July 01, 2012
A charter school melds local pipeline efforts
By: Roy Strom
On July 30, 2009, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of a small group of lawyers opening a legal-themed charter school fell by the wayside.
The state legislature passed a bill that raised a cap on the number of charter schools allowed in Illinois.
A charter school that stressed the legal profession and the critical thinking skills it requires now seemed possible for students in Chicago's poor neighborhoods.
"We just decided why not now? Why wait?" said Sam Finkelstein, one of the founders.
And he didn't. Two weeks later, Finkelstein gave his notice that he planned to leave his job as program director of the Just the Beginning Foundation, a pipeline program started in Chicago, and open Legal Prep Charter Academies.
What ensued — three years of planning, negotiating and fundraising — brought Finkelstein in contact with dozens of influential people dedicated to improving the diversity of Chicago's future legal community.
"You run into the same people over and over," Finkelstein said. "It's the same group of people … that are really, really committed to the pipeline initiatives."
Some of those lawyers who also sit on the school's board of directors and advisers said the need for better-connected pipeline programs remains huge because the flow of diverse lawyers into the profession amounts to a slow drip.
The Chicago Lawyer 2012 Law Firm Survey shows the percentage of blacks and Latinos working in law firms remains far below their representation in the wider population.
Of the 3,128 attorneys in Illinois at the 10 largest firms in the survey, about 4 percent are black and 2.5 percent are Latino. Asian-Americans accounted for 5.8 percent.
Of the 8,787 attorneys in Illinois at all firms that provided demographic data, 3.3 percent of attorneys are black and 2.5 percent of attorneys are Latino. Asian-Americans accounted for 5.3 percent.
Meanwhile, the 2010 U.S. census says black people made up 12.6 percent of the population in 2010, while Latinos represented 16.3 percent. Asian-Americans made up 4.8 percent of the population.
Legal Prep, or any pipeline program acting on its own, can't match the legal minority numbers with their standing nationally. Finkelstein said the key to improving those statistics lies in fostering the connections between pipeline programs and the people who run them so that students stay connected to the legal community from middle school all the way to law school.
"You might inspire somebody to eventually be motivated enough to get there on their own," he said. "But if you want a true pipeline, it really does have to fit together."
Finkelstein and Legal Prep sought support from lawyers working in all areas of the legal community — law schools, firms, bar groups and corporate legal departments — and developed plans to bring students to Legal Prep, aid them as they attend the school and follow them as they head off to college.
For example, Les Lynn, director of programming at the Chicago Debate Commission, works to not only inform students in low-income neighborhoods that they can work in the law, but he also sharpens their critical thinking skills through his commission. He plans to expand the debate league to Legal Prep.
Sheila Maloney, assistant director for the center on negotiation and mediation at Northwestern University School of Law, works as director of Chicago LegalTrek, which helps diverse college students prepare for law school through a 10-week course at Northwestern. She expects Legal Prep alumni to attend the program.
Legal Prep opens this fall in Garfield Park with a class of 240 freshmen. The story of how it began serves as an example of how a group of people joined forces to strengthen and expand Chicago's diversity pipeline.
Robert Johnson, managing counsel at McDonald's Corp., said he can barely remember when he met Legal Prep co-founders Finkelstein and Rather Stanton.
"It seems like I've been involved with them forever," he said.
Forever, perhaps, in terms of their efforts to open Legal Prep. They met in 2008 at a Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO) event, he said.
"They just started talking to me about Legal Prep, which back then was just an idea," Johnson said.
But soon, the idea "became infectious," he said. When he told others about the plans for a legal charter school, he said they concluded "it was just a no-brainer."
"The need is there," he said. "Our profession, from a diversity standpoint, from an inclusion standpoint, from a pipeline standpoint, we're struggling. We really are."
Stanton said pipeline efforts need to connect more strongly between middle school, high school and college programs to meaningfully shrink the gap between the percent of diverse lawyers in the legal field compared to the general population.
"We fit in kind of uniquely in all three of those realms and we want to partner with all the people who are doing different things at those different levels," he said.
So, when it came to finding sponsors for the school, he said he and others connected to the school approached lawyers from all corners of the legal industry.
"We don't want this to be the 'Law Firm A' school," Stanton said. "We want this to be the legal community school."
On the corporate side, Johnson said he began supporting Legal Prep by inviting Finkelstein and Stanton to events he spoke at so they could give presentations about Legal Prep.
"They will get up and do their thing, and invariably, two or three, or a dozen or so lawyers will say, 'Hey, sign me up,'" said Johnson, who now serves on Legal Prep's board of directors.
Mary Richardson-Lowry, a partner at Mayer Brown who served as president of the Chicago Board of Education from 2010 to 2011, proved vital in getting Legal Prep off the ground, Stanton said.
