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Students who once might not have thought that they could become lawyers are aiming for legal careers and gaining the skills they need to get into the nation’s most prestigious law schools through a program at the University of Texas at El Paso. Started as a pilot program in the summer of 1998, the Law School Preparation Institute introduces students to legal concepts and helps them develop analytical, critical reading and writing skills. The institute also prepares students to take the LSAT and helps them develop ways to become more attractive law school candidates. “We were concerned our students weren’t getting into the quality of law schools that their academic achievement would warrant,” says Dr. Robert Webking, a UTEP political science professor whose efforts led to development of the program. Webking and Dr. William Weaver, co-directors of the institute, collaborated with officials at the University of Texas School of Law to develop a program that helps minority students get into law school and prepares them for the vigorous courses they will face once they are accepted. About 70 percent of the undergraduates at UTEP and more than 80 percent of the students participating in the institute are Hispanic, Webking says. “While the program is open to all students regardless of ethnicity, it addresses the needs of minority students by encouraging students who might otherwise never aspire to a legal career,” Webking said at a July 10 meeting of a UT System Board of Regents committee. One reason that law school officials have been interested in the program, Webking says, is because they see it as a way to get the diversity they want in their schools without taking into account ethnicity in admissions. A 1996 decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hopwood v. Texas prohibits racial preferences in law school admissions in this state. The UTEP program is drawing praise from law school deans who see it as a way of overcoming the problems Hopwood has created. “It is the most promising innovation that I know of in the United States in terms of increasing diversity in the law schools and the bar,” says Mike Sharlot, outgoing dean at the UT Law School. “It takes students whose background doesn’t include professional experience and acclimates them,” says Frank Newton, dean of Texas Tech University School of Law, another institution that works with the program. “It really is a top-notch model,” Newton says. The institute’s success is showing up in the number of UTEP graduates who are gaining access to major law schools. Of the 33 students who completed the program last year, 27 applied to law schools this fall and 25 were accepted by at least one school, Webking says. Twenty of those students were accepted by law schools ranked among the top 50 in the nation, compared to an average of seven UTEP graduates a year that were admitted to top-50 schools over the past decade, he says. Webking says major Texas law schools, including UT, Texas Tech and Southern Methodist University, made offers to the students. Offers also came from well-known institutions outside the state, including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, Duke University, Northwestern and Boston College, he notes. Sharlot says 11 students from the El Paso program were offered admission to the UT Law School for the fall. UT expects to enroll eight of the students, seven of whom are Hispanic, the institution reported. “If we lose someone to Harvard or Columbia or Duke, far be it for me to say that’s a bad deal,” Sharlot says. Webking says the institute provides a two-month program during the summer. Ideally, students attend the first month prior to their junior year and the second month prior to their senior year, but a student can participate in both phases in one summer, he says. To sharpen their analytical skills in the first stage of the program, students study writings of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato that focus on the issues of law and justice, Webking says. At that stage, he says, the students also analyze and write about selected cases and learn how to develop arguments. The program’s second phase includes intensive preparation for the LSAT and an introduction to legal analysis, Webking says. Webking and Weaver, also a UTEP political science professor, teach a number of the courses. UT law professors also teach courses, and the Texas Tech law school sends a law student to assist with the program. David Sokolow, one of the UT law professors involved in the program, teaches a class on contracts that he says is designed to make the students think, not just memorize rules. As part of the class, Sokolow says, students analyze the New Hampshire Supreme Court’s 1929 decision in Hawkin v. McGee, often referred to as “The Case of the Hairy Hand.” The case involves a plastic surgeon’s promise that he can make a boy’s scarred hand perfect, but instead makes it hairy. The New Hampshire court calculated the damages owed to the boy for his damaged hand in the same way it might calculate damages if a machine had been damaged, even though a hand cannot be replaced like a piece of machinery. Sokolow says he uses the case, which was featured in the movie “The Paper Chase,” as an example to get students to consider that even courts might use faulty reasoning. “I’m not just teaching them about the law of contracts,” he says. Webking says first-year funding for the program came from UTEP and contributions made by the UT, Texas Tech, SMU and Baylor law schools and the Texas College of Probate Judges. The State Bar Association provided a $50,000 grant to help fund the program in the second year, he says. The institute now operates under the sponsorship of the UTEP Center for Law and Border Studies, which was created and funded by the Legislature last year to promote education and research on legal issues of importance to the region. Newton says the success of the UTEP program could be duplicated at other institutions but cautions that it will take money to do it. He says a voluntary pre-law program will not achieve the same results and that funding is needed to provide scholarships for students and compensation for faculty. “There’s not just magic in the formula,” Newton says. SCHOLARSHIPS AWARDED Texans are among the 20 minority law school students awarded the first American Bar Association Legal Opportunity Scholarships that ABA President William G. Paul of Oklahoma City established in August 1999 to help increase the number of racial and ethnic minorities who enter the legal profession. One of the scholarships went to Belinda G. Marin of San Antonio. Marin attended St. Mary’s University and will attend law school there. Another scholarship recipient is Rogelio J. Valdez of Arlington, who attended the University of Texas and will attend Southern Methodist University School of Law. Joined by his wife, Barbara, and his firm, Crowe & Dunlevy of Oklahoma City, Paul began the scholarship fund with a $100,000 contribution. The $1 million fund-raising goal set by Paul has been exceeded with contributions from individuals, law firms, corporations and ABA entities, according to the ABA. “It is gratifying to have so many ABA entities and firms join in this fund drive to such an extent that we are able to award 20 scholarships in this first year after the fund was established,” Paul says. “The generosity of contributors is proof that the profession realizes that it is extremely important that minorities are represented in the legal profession to ensure that everyone in the United States will have access to justice.”

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