Reflections on the Saturday Academy of Law

Carly Edelstein
J.D. Candidate 2013, UCI Law

Law schools and the legal profession are not known for their racial diversity. According to the Society of American Law Teachers and the Lawyering in the Digital Age Clinic at the Columbia University School of Law, despite the increased number of law students over the past fifteen years, the percentage of African American and Mexican American law students has decreased during that same time period. This was not difficult to comprehend in my first year of law school. One look around any classroom at UCI confirmed this research.

The Black Law Students Alliance, led by Azure’De Wilkins and Tommy McClain, was created on the premise that students should play a part in increasing the diversity of the law school student body. In addition to establishing a leadership position whose responsibility it would be to coordinate with the Admissions Office, Azure’De and Tommy asked me to create an education program through which law students could reach out into the community and share their experiences with adolescents.

With my experience as a middle school teacher for two years in the Watts community of Los Angeles, I knew that reaching students at a younger age would be critical to having an impact on the diversity levels at law schools and other similar graduate education institutions. Most of my students had never met an attorney before nor comprehended the vast range of possibilities that come with having a college degree, let alone a law degree.

After reaching out to other law student groups in the area, we formulated our approach: we would serve as mentors for high school students. To maximize our impact, we decided to work with students at a younger age. By reaching students early on in their high school careers, we hoped to inspire them to someday consider attending law school and to make sure those interested students would eventually be in a position to apply to law school. We were excited to provide students with social support and speak to them informally as mentors and friends. Rather than starting our own program, we were fortunate enough to come across the Saturday Academy of Law, which already existed as a program on the UCI main campus, devoid of any law student participation.

The Saturday Academy of Law began as a program of six Saturday morning classes focused on sharpening students’ reading, writing, and speaking skills to prepare them for higher education and professional success. Ninth grade students from Santa Ana high schools learn from real teachers, undergraduate teaching assistants, and guest speakers about constitutional law, with a focus on First Amendment law. Additionally, to challenge the pervasive ninth grade myth that all lawyers look and sound like the actors on Law and Order, the students are exposed to a range of professional opportunities within the field of law.

This was a natural starting point for a group of law students who wanted to energize high-schoolers about the law and their place in the world. What began as a mentoring hour in the fall of 2011 has transformed into an opportunity for law students and ninth graders to work closely on specific lessons related to constitutional law. Together, law students and ninth graders problem solve and strategize on behalf of hypothetical clients and consider the purpose of statutory language. They have meaningful and substantive conversations about the law as it exists today and the law as it could be in the future. Most often, law students work with the same group of four to five ninth graders each week. This allows the law students to target the academic needs of each student and develop relationships that can outlast the program itself.

It has been an honor and a privilege to lead the law student involvement in the Saturday Academy of Law over the past two years. Although we faced a number of hiccups during this time, I have received wonderful feedback from all parties involved in the program.  Law students have enjoyed interacting with the ninth-graders and come back to volunteer again and again. Perhaps the greatest pleasure I have experienced is working with the incredible groups of ninth-grade students who participate in the program each semester. These are the types of students who are eager to learn on Saturday mornings. These are the kids whose passions and excitement for learning will lead them to great successes and bright futures. These are the kids who I hope someday will end up at UCI School of Law.  These are the kids who are going to change the world.