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Providing Access to Success

Our new minority scholarship fund strives to increase diversity in the legal profession 

By Lee Smalley Edmon
Lee Smalley Edmon is president of the Association.

This President's Page was originally published in the April 1999 issue of 
Los Angeles Lawyer.

One of the most gratifying experiences I have had as president of the Association-and there have been many-is witnessing the generous outpouring of support for our new Minority Law Student Scholarship Program. In early March, the fund-raising effort, led by Ron Beard, had just begun, yet we had already raised more than $100,000, and I expect that we will receive much more. There is still time for you or your firm to participate. 

The Los Angeles County Bar Association has historically served as a leader in the efforts to achieve equal opportunity for racial and ethnic minorities in the legal profession. In 1989, the Association adopted goals and timetables for the hiring and advancement of minority lawyers in law firms, recommendations that a high percentage of area firms adopted. The Association was also one of the founding sponsors of the California Minority Counsel Program, whose mission is to increase opportunities for minority attorneys in the assignment of corporate legal work. 

While no one can deny that great progress has been made since the early 1960s, when the bar was mostly white, there is still a large disparity between the demographics of our community and the demographics of our bar. The recent drop in minority enrollment in University of California law schools has served as a stark reminder that we have a long way to go before the diversity in our communities is reflected in local law schools and the profession. In light of these hard facts, we initiated discussions with local law schools and other bar associations to see what could be done. As a result, the Association established a minority scholarship program as an incentive for qualified minority students to accept offers of admission at the five accredited law schools in Los Angeles County: UCLA, USC, Loyola, Pepperdine, and Southwestern. 

The Decline in Diversity 

The class that entered law school in 1997 was the first at the University of California law schools to be affected by the board of regents' 1995 Resolution SP-1, which prohibits the consideration of race, ethnicity, religion, color, sex, or national origin in admissions or the awarding of financial aid. Of course, since then Proposition 209, which prohibits discrimination or preferential treatment on the basis of race, ethnicity, color, sex, or national origin in public education, was voted into law. 

Starting in 1997, the UC law schools experienced a significant decrease in offers of admission to African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, and Native Americans.1 For example, at Boalt Hall, the new policy resulted in an 80 percent decrease in the number of African Americans and Native Americans admitted (15 African Americans compared to 74 in 1996, 2 Native Americans compared to 10 in 1996). More troubling, none of these students chose to enroll. The admission rate for Chicano and Latino applicants fell by more than 50 percent (38 compared to 83 in 1996), and only 7 of the admittees enrolled. 

UCLA did not fare much better. In 1997, there were only 10 African Americans in UCLA's 380-student entering class; in previous years, they numbered between 19 and 47. Chicano and Latino admissions declined by 32 percent. Minority admissions at UCLA continued to plunge in 1998. For example, from 1997 to 1998 there was a 40 percent decline in the number of Latinos and a 20 percent drop in the number of African Americans admitted. 

As lawyers living in perhaps the most diverse community in the nation, we simply cannot ignore the impact that this trend could have on our profession and our legal system if not reversed. No matter how vehemently we may proclaim that our legal system provides equal justice to all, those statements fall on deaf ears if the lawyers and judges who serve in it do not reflect the nation's diversity. In a recent issue of the ABA Journal devoted to race and the law,2 a clear picture emerges of the vast credibility gap that divides the races in their confidence in our legal system. 

As our nation's population becomes increasingly diverse, so too does the face of corporate America. Indeed, many corporate clients may require diversity at the law firms they engage, making diversity a business necessity for many firms. The decrease in minority law students therefore is generating even more competition among private firms for high caliber, diverse associates. Until recently, UC law schools educated approximately 20 percent of the nation's minority attorneys. That large pool is now significantly smaller. 

