Discover Law Program at Rutgers Law-Camden Inspires Diverse Undergraduates

LSAC calloutSometimes you listen to the voice saying you can’t, and other times you listen to former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

A group of 25 undergraduate students from various backgrounds is hearing from dozens of accomplished professionals, including O’Connor and homeless-person-turned-tax attorney Nikki Johnson-Huston, about how their law degrees have harnessed them as women and people of color during a four-week intensive and inspiring summer program at Rutgers Law–Camden, designed to diversify the legal profession.

Thanks to a three-year, $300,000 grant from the Law School Admission Council, these diverse college undergraduates from all over the country are participating in LSAC Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars Program at Rutgers–Camden, a rigorous residential prelaw initiative now through July 3.

One of just five law schools in the nation offering this program, Rutgers Law–Camden is working to promote the success of students whose racial and ethnic groups are under-represented in the legal profession.  The packed itinerary includes a legal analysis and writing class, frequent networking opportunities with diverse lawyers and judges, and guidance with the law school admissions process.

“There is value in diversifying the legal profession in terms of such measures as socioeconomic status, race, and sexual identity,” says Jill Friedman, director of pro bono and public interest programs at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden and co-director of the Discover Law program. “We want to identify students from these backgrounds who have the interest and the potential and give them the tools they need to succeed.”

Scholars were chosen from a pool of 90 applicants who have expressed an interest in law and have completed one or two years of undergraduate study. They are being introduced to the various aspects of law through a rigorous academic program with an emphasis on legal writing. Rutgers–Camden law faculty instruct sessions and cover topics like bioethics, civil rights, legal analysis, oral advocacy, persuasion, intellectual property law, and torts.

“We want the students to realize what law school is really like, so the core of the program is a rigorous academic program where they’re writing case briefs for class and persuasive brief-style pieces, just as a law student would do,” says Angela Baker, associate dean of students and career planning at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden and co-director of the program.

The program also involves field trips to courthouses and law firms and meetings with lawyers, which Friedman says helps the students envision themselves in the roles of judges and attorneys. Professional outings included the National Constitution Center, Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, the Federal Courthouse in Camden, and the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Bar Quarterly Meeting Luncheon, featuring keynote Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“It gives them a chance to see people from different backgrounds in the profession,” Friedman says. “They get to meet people who have faced challenges similar to their own.”

Brigette Forte, a Rutgers–Camden criminal justice and sociology major, says the program has convinced her to pursue law school after graduation.

“The reason why I wasn’t sure if I’d go to law school is because I didn’t think I was equipped to handle it,” says Forte, who is from Cape May. “Listening to multiple voices from diverse backgrounds has made me think otherwise, especially Sandra Day O’Connor, who talked about how the law has progressed in diversity and equality. I want to be a part of what they started.”

Manire Vaughn, a criminal justice and human services major from Saint Mary’s University in Minnesota, says he came here for geographic reasons. “I was in Camden last year through the Romero Center,” says the Chicago resident. “I came back because I want to see the other side of Camden, the advocates and policy makers, and how the law school plays a role in that.”

For Nija Davis-Pedlar, a double major in political science and public justice at SUNY-Oswego, the program has helped her come closer to what area of law she’d ultimately like to practice.

“It’s opened my eyes to all the avenues open in law,” she says. “I especially liked listening to Nikki Johnson-Huston talk about how she overcame so many struggles to get to where she is now,” continues Davis-Pedlar, of the Philadelphia tax attorney who overcame poverty. “I learned from her that your background doesn’t define you, you define you.”

At the close of the program, the students will argue a fictional case in the Rutgers–Camden moot courtroom in front of real judges and attorneys.

“We don’t want to sugarcoat it and make it seem like it’s easy to go through law school,” says Baker. “We want to give them a realistic experience and show them that if they are up for the challenge, they can handle it.”

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