"It was under her tenure (in January 2011) … that we were formally approved," Stanton said.
Richardson-Lowry said she quickly bought into the idea and noted the importance of engaging "a cross section of the legal community."
"I think the strategy was actually spot on," she said. "You can't rely just on law students. You can't rely just on law firms. You have to bring all of them together and demonstrate that we, as a law community, have a vested interest in diversity moving forward."
In reaching out to Chicago's law school community, Finkelstein worked with his wife, Maloney, the director of LegalTrek.
Stanton and Finkelstein also knew Rory Smith, director of the diversity and outreach program at The John Marshall Law School, through their work at the Just the Beginning Foundation.
Smith and Maloney both became heavily involved and now serve as directors at Legal Prep. Josie Gough, from Loyola University Chicago School of Law, serves on the advisory board.
Stanton said the school hopes to find 18 law firms, schools or corporate departments to sponsor groups of 14 students at the school.
The school asked firms, corporations and bar associations to make a three-year commitment worth $10,000 a year or more. After that, the school will be self-sustainable from government funding, he said.
As of the end of May, the school listed 16 various law firms, corporations and bar associations as major financial contributors. Stanton said that number continues to grow and the school also gets in-kind contributions of time, materials or other expertise from various legal community sources.
Lynn, from the Chicago Debate Commission, said Finkelstein reached out to him last summer and asked how academic debate, a close proxy for the skills needed by lawyers, could be used at Legal Prep.
"It's a perfect match," Lynn said.
He jumped at the chance to add a school of 240 legal-focused students to Chicago Debate League's current roster, which includes 77 public elementary, middle and high schools, its website says.
The more schools that participate in the debate league, the more students, like Brandon McNamara, can catapult the experience into a successful, post-high school career.
McNamara, a 2009 graduate from John Marshall Harlan Community Academy High School who Lynn said excelled in debate, received scholarship money to attend Northwestern as an undergraduate.
"Debate was an important kind of mechanism or vehicle for him to have access to a highly selective university like Northwestern," Lynn said, adding that McNamara intends to go to law school.
Debate serves as an effective tool for widening the pipeline because it cultivates critical thinking and analytical skills, Lynn said. Those skills, while they exist in urban, low-income students, often go unnoticed, he said.
"A lot of kids with low-income backgrounds, where they don't have a family of professionals and their parents didn't go to college, let alone professional school," Lynn said, "they're not in an environment where those kinds of skills are called upon and debate shows them that they have (those skills)."
Lynn and Finkelstein planned to create a Legal Prep debate team this summer that would integrate with the Chicago Debate League when it starts in August, Lynn said.
In addition, Lynn said Legal Prep might participate in a growing trend of using the debate structure in a classroom setting — Lynn calls it curricular debate.
"The key aspect is engaging another point of view, instead of writing or speaking as a solitary voice," Lynn said. "And the connection to debate is pretty clear, because debate is this process of one side contradicting the other and each side thinking critically."
About six Chicago public schools currently use curricular debate, Lynn said. But it appears to be gaining traction at the federal, state and municipal level.
In June 2010, Illinois adopted portions of the Common Core State Standards, the Illinois State Board of Education website says.
A new set of math and English teaching, grading and reporting methods, the Common Core represents the state's attempt to modernize its education regimen, the website says. It involves stressing a set of skills needed in today's economy as opposed to what students needed in 1997, the last time the state updated its standards.
Those standards "give a lot of emphasis to argument from evidence and analyzing complex informational texts," Lynn said, noting those skills prove important in pursuing a legal career.
As high school students move on to college, programs like LegalTrek help them with the realities of considering law school: Studying for the LSAT, applying to law schools and getting a better feel for what being a lawyer really means.
Maloney, who serves as the program's director, said despite the fact that "college is a pretty diverse place these days," law schools lack a large presence of diverse students.
"We're just not seeing that matriculation into law school the way we should … so we're trying to plug that hole, stop that leak in the pipeline," she said.
One rather large leak stems from students' perception that law school costs create a barrier far too large to even attempt to scale, she said. Still, the legal community cannot afford another generation in which diverse lawyers remain vastly underrepresented.
"We see a lot of multigenerational families continuing in the profession," she said.
"We have a lot of lawyers' kids in law schools. … Why can't we be a more inclusive profession and have bus drivers' kids?"
One way to lower the odds facing inner city students comes from providing them a better high school education. She said Legal Prep will provide that.
"That's why Legal Prep exists," she said. "It's not like we really need another school. We woke up and said, this is almost criminal, to have a student enroll in a high school where only 4 percent of the students are at state standards."
Many of LegalTrek's college students come to the program with stellar debate records, great personal skills and excellent interview abilities. But their college grades come up short, Maloney said.
