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Changing the Face of the Legal Profession

The City University of New York School of Law continues to build on its track record of serving underrepresented communities with its pipeline initiative.

In 2000, Laquesia Anguiano was finally on track to fulfill her life-long dream of becoming an attorney. As a wife and mother of four by her 22nd birthday, school had been put on hold, so going back that year to earn her bachelor’s had been challenging. Then it was time for law school.

After taking the LSAT, Anguiano applied to 10 schools and was denied by all of them. Determined, she took a Kaplan LSAT prep course, retook the LSAT and applied to three more schools; again, none accepted her.

One of those schools — the City University of New York School of Law — sent her a letter with tips to improve her application. She called for more advice. An admissions counselor told her about a new program that might be able to help. Later, in an e-mail from the school, help had arrived.

College graduates like Anguiano who don’t make it into any law school are given one more chance to prove themselves: an invitation to join the City University of New York School of Law’s Pipeline to Justice program. “I opened it and read. I was like, ‘Wow, are they serious, I still have a chance at law school?’” she remembers. “I was still shocked they sent me a letter to begin with. Just to know there was this program, and I could still go to law school … I was very excited.”

Pipeline to Justice is the brainchild of CUNY law school’s Associate Dean and

Professor Mary Lu Bilek and Dean Michelle Anderson. The program’s aims are twofold: the first is to prepare law candidates, who have not yet conquered the LSAT but are diligent in other areas of life, to retake the test and then succeed in law school; the second is to allow students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds the chance to enter the legal field and serve their communities.

Months before Anguiano, or anyone else knew there would be a Pipeline to Justice, Bilek was wondering how she could advance CUNY law’s mission of “law in the service of human needs.” The lack of diversity in the profession was something she wanted to change.

So she met with the new dean in 2006, who has decried the lack of diversity in her field as “a disgrace.” Clearly, they were already on the same page.

“The initial conversation on the Pipeline to Justice happened when I asked Mary Lu to become associate dean for special projects at CUNY law,” Anderson recalls. “A special project I wanted her to implement was a program to enhance the diversity of our student body … we brainstormed the shape of the Pipeline to Justice program together.”

Innumerable hours of legwork, one board of trustees approval and weeks of personally sifting through denied applications later, Bilek was ready to make the first attempt at a successful program. The first year there were 25 students. Every year thereafter there have been about 45 participants.

“It was scary. We had no idea if it would work,” she confesses. “The first 47 weeks were grueling. But it was the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had. The Pipeline students were the most inspiring group of people I’ve worked with in my life.”

Anguiano was in that first group that convened in 2006. And while Pipeline was a great opportunity, she remembers the toil.

“It was definitely stressful. And … you had to dedicate a lot of hours to do well,” she says. “But it was rewarding also. The support from Dean Bilek and the other participants made me feel like we were all in this together.”

The selection process is simple enough. Each year, two admissions committee members flag applicants who were denied admission but whom they consider would make good Pipeline candidates. Carefully scrutinizing their essays, Bilek then selects and invites students whose reasons for wanting to attend law school align with CUNY law’s goals.

In October of each year, the “Pipeliners,” as they are called, take about 15 practice LSATs while taking the “Binary Solutions” course, which focuses on analytical skills. If they raise their score enough, they move on to phase two, which prepares them for the graduate-level “legalese” readings and writing style they will encounter in law school. Finally in June, the remaining Pipeliners are admitted into CUNY law. The entire program runs the length of a school year.

Two-thirds of the Pipeliners from the first year of the program gained entry into the CUNY law school class of 2010. Of those admitted Pipeliners, 73 percent were from underrepresented groups. The next year, when the first Pipeliners joined the university, CUNY School of Law saw one of the most diverse first-year classes ever.

“The Pipeline to Justice is making a terrific impact in terms of enhancing access to the profession,” says Anderson. “As gatekeepers to an overwhelmingly White profession, law schools have a responsibility to help the profession become more representative. [They] have to graduate students from [underserved] communities who will return as attorneys and help bring justice to them.”

Bilek agrees. “Society doesn’t need more lawyers; it needs more lawyers who believe in justice, who understand the needs and concerns of communities that have been neglected or worse, and who understand the power and promise of those communities to move our country forward.”

At 31, Anguiano is now completing her second year of law school and taking care of her family, which has expanded to five children.

“Since I was 10, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer … to use the law to help people without access,” she says “Now, I definitely don’t see myself as being anything but a public interest attorney.”

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