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Saturday, September 22, 2018

Academics & Research

Law Center: Legal field demands, benefits from diversity


The University of Houston Law Center fosters diversity by providing resources to underrepresented, low-income and first-year students. | Corbin Ayres/The Cougar

Tiffany Tucker isn’t your stereotypical lawyer, but she didn’t let that stop her from succeeding at an old-fashioned New York law firm. She’s energetic and gregarious, not stoic. At least that’s what a first-year law student of Indian descent told her at orientation after realizing she, like Tucker, could practice law without changing her own unique personality.

The assistant dean for career development wants similar underrepresented students to know everyone is welcome, and she isn’t alone. Faculty and students at the University of Houston Law Center work to promote different perspectives by making sure all students get their foot in the door.

“I mentored a lot of students who were unrepresented in the field, who didn’t feel like they had a place, who didn’t feel like they could walk into a majority establishment and be taken seriously,” Tucker said. “We want everybody walking in the door to understand they have a place in the legal field.”

UH founded the Law Center, one of its 13 academic colleges, in 1947. Since then, faculty have implemented programs such as student organizations and career development programs to help underrepresented students enter the legal field.

Changing dynamics

Assistant Dean for Admissions of the Law Center Pilar Mensah said diversity covers more than just racial and ethnic differences. They look at prospective students’ sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, place of origin and more.

“One of the reasons I think it’s so important in the law school setting, even more than other programs, is because of the dynamics and the way classes are taught,” Mensah said. “If we have a very homogeneous class of the same type of person, you wouldn’t get those different perspectives, you wouldn’t be able to have those debates.”

Law school professors don’t lecture the entire class period. Students have open ended discussions where they learn to argue both points of view — an essential skill for a successful lawyer, she said.

Though diversity is not a deciding factor, only a contributing one, Mensah said the Law Center is committed to reflecting Houston’s diversity.

Cody West, president of the Black Law Students Association at the Law Center, said having students with different perspectives adds more to the conversation.

When people hear about the Black Law Student Association, West said they think it’s mainly for African Americans. That’s not the case.

“We’re an inclusive organization who have members who are white, Asian, middle easterners, who don’t believe in Jesus Christ, who believe in Allah and who believe in no god,” West said. “I think that’s important, because whenever you have an organization and have people of different backgrounds, that also can kind of allow you to gauge things from another view.”

‘There’s a place for them’

Tucker said the Law Center helps unrepresented groups by giving them the resources they need to advance professionally.

“We got quite a few programs that are focused on different areas of underrepresented students in the legal profession to help get their foot in the door,” Tucker said.

The Career Development Office is accomplishing this through the Lavender Career Fair and Conference, Sunbelt Minority Recruitment Program, IMPACT Career Fair and Houston Bar Association Minority Opportunities in the Legal Profession.

The Houston Bar Association MOLP program, for example, allows students to apply for positions reserved for underrepresented minorities by connecting them with potential employers during their first summer.

Although the Law Center made progress by implementing different programs, Tucker said the biggest change has been the attitude of incoming students. She wasn’t asked to scrub away things that make her different, Tucker said, and new students are coming in believing they don’t have to.

“They’re starting to believe there’s a place for them no matter who they are and no matter where they want to go,” Tucker said.

Though the Law Center wants to promote diversity, West said they have to do more than just seek out a diverse pool of applicants.

“The law school can want to improve diversity as much as they want, but they can’t expressly say they’re only going to consider race,” West said.

The Law Center attracts applicants of color, but if their GPA and LSAT scores don’t meet the requirement, there’s not much the University can do, he said.

However, the Law Center can make sure these unrepresented groups have the resources necessary to prepare for law school, he said. One way the school has done this is through the Pre-Law Pipeline program.

In its fourth year, the pipeline program gives low-income, underrepresented and first-year students a better shot at being accepted into law school with prep courses aimed at raising their GPAs, LSAT scores and introducing them to the profession.

Tangible benefits

Tucker said employers always had an incentive to promote diversity: money.

“Legal employers typically see how diversity affects their bottom line,” Tucker said. “Their clients want to see themselves in their products, their business, and they want to see that their service providers understand them.”

Clients push for members of their legal teams to reflect the diversity seen in their own customers, she said.

Diversity impacts their bottom lines, Tucker said, because people from “every walk of life” are making and spending money.

Businesses want to maintain a sense of loyalty with their customers, and they achieve this only by showing that they understand them, Tucker said. The demand for diversity has been there for companies, but the benefits go far beyond monetary ones.

“When you don’t have people in those places to enact change, to understand the law, how it impacts people differently, then it’ll stay the same, and you may never understand how it could be applied in a different way by different people,” Tucker said.

To get the full objective of the law, Tucker said a wide variety of people need to pay attention to it.

Different perspectives help communities by fostering honesty and ensuring an even application of the law, she said.

In a press release, Leonard Baynes, dean of the Law Center, said the school’s alumni have historically pioneered in their communities.

Justice Ruby Kless Sondock, who graduated in 1962, became the first women to serve in the Texas Supreme Court. Raul Gonzales, a product of the 1966 graduating class, went on to be the first Latino in the Texas Supreme Court.

“Our important legacy of diversity and inclusion, along with our forward-thinking programs and initiatives, work to make the Law Center a thriving community for individuals of all backgrounds,” Baynes said.

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