Aspiring lawyers with anxious faces sat at two of Pepper Hamilton's long conference tables as 25 nervously prepared to sell themselves to 25 established Philadelphia-area lawyers staring back at them from across the table.
Lani Willmar, an attendee at the June 26 event, admits speaking to strangers has never been something that comes naturally to her. As a self-proclaimed bookworm, she has always been most comfortable hiding behind a good novel — until she enrolled in the Law School Admission Council's (LSAC) DiscoverLaw.org Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program at Rutgers School of Law-Camden.
"I think I learned confidence in terms of networking and just speaking," Willmar said. "It's not so scary once you try."
Rutgers is one of five universities, including the University of Arkansas School of Law, Georgia State University College of Law, Suffolk University Law School and SUNY Buffalo Law School, participating in the program funded by a grant from LSAC. The university's second year of the three-year program came to a close July 5. According to Rutgers' website, the program's purpose is "to increase the diversity and quality of applicants applying to law school while also promoting the success of underrepresented minorities in the legal profession."
Law professor Jill Friedman, who runs the program, said she has her co-director Angela Baker, the associate dean of students, to thank for suggesting submitting a program proposal to LSAC. As directors, Friedman said she and Baker have the responsibility of planning and implementing every aspect of the program, which she described as "rigorous" and "intense."
While DiscoverLaw.org's website states that the program is targeted at racial and ethnic minorities, any college freshman or sophomore hoping to study law was encouraged to apply. Friedman said around 80 students applied to Rutgers' program this year, which the law school then narrowed down to 25. The group consists of individuals from areas across the country who applied from schools such as Saint Mary's University, Cal State and George Washington University, to name a few. Friedman said she was thrilled to have four students from Rutgers admitted into the program this year.
For four weeks, the students live on campus, take classes every day and travel to a variety of legal events — such as Pepper Hamilton's June 26 speed mentoring diversity pipeline event, Friedman said. Students were asked to prepare "elevator speeches" during which they marketed themselves as capable future lawyers to the established attorneys across the conference table.
Attorneys in attendance commented on the students' speeches, body language and overall demeanor. They emphasized some of the finer points of becoming an attorney, such as speaking concisely, demonstrating passion and treading the line between making eye contact and staring at the client.
Between classes and legal events, students learned about logical reasoning, analytical thought, oral advocacy, attention to detail, professionalism and networking, Friedman said. She said the most difficult aspect of the program for students was transitioning into thinking like a lawyer, and students found learning to dissect material in the way a lawyer typically does to be a challenge.
In addition, students got a realistic glimpse into the legal profession through a case simulation at the end of the four weeks — an invaluable aspect of the program, according to Friedman.
"We feel like learning about the law is much more meaningful if it feels real," Friedman said.
Friedman said the fictional case involved a young girl making defamatory comments online about her school's principal, which she said was a relatable topic for the students.
"When you can dig your teeth into it, [the case] comes to life," she said.
Over the course of the four weeks, students took classes that taught them about legal writing, prepared them for the LSAT and provided the students with a reading requirement comparable to that of a law student.
To date, students have responded positively to the program, and the bulk of the graduates from last year's PLUS group returned for a reunion this year, Friedman said.
Rutgers sophomore Brigette Forte said the program gave her a taste of her future in the legal profession.
"I really benefited from this program because I got to see the more realistic side to [the law], that it is an achievable goal and that I actually feel I will do well in the field of law," Forte said.
Classmate Sugeiry Betances, a sophomore at Bates College, agreed with Forte and praised the program for encouraging diversity. She said when she visits other universities, she has noticed that there are varying amounts of diversity. Therefore, college students from different cultural backgrounds should continue to foster diversity in higher education by attending law school, Betances said.
Betances made the distinction, however, that diversity is not solely a matter of race, but rather, diversity comes in many different forms that are equally important in her mind.
"There's gender diversity; there's thought diversity," Betances said. "It's important to the legal profession because the law can be a sentence. How you interpret it can be very, very different than how I interpret it based on where I come from, based on how I think."
Friedman said diversity in the legal profession poses a "huge issue." African-Americans and Latinos are vastly underrepresented, and the scarcity will create a justice gap if the legal profession continues to underrepresent minorities, she said.
However, the PLUS program helps by giving the group of diverse students concrete advice about finding and funding professional life, Friedman said. She said she works with students to help them capitalize on their diverse experiences in order to make them more appealing to both law schools and their future employers.
In addition, many of the program's speakers have come from diverse backgrounds, which Friedman said is inspirational for the students.
Students attended the Philadelphia Bar Association's quarterly luncheon with guest speaker Justice Sandra Day O'Connor — an experience that Forte described as especially exciting. In addition, Friedman said listening to Camden, N.J., Judge Charles W. Dortch's stories of growing up in the segregated South "knocked them out."
"We expose our scholars to people who have had disadvantages and who have nevertheless established themselves in very meaningful, successful careers," she said.
Rutgers sophomore Theodore Johnson said the most important lesson he has taken away from the program has not been academic, but that the speakers he has heard have taught him something greater.
"Regardless of where you come from or what your situation is, you can achieve [success]," Johnson said. "All the people that are really successful, they've had tribulations."
Kelly Flynn can be reached at 215-557-2440 or at email@example.com. •