Cecilia Zhou, a first-year Chinese-Canadian student at Emory University School of Law, wants to be a lawyer. But “in large part, I am still clueless as to what lawyers do,” she said.
Legal education company PracticePro, founded by a Big Law ex-pat, is trying to reduce that uncertainty for diverse law students such as Zhou. The organization is partnering with law firms and in-house departments for its 1L Diversity Scholar Program, a mentorship program intended to develop diverse legal talent beginning in the first year of law school.
Zhou was one of the first-year law students who convened at the San Francisco office of Latham & Watkins Friday to meet with Bay Area lawyers for career training and coaching.
“Little things like today, it was just so much more eye-opening, it also makes me more excited and validated, like I can see myself doing this,” Zhou said.
PracticePro is a legal education company that offers career training and career coaching specifically for diverse and first-generation attorneys and law students. This year’s 1L Diversity Scholar Program admitted around 50 first-year law students from schools around the nation.
“I wanted to start them as early as absolutely possible,” said Niki Khoshzamir, who founded the company about four years ago after leaving her Big Law career. Before founding PracticePro, Khoshzamir was an intellectual property litigator. She worked at Kirkland & Ellis, and then Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr.
Khoshzamir lived in Tehran, London and Vienna as a child, before immigrating to the U.S. at the age of 19 to pursue a legal career. As an immigrant herself, Khoshzamir said she can relate to the challenges minority attorneys face in the legal profession.
“If the individual has not developed the right skills to advocate for themselves, to learn, to figure out how to learn what they need to learn … a lot of them are just exhausted,” said Khoshzamir. “If you have always had to fight since you were a child, by the time you get to Big Law, you are exhausted.”
According to Khoshzamir, nearly 250 first-year law students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds applied to the program this year. The 50 accepted scholars are invited to attend one of three career conferences in March held in Houston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
The San Francisco career conference is the most popular one, Khoshzamir added.
Silvia Francis-Bongue, a first-year student at Ohio State Law School who attended the San Francisco event, said she has already started researching opportunities for law students in the Bay Area.
“I knew that going to Ohio for law school will put me at a little bit of a disadvantage coming back to the Bay Area,” Francis-Bongue said.
Francis-Bongue’s mother is Columbian, she said, and she grew up speaking Spanish. A lot of what she heard at the conference was not new information, she said, like the importance of work-life balance. “But it always helps to have those [lessons] reaffirmed,” she said.
“You hear these things all the time in law school, but actually having someone who is practicing it successfully say those things … I think it really drives it home,” she said.
In addition to the full-day career conference, each scholar has opportunities to stay in touch with law firm partners or in-house corporate counsel for mentorship and employment recommendations throughout the year. The program’s partners include Google and VMware, as well as a dozen law firms.
The firms are: Haynes and Boone; Latham & Watkins; O’Melveny & Myers; Wilmer; Cooley; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Alto Litigation; Baker Botts; Chasnoff Mungia; Crowell & Moring; Ferrari & Associates; Fenwick & West; Hanson Bridgett; Jackson Walker; McDermott Will & Emery; Morrison & Foerster; Ropes & Gray; and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati.
The conference in San Francisco wrapped up with a keynote speech by Amy Fliegelman Olli, the general counsel of VMware. Besides offering students the career advice she has learned over the past 30 years, Olli also reminded the group that a legal career “is a marathon—there will be ups, there will be downs.”
“Don’t hold yourselves to untenable standards,” Olli said. “It is really a journey, it is not a sprint.”