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Hispanic Bar Association Calls for Better Law School Recruiting

Hispanic Bar Association Calls for Better Law School Recruiting


      Nelson Castillo was an unlikely candidate for law school: The son of a Salvadoran housekeeper who immigrated illegally, he was a two-time high school dropout, a gas station attendant whose primary knowledge of the law came from the television drama “L.A. Law.”

      Even after he got his act together — obtained a GED, went to community college and graduated with honors from St. John’s University in New York — he “didn’t do so well” on the law school admissions test, and most wouldn’t have him.

      Now 35, Castillo is the president of the Hispanic National Bar Association — and, he says, Exhibit No. 1 for why law schools need to do a better job of considering students’ backgrounds in recruiting and admissions. He passed the bar exam on his first try, and now has a practice focusing on immigration and real estate law.

      “My story is not unique,” he told The Associated Press during an interview as the association’s midyear meeting began in Seattle. “LSATs and GPAs play a determinative role as to who gets in and who doesn’t. Frankly, that is a pattern that has to stop, because it is leaving out a lot of individuals from participating in the legal profession.”

      Castillo used the Seattle meeting to visit the University of Washington and Seattle University law schools to discuss his ideas. He has visited about 40 law schools around the country since becoming the bar association’s president last October.

      The most recent estimates from the Census Bureau show Hispanics make up about 14 percent of the U.S. population: 40.5 million out of 285.7 million people in 2004. The bureau estimates that immigration and natural increases are adding 1.5 million Hispanics annually, a growth rate that will make them nearly 25 percent of the population by 2050.

      But as of the 2000 Census, Hispanics made up only about 3.3 percent of U.S. lawyers — a very slight improvement from 2.5 percent 10 years earlier. There are now more than 1.1 million attorneys in the country.

      “We are underrepresented,” Castillo says. “We are doing our best to break down the barriers that we believe still exist.”

      It would help, he says, to have a Hispanic on the U.S. Supreme Court, something the organization has been pushing for.

      “We cannot understand why administration after administration keeps bypassing our community. We have the talent — individuals who have gone to the incredible law schools, who have great track records professionally and who could do an amazing job and add diversity to the highest court in the land,” Castillo says. “It’s very sad to have the composition we have: one female and one African-American.”

      The Hispanic National Bar Association is weighing several immigration-related proposals before Congress, including efforts to help illegal immigrants gain legal status, and expects to have comments on them in the next few weeks, Castillo says.

      His own mother came to the United States in 1974 on a tourist visa and never left. Working as a housekeeper in New Jersey, she eventually gained legal permanent resident status, and in 1981 she was able to bring Castillo and his sister to Roslyn Heights, N.Y., where his practice is now based.

      Castillo was supposed to be entering ninth grade, but his teachers knocked him back to sixth because he couldn’t speak English. He dropped out at 16. Eventually he re-enrolled, but dropped out again.

      It was a gas station customer who urged him to earn his GED and go on to community college. He did, transferred to St. John’s, and then applied to at least five law schools. Only St. John’s accepted him, and he graduated in 1998.

      “No law schools would have me except one: This school looked beyond the numbers,” Castillo says. “It looked at the totality of the individual.”

Associated Press

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