Building the Diversity Pipeline for the California Bar

“I never thought of being a lawyer until I started law academy and here I am graduating from college,” stated Asia Thompson, former DeAnza High School Law Academy graduate and new admittee to the University of California Los Angeles School of Law. Asia was a student at one of the first six law academies that started as a partnership between the State Bar of California and the California Department of Education (CDE) in 2011. These law academies joined the California Partnership Academy (CPA) model as the state bar’s first “boots on the ground” effort to diversify California’s legal profession in a minority-majority state.

“Lawyers and judges of color lagged far behind their numbers in the general population,” said Judge Judy Johnson, then-executive director of the State Bar of California. “The bar knew it had to do something that changed that paradigm.” The six new law academies started the journey that would culminate in today’s California LAW Pathway, which spans a 10-year educational pipeline from ninth grade to law school.

Building the educational diversity pipeline became the responsibility of me as a former member of the State Bar of California Board of Governors and the chair of chaired the Pipeline Task Force, a project that jump-started the pathway that led to the creation of the Council on Access and Fairness (COAF), which serves as the bar’s diversity think tank, and Patricia Lee, the bar’s special assistant for diversity outreach, a position created by Johnson.

California Partnership High School Academies

Using the CPA model ensured that more than half of each law academy classroom would be students of color and that our partnership with the CDE would ensure a sustained program through state funding and ongoing oversight and administration through the CDE and local school districts. In 1986, the first CPAs were created through provisions in the California Education Code. Among other items, the statute required that each classroom be at least 50% “at risk” students, and only public schools of 350+ students could create a CPA. The statute defined an “at risk” pupil as one who is at risk of dropping out of school, as indicated by at least three of the following criteria:

  1. Past record of irregular attendance. For purposes of this section, “irregular attendance” means absence from school 20% or more of the school year.
  2. Past record of underachievement in which the pupil is at least one-third of a year behind the coursework for the respective grade level, or as demonstrated by credits achieved.
  3. Past record of low motivation or a disinterest in the regular school program.
  4. Disadvantaged economically.
  5. Scoring below basic or far below basic in mathematics or English language arts on the standardized test administered pursuant to Article 4 (commencing with Section 60640) of Chapter 5 of Part 33.
  6.  Maintaining a grade point average of 2.2 or below, or the equivalent of a C minus.

These requirements ensured that a majority of the participating students in the law academies would be from diverse backgrounds, which aligned with the bar’s goal of increasing diversity in the legal profession along the diversity pipeline, without violating limitations in California’s Prop. 209. (Proposition 209, adopted by California voters in 1986, amended the California Constitution to prohibit public institutions from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.)

With close to 500 Partnership Academies in 15 career pathways throughout California, the bar chose this model to give diverse students an introduction to law-related careers. Today, 22 high school law academies are in existence, with a student population of close to 3,000 per year. Volunteering for these law academies are 1,500 lawyers/judges working directly with students on advisory councils, as mentors, speakers, curriculum specialists, internship sponsors, and providing other hands-on experiences that give students a realistic view of careers in a law pathway. The curriculum starts in 10th grade with an introduction to law and policy and culminates in the senior year with a capstone project or detailed report and presentation highlighting the students’ academy experience and accomplishments. In 2018, our first high school law academy class had graduates like Asia applying for law school.

Pathway to Law Project

In 2014, Thuy Thi Nguyen, chair of COAF’s College and Law School committee and then general counsel of Peralta Community College District (now President, Foothill De Anza College), introduced the 2+2+3 Pathway to Law project to the COAF (two years of community college plus two years of undergrad plus three years of law school). The rationale supporting this pathway was 1) community colleges had the most diverse student population, and 2) a more complete pathway would connect the high school law academies to college and law school to build a 10-year pipeline. The Pathway was launched on Law Day 2015 with 24 community colleges. Inaugural classes started in the fall of 2015.

The pathway program was launched with the purpose of diversifying the legal profession and enabling students to pursue their dream of a legal degree. It is now a coalition of the 22 high school law academies, 26 community colleges, eight law schools and their respective undergraduate universities. Law schools include UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UCLA, University of Southern California, University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University and Loyola Marymount. The pathway program currently has 258 graduates, 700+ enrolled community college students, and 3,000+ high school students. California LAW (Leadership-Access-Workforce) houses the pipeline.

