Ron Brown Center Helps SJU Pave Way For Lawyers of Color

David Brand

Queens Daily Eagle

At St. John’s University School of Law “diversity and inclusion” is more than a new CLE requirement, it’s a key part of the school’s mission to uplift young people of color who are interested in becoming attorneys.

St. John’s champions that work through the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights and the Ron Brown Prep Program, an eight-week summer program designed to introduce college students from marginalized groups to the legal community, prepare them for the law school aptitude test (LSAT) and help them overcome discrimination and other obstacles.

 Ronald H. Brown Center Prep Program students attend the 2018 program reception. Photo Courtesy of Ron Brown Center.

Ronald H. Brown Center Prep Program students attend the 2018 program reception. Photo Courtesy of Ron Brown Center.

The program’s intense internships, mentoring partnerships and frank discussions pay off for students and for the school, says Kamille Dean, the Director of Diversity and Inclusion and the Director of the Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights.

“What we love about our program, besides reaching first generation college students and exposing them to what’s possible, is we see the very direct outcomes of our efforts,” Dean said. “Donors want to see the value of their money and one concrete way is to show that all students who sit for LSATs get into ABA accredited schools and get tens of thousand of dollars in scholarships.”

Those are the tangible achievements. The intangible impact, especially for young men of color and the broader legal community, is even more powerful.

“There is a gap in the profession and in law schools and it affects African-American and Latino men in particular,” Dean said. “Firms may be actively trying to recruit people of color but they find a big underrepresentation of people of color in general, and it’s more pronounced when it comes to men.”

In 2015, the Bureau of Labor statistics reported that law is one of the least racially diverse professions in the U.S. Nationwide, with 88 percent of attorneys being white. The Washington Post reported that African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Native Americans made up just 7 percent of law firm partners and 9 percent of general counsels at large corporations. In major law firms, only 3 percent of associates and less than 2 percent of partners were black.

To help address this disparity the Law School Admission Council, which administers the LSAT exam, awarded St. John’s $300,000 to implement a three-year Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program starting this summer. St. John’s was one of five schools to receive the grant.

“We consider LSAC PLUS programs to be an investment in the future of the diversity of the legal profession,” LSAC President and CEO Kellye Testy said in a statement. “The schools that are the recipients of PLUS grants have designed programs that introduce students from diverse backgrounds to the rigors and rewards of a career in law.”

Dean said the grant enabled the Ron Brown Prep Program to further its commitment to reaching young men of color who may be ignored or overlooked by law schools.

In addition to preparing the students for the rigors of law school or the responsibilities of a law firm, the program facilitates frank, closed-door discussions between the students and men of color who currently work as attorneys.

During the session, the men discussed the experience of being the only attorney of color at a law firm, what it is like to grow up in underserved neighborhoods and how it feels to be the first person from a family to attend college.

“Young men understand they have what it takes to be successful but there are institutional barriers in place,” Dean said. “It’s an innovative answer to a perplexing problem: the shortage of attorneys of color, particularly men of color.”

Down the road, the young men will learn tools to be successful, become mentors for other young people and further the legacy of the Ron Brown Center, Dean said.

The Ron Brown Center was founded in 1999 by professors Phil Roach and Janice Villiers. In 2005, Leonard Baynes was named the center’s inaugural director and founded the Ronald H. Brown Prep Program. Baynes is now dean at the University of Houston Law Center.

Though the specific cohort funded by LSAC focused on young men of color, the program is open to all participants, so long as they demonstrate why they are disadvantaged. Dean said students come from diverse racial backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations and economic backgrounds.

Overall, 63 students participated in the 2018 Prep Program, which concluded last week. The students were separated into three levels based on their college year and received training and mentorship from several local leaders, lawyers and professors, including Dean Michael Simons, Elaine M. Chiu and Rosa Castello.

Rising sophomores — who made up the cohort of men of color funded by the LSAC grant — participated in the Foundation level and were paired with local judges, including Hon. Jenny Rivera and Hon. Genine Edwards.

Each year, rising juniors attend the Prep Program 1 level, where they are paired with attorneys and complete internships at law firms, government agencies and with corporate counsel.

Rising seniors participate in “Prep Program 2,” an intense, LSAT bootcamp. This summer, LSAT scheduling meant that, for the first time, several students were able to sit for the exam during the program.