Students are starting to pack their summer suitcases – they're busy deciding whether to take their blue or red swimsuit, whether they want to drink mojitos in Bermuda or Bud Lite Lime at the Jersey Shore. One group of students, on the other hand, is packing up their notebooks and pens to spend their summer in Buffalo.
This summer, SUNY Buffalo Law School is collaborating with the Minority Bar Association of Western New York and the University at Buffalo's Millard Fillmore College to create an undergraduate Summers Scholars Program for underrepresented minorities. This program aims to diversify the pool of law students and aspiring practitioners while increasing the number of minorities in law – a number that has statistically dropped through the years.
"If we want to increase the number of minorities in law school and in the attorney profession, we have to target them early on, and we have to develop an interest and prepare them," said Jessica Lazarin, member of the Minority Bar Association.
The program isn't just about increasing the statistics of minorities in law school. The UB Scholars Program is creating an opportunity for 20 freshmen and sophomores from many different backgrounds – they may be first-generation college students, have financial or family issues, and/or have children to care for.
The four-week program begins June 2 and lasts until the end of the month. Students will have a set regimen, beginning with early morning check-in, law topic lecture, a schedule block dedicated to the practice of writing and research skills, strategies, and ethnography. Monday through Friday carries a full workload, with Saturdays, Sundays, and any extra free time set aside for extra preparation.
The students don't have to worry about how this is getting paid for or how they'll be able to keep an extra couple dollars in their pocket. All program costs are covered and each participant will be receiving a $900 stipend. With focus being solely on the program, the students enrolled are expected to be stimulated.
Minorities are frequently underrepresented in the legal field. Most students of law and attorneys have fellow law graduates in their family. That's a factor that makes a great difference in familiarity, according to Academic Support and Student Services Manager Francine Nicholas.
"Those students who do have lawyers in their family have a better understanding of what lawyers do and what law school requires," Nicholas said. "Someone who didn't have that circle of influence may have not even of thought about law school, even though they could be perfectly able to go to law school and succeed. It just never would've occurred to them."
Academically, students are required to have a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or above to participate in the program. This requirement is not exactly set in stone; there's some leniency depending on the circumstances of the applicant, according to Lazarin.
"That's kind of just a bench mark, but it's certainly not a cut off," Nicholas said. "We'll look at…their life experience, any challenges that they've had to confront, any economic hardships that existed that they needed to overcome, work experience, did you finance your education, any special talents…like leadership skills or communication skills."
From 1992 to 2005, minority enrollment in law school declined 8.6 percent, with an even greater decline after 2005, according to Lazarin.
Theories that attempt to determine the reason for this drop of minorities in law have cited exams, standardized tests, and lack of confidence as core reasons. Because of this, the UB Scholars Program has administered practice tests to eliminate anxiety and plans to show that applicants are capable.
The Scholars Program has also gained the attention of UB Law professors James Wooten, Michael Halberstam, Charles Patrick Ewing, and David Engel. Each professor will be teaching in their own specific schedule block to increase the skills of students and prepare them for tasks ahead.
The professors involved chose to do so on their own accord.
"I think it's a really valuable program that serves a good purpose," Wooten said. "[It'll be fun to] give them some skills that'll help them succeed if they decide to pursue law as a career."
This opportunity can dramatically increase the level of minorities in law. With such low numbers, each applicant could make up 10 percent of a minority class. The program could also serve to create role models that can influence other minorities. With the deadline for applications being March 16, there's plenty of time to make a difference.
"It's our job as minority attorneys to encourage and to show them that I'm just like you," Lazarin said.
This recognition of similarities aims to build a comfort zone and hopes to help minorities create a splash in the field of law.