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When Luis Oliva woke up to the bleak surroundings of a jail cell the morning of Sept. 9, 2005, the aspiring law student realized he was on the brink of losing everything he had worked so hard to accomplish. The night before, he brandished a knife to steal a fellow student’s cell phone, which he said he needed in order to call for medical help for his brother. That action, which Oliva calls the result of “clouded judgment and bad decisions,” led to felony charges of armed robbery and assault, which he plea-bargained down to misdemeanor charges of theft under $500 and second-degree assault. Oliva, 23, is now on probation — and still hoping to become a lawyer. The University of Maryland senior was enrolled in a summer program set up by the D.C. law firm Sutherland Asbill & Brennan that is intended to provide minority students with an intense curriculum meant to prepare them for law school and, consequently, increase diversity in law firms. But Sutherland didn’t know about the incident with the knife when it admitted Oliva to its program, and the firm only became aware of the crime when contacted by Legal Times. The firm is standing behind Oliva. “We try not to judge people here,” says Sutherland associate Thomas Bundy, who served as a mentor to the program’s participants. He adds that, based on the ambition he has seen Oliva exhibit, he’s confident he’ll have a successful future. Still, Bundy concedes he was “surprised, shocked” to learn about Oliva’s run-in with the law. When admitting students to the six-week program, which ended July 12, the firm did not conduct background checks; rather, it relied primarily on academic history and recommendations, he says. And Bundy points out that, earlier in the summer, Oliva interned in the office of D.C. Superior Court Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby and she hired him even with the misdemeanor charges on his record. Still, the program’s architect, Allegra Lawrence, a partner in Sutherland’s Atlanta office and chair of the firm’s diversity committee, says perhaps the firm should start performing background checks on Sutherland Scholars applicants. A ‘STRESS BUSTER’ After that summer night, Oliva says, “I just turned to a period of introspection, and this is when I thought about all of my friends who had gone through problems and how I almost became one of them.” He adds, “I was able to recognize my potential and that I didn’t want to lose everything.” Ironically, the evening before the incident started out on a high note for Oliva, who had gone out to celebrate a fellowship he had just been offered by the nonprofit organization CASA of Maryland ( National Court Appointed Special Advocate Association). Oliva says his parents, who immigrated to the United States from Peru shortly before he was born, 23 years ago, have always emphasized the importance of education. Growing up in Hyattsville, Md., in an area he describes as “a pretty bad neighborhood,” Oliva learned early on that realizing his goal of becoming a litigator would require an extraordinary level of dedication. “I’ve been working since I was 14 years old, and I’ve seen how it is to live without an education,” he says. That realization is why the financial economics major wanted to participate in the Sutherland Scholars program, even though his plate was already full caring for a 6-year-old son and working a full-time job. Oliva calls the program “a big stress buster.” He has a year left at Maryland but explains: “Now when I go to law school, I’m prepared; I know what to expect. I’m ready to sit in class and be as proactive as possible.” LOOKING AHEAD That’s where Sutherland came in. Lewis Wiener, a partner in Sutherland’s D.C. office, coordinated with Lawrence to expand Sutherland Scholars, which started in the firm’s Atlanta office, to its Washington locale. Twenty-two students attended four-hour class sessions two nights a week in the D.C. office. During the classes, Wiener says, one of his primary goals was to have the students interact with a cross section of attorneys working in different areas of law. “It wasn’t until I got to law school that I even began to understand the array of options that were available to me when I would graduate,” says Wiener. Rugi Jabbie, 24, another of this year’s participants, says the program calmed her nerves about having to settle on the type of law she wants to practice. “I thought it was important to define before I came in, but then when I came in, I realized I don’t know where I’ll end up, because I heard so many ideas,” explains Jabbie, who recently graduated from Widener University in Pennsylvania. Sutherland Scholar Roberto Medrano, 21 and a senior at Howard University, says: “Prior to the program I just knew I wanted to go to law school. I didn’t know what it was all about, what to expect, what to look forward to.” When the time comes for Oliva to apply to schools, he says he’ll primarily have to consider the issue of cost versus quality. But the question remains whether or not the choices he made the morning of Sept. 9 will jeopardize his chances of acceptance. Andrew Cornblatt, dean of admissions at Georgetown University Law Center, says Oliva’s charges would not be instantly disqualifying but would certainly be taken into consideration. “In a place like Georgetown, where we have so many more qualified applicants than we do places, obviously we would prefer someone who doesn’t have that on their record,” he says. Had Sutherland known about Oliva’s past to begin with, Lawrence says the firm would mainly have had to consider whether a bar would license him. “If the answer is yes, then I guess we would admit him,” she says. After all, one of the program’s goals is to find potential Sutherland attorneys. The secretary of Maryland’s State Board of Law Examiners, Bedford Bentley, explains that when reviewing a case like Oliva’s, “you’d need to weigh the credibility of the applicant and the circumstances.” “I suspect that this would at least trigger a hearing before the character committee,” he says. Bentley explains that any findings the character committee decides deserve further consideration would be reported to the board of examiners, but the Maryland Court of Appeals would make the final decision. A LEG UP Oliva, though, says that since being charged, he’s redoubled his efforts to become a lawyer, and participating in Sutherland Scholars was another way for him to get a leg up. “I’m sure that this isn’t going to slow me down,” he says. “I’m just going to keep working, and my grades are going to reflect what I’m capable of.” He says he’s always been interested in social justice and decided to become a lawyer after working with several nonprofits. Although Oliva enjoyed interning at organizations such as CASA of Maryland and Ayuda, which both advocate for low-income and immigrant Latinos, he wasn’t convinced he’d be able to contribute enough to the Latino community by working with grass-roots outfits. “I see a big change coming in the future, as far as Latino politics go,” he says. “There’s been a boom of immigration. Latinos need lawyers. They need judges out there who can represent them.” Sutherland initially aimed to recruit 20 Howard University students for the program, but it had space left to accept participants from Widener, the University of Maryland, and Clark Atlanta, so it ended up with 22 participants. Sutherland’s Bundy, a Howard alumnus, says his desire to mentor the Sutherland Scholars students primarily came from his observation that “diversity at large law firms like Sutherland is a problem.” He continues: “I wouldn’t be as naive to say that everything has changed and there’s no more discrimination or barriers that exist in this profession. The wheels move slowly.” The American Bar Association reports that minority enrollment in law schools increased from 15 percent to 20 percent from 1994 to 2004, and the firms represented in the National Association for Law Placement’s 2005-2006 Directory of Legal Employers state that, collectively, about 4.6 percent of partners and 15.6 percent of associates are minorities. Oliva says one of the most beneficial aspects of the program was hearing practicing lawyers from a wide range of backgrounds recount their personal experiences. “Some people, of course, follow the plain track, which is just finish undergrad and go straight to law school. But then you have people who were working full time, have children along the way, you know, have taken different paths,” he says, explaining that hearing these more unconventional stories was reaffirming for him. Oliva’s path, by his own admission, has been different from that of most aspiring lawyers. But he refuses to let last summer’s incident lessen his commitment to reach his goals. And for now, Oliva says, “I’m just trying to be the best man I can for my son.”
Marisa McQuilken can be contacted at [email protected].

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