The Association's Response 

Our local law schools urged us to create a scholarship program that would encourage minority students to apply and enroll in Southern California schools. A similar program implemented last year by the Bar Association of San Francisco succeeded in helping to increase minority applications and enrollment in Bay Area law schools for the 1998-99 school year. According to the BASF's executive director, Drucilla Ramey, the award of a BASF scholarship seemed to be the catalyst in getting an applicant to accept an offer of admission from a local law school. Letters written to the BASF by scholarship recipients, such as this one by Amber Garza, helped persuade us how important this project can be: 

I live below the poverty line-meaning by all accounts, my family and I should be only barely surviving. The poverty line is about a lot more than just economics and income. It is also about access-to education, to pride, to hope, to support, to things that most of my peers at college take for granted. Most people with whom I grew up never get out from under the weight of this line….I am one of the lucky ones-I got out. I was able to achieve this through a combination of fate, hard work, and circumstance. I attend an Ivy League school while most of my high school friends are still in my town, taking care of their young children and working at minimum wage jobs.…I had the opportunity to end a cycle of despair and poverty, so I was able to cross this line. The Bay Area Minority Law Student Scholarship offers another opportunity to continue this journey. It is a key factor in allowing me to pursue my legal education.3 

Earlier this year, we formed the Minority Law Student Scholarship Advisory Committee, chaired by Ron Beard of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Those joining the committee included Don Daucher of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker; Rich Fybel of Morrison & Foerster; Chris Leong of the California Department of Real Estate; Karen Randall of Universal Studios; Sally Suchil of Spelling Entertainment; Tom Unterman of the Los Angles Times; Jack Walker of Latham & Watkins; Bob Siegel of O'Melveny & Myers; Carlton Varner of Sheppard, Mullin, Ritchter & Hampton; and me. 

Starting with students admitted this spring to enter law school in the fall of 1999, the Association will enclose a letter in every notice of admission sent to a minority applicant by the five Los Angeles County law schools. This letter will invite these students to apply for a $5,000 scholarship ($2,500 per semester) for which they will be eligible only if they enroll at one of the five schools. The letter emphasizes the Association's historical commitment to diversity and our interest in having those future law students attend a local law school and practice law in our community. The scholarship application, in addition to requiring an official transcript and financial need information, requires a 500-word personal statement on the "obstacles, if any, you have overcome in pursuing your education and what qualities and talents you would bring to the Los Angeles legal community." 

A separate Application Review Committee, chaired by Tomas Lopez of Ochoa & Sillas, will review the applications and choose the scholarship recipients. (The BASF received 195 applications for its scholarships last year and awarded 25.) Scholarship recipients will be informed of their selection and asked to confirm their acceptance of the scholarship and their intention to matriculate at a Los Angeles County law school. Scholarship recipients will be invited to attend the Association's installation dinner on June 24, 1999. We will honor both the scholarship recipients and those who contributed to the scholarship fund at the event. 

The response of the Association's membership has already been overwhelming. Our deepest appreciation is in order for the following law firms and corporations, which have agreed to fund one or more scholarships: 

  • Atlantic Richfield Corporation          
  • Dewey Ballantine LLP          
  • Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP          
  • Katten Muchin & Zavis          
  • Latham & Watkins          
  • McClintock Weston Benshoof Rochefort Rubalcava & MacCuish LLP          
  • Morrison & Foerster LLP          
  • O'Melveny & Myers LLP          
  • Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP          
  • Sempra Energy          
  • Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP          
  • Sidley & Austin          
  • Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

Scholarship contributors will also have the opportunity to provide a mentor for a scholarship recipient, if they choose to do so. 

There Is More to Do 

We are not so naive as to believe that these scholarships alone will achieve the level of diversity we need, but we know that they will help. Just as the California Minority Counsel Program and the Association's minority hiring and retention goals help. Just as mentoring programs help. Just as the efforts to identify and recruit judges by affiliated specialty bars-such as the Black Women Lawyers Association, the John M. Langston Bar Association, the Mexican American Bar Association, and the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association-help. 

You too can help. To find out how you or your firm or corporation can participate, please contact Gracie Lee at (213) 896-6407 or by e-mail at glee@lacba.org. 

The statistics in this section are taken from Report of the Bay Area Minority Law Student Advisory Committee (Oct. 1998). 

2 ABA Journal, Feb. 1999. 

3 United We Stand, San Francisco Attorney, Aug./Sep. 1998, at 7. 


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