30 in the fall. Then, a Georgetown student will return to those schools in the spring to meet with the same seniors. Georgetown will continue to meet annually with those same schools, and the program may expand to bring in other law schools.
Cornblatt has also started visiting community colleges, and next week the school will host 100 high school students from a nearby Maryland county to expose them to law school and the campus.
Cornblatt said he’s only starting to think through how to track the effectiveness of the program and see if participants eventually apply to law school. Ideally, they would apply to Georgetown, he said, but the ultimate goal is to set them on a path to the legal profession regardless of the school they choose.
“The whole idea here is to expand their horizons and begin this conversation,” Cornblatt said. “I know there is a lag time. They’re in 12th grade. They won’t be coming to law school for four years—maybe. But you’ve got to start somewhere.”