The pathway’s required seven-course pattern is based on “success factors” of effective lawyers—a seminal research conducted by professors Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck from UC Berkeley School of Law and UC Berkeley undergrad. The curriculum includes the following courses:

Required Courses

  1. Street Law, Street Law-based, OR Law and Democracy
  2. English Composition
  3. Critical Thinking
  4. Argumentation and Debate OR Persuasion
  5. Statistics
  6. S. History
  7. Introduction to American Government

Recommended Elective Courses

  1. Service/Civic Learning
  2. College Success

The courses were identified from the already approved courses in corresponding Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum (IGETC) areas and part of the ADT Law and Public Policy emphasis for California state universities. Students in the program receive assurances that credits in the seven-course pattern will transfer and will provide early exposure to the law school experience, individual advisement and mentoring from law school advisors, financial aid counseling, LSAT preparation and waived application fees for admission to the participating law schools. The curriculum is designed to prepare students for law school and the legal profession prior to transfer.

The majority of California’s population is from racial minority groups, while members of the state bar are only 20% racial minority. The legal profession continues to lag behind almost every other profession in the country. The community college system has the most diverse student population of the three public post-secondary education systems in California, with approximately 60% students of color. Many promising students leak out of the pipeline from community college to law school because of lack of support, mentoring, financial resources, and information about what is needed to gain admission to law school.

The Law School Admissions Council (developer of the LSAT) conducted a national study in 2008 and concluded:

  • Students starting at two-year institutions tend to succeed in law school as well as students who start at four-year institutions. The challenge is getting them to apply successfully.
  • Increasing recruitment efforts at two-year institutions may positively impact the diversity of future applicant pools.
  • To improve the likelihood of law school admission for applicants starting at two-year institutions, more attention might be given at two-year institutions to developing logical reasoning, reading comprehension, and analytical reasoning skills.

Each community college partner has an advisory council of volunteer judges and lawyers. Professional development is provided to faculty members at the annual summit with previous topics such as implicit bias and law curriculum.

The 24 community colleges were selected among 40 community colleges that applied. The selection committee was chaired by then-director of undergraduate admissions for UCOP. The community colleges were selected based in large part on their commitment to serve diverse communities and their record of transferring students of color and students from low socio-economic backgrounds to four-year undergraduate institutions. As a consequence, the initial cohort of community college partners was even more diverse than the state average (69% to76% for Pathway Students vs 64% to 69% Statewide Community Colleges); and had higher student equity transfer rates to UC schools than the state (41% vs 23%).

In February 2018, the law pathway convened again with an MOU signing ceremony and expanded the coalition with additional law schools, high school law academies, and AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). Today, the program is a coalition of 22 high school law academies, 26 community colleges, 8 universities, 8 law schools, and AVID. The pathway program currently has 258 graduates, 700+ enrolled community college students, and 3,000+ high school students.

The pathway, even in its infancy, is already witnessing tremendous success and showing high potential for greater impact statewide. For instance, the majority of the high school law academies are California Partnership Academies, which are known for closing equity gaps even greater than the state’s. Even then, the academies are outperforming other CPAs. For example:

  • 87% are underrepresented minorities (URMs)
  • 98% graduation rate
  • 55% of seniors plan to attend community college

UC Berkeley School of Law, on its website announcing its recent participation in the law pathway program, speaks to the confidence in the scaling up of the program.

“This is a terrific program to help those in California, often those from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds, pursue a career in law,” says Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky. “The program has proven its success and I’m pleased to have Berkeley Law join it.”

In 2016, a generous grant from the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) funded the creation of California LAW (Leadership-Access-Workforce), a non-profit organization that connects, coordinates, communicates, and collaborates with all pipeline partners. Bringing together the high school law academies with the 2+2+3 project created the California Law Pathway, a 10-year diversity educational pipeline.

Kent Lollis, Diversity Director at LSAC, said, “We were delighted to fund a program that directly focuses on a pipeline of diverse students and aims to bring them into the legal profession.”

This is California’s answer to diversifying the future of the legal profession in a state that has more than 60% population of color with only 20% lawyers of color. Women lawyers and LGBTQ lawyers also are not represented equally. The needle towards greater diversity and inclusion has moved, but sometimes at a glacial pace. With these participating academic entities and the strong support of the legal profession, the goal is to change the face of the legal profession to more closely reflect the population that it serves. We see this as an excellent, sustained partnership that can be replicated among the various states nationally to increase the diversity pipeline into the legal profession.

(Note: Partners in the California Pathway to Law include – The California Department of Education, the Foundation for California Community Colleges, the Community College Chancellor’s Office, The University of California Office of the President (including University and Schools of Law at Irvine, Los Angeles, Berkeley and Davis), University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University, University of Southern California and Loyola Marymount University. For a complete list of individual schools, please see )

About the Author

Ruthe Catolico Ashley is the executive director emeritus of California LAW, and was the first president and CEO of California ALL, another nonprofit organization with the mission of increasing diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. She is a member of the ABA Board of Governors and is chair of the ABA’s Public Education Committee, and also chaired the Women of Color Committee for the Commission on Women and the Council on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline.

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