"We look at their college grades, and we say, 'Wow, you've got great essays, you did great in mock trial, but you've got C's your first year, a couple D's, what happened?' " she said.
So, on law school applications those students with poor college grades spend time "having to explain away" why their grades "don't reflect their true potential," Maloney said.
If inner city high schools provided better preparation for college, as she expects Legal Prep to do, LegalTrek students could be showing off their skills in applications, rather than providing explanations for any deficiencies.
On another level, she said the mentoring relationships that Legal Prep plans to develop between attorneys and students will raise students' career expectations.
"They'll say … I was mentored by somebody who went to Harvard Law. Or I was mentored by somebody who went to University of Chicago or Northwestern, and those are really selective schools, but I think I can get in there,'" Maloney said.
"Whereas right now, when we talk about some of the selective schools with these students, their eyes glaze over like they can't even conceive of themselves being at some of these places."
Developing relationships with successful lawyers will help students realize that "your background does not dictate your future," Maloney said.
When Finkelstein and Stanton began pursuing Legal Prep, they left behind jobs at the Just the Beginning Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit that connects students from low-income neighborhoods with legal professionals.
John Marshall "has been a tremendous partner" with the foundation, Finkelstein said. And through that partnership, Finkelstein and Stanton found a natural Legal Prep supporter with John Marshall's Smith.
Smith said the school, along with the foundation, will help support a "cohort group" of students that the Illinois Law and Leadership Institute (LLI) plans to follow throughout their high school and college career.
Smith helped establish LLI. John Marshall hosts the program, sponsored by the Illinois State Bar Association. He also serves on the board for Legal Prep.
Last summer, LLI hosted its pilot program and developed its initial cohort group, whose progress will help track the pipeline program's effectiveness, Smith said.
At LLI, a three-week, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., program at John Marshall, the students wrote an analytical book report, learned through the Socratic Method and took a practice standardized test at the end of the week, he said.
"Rigor is really important," Smith said. "Students will rise to the challenges that you give them. And the expectations that you have for them are what they will live into. And if you tell them that they can do something, then they believe that they can do it."
The rigorous schedule of the LLI's summer program comes from Beth Bulgeron, who leads the curriculum for the program and also serves as chief academic officer at Legal Prep, Smith said.
Paula Hudson Holderman, the incoming president of the Illinois State Bar Association, pushed to create the program, which will enter its second year this summer with a new program in southern Illinois, Smith said.
Apart from supporting the group of students at LLI, Smith said John Marshall plans to fund partial tuition waivers for law school to Legal Prep students who compete and perform well in debate competitions.
"There is a real opportunity for interaction between the students and law professors and the high school and its students," Smith said.
Bill Lowry, managing shareholder at Nyhan, Bambrick, Kinzie & Lowry, said when pipeline programs work together, results occur.
For example, this summer, Lake Forest College graduated the first class of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students whom it gave scholarships to as part of the Chicago Scholars program started in 2008, said Lowry, a trustee at the college.
Out of the 18 Chicago Scholars from that inaugural class, 15 graduated in May, Lowry said.
Before the program started, less than 100 CPS students applied to Lake Forest each year, school data indicates. This year, 628 CPS students applied. From 2004 to 2007, an average of three students from CPS graduated from the college each year, compared to the 17 (two came to the school outside the Chicago Scholars program) this year, data says.
While that program does not focus on providing a legal education, he said it serves as an example of how a diversity initiative can "extend the ladder" for diverse students to reach higher education levels.
"I believe the students that we have at Legal Prep, like the students that came in at Lake Forest from CPS, will help foster needed diversity now … in high school, and ultimately in college, like at Lake Forest, and law schools after that and the workforce," he said.
Working in one program at one rung on the education ladder won't make a significant increase in diversity in the legal field, Lowry said. So, he helped foster a relationship between the president of Lake Forest and the dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law, where he serves on the diversity council.
"They've got a relationship, and we're certainly doing everything we can to make sure those two schools are working in a way where there's a continuum there, and I see that also happening down the road between Legal Prep and Lake Forest," Lowry said.
Johnson, from McDonald's, said a better connected pipeline, and the increase in legal diversity it will drive, proves important because of the weight of lawyers' role in society.
"I think that would change the tenor and tone of our profession and change the tenor and tone of the dialogue in this country, because like it or not, lawyers wield a considerable amount of influence," he said.
Apart from leveraging relationships, Finkelstein said well-connected pipeline programs can stretch their donations further. That allows for more students to join the pipeline and fewer get left behind at any level of education.
"I think there's a really big push, now especially, to make the programs more cohesive," he said.
"That has not always been the case, and I think what people found is that if you didn't connect the pipeline, it isn't really a pipeline," Finkelstein said.