Published April 7, 2021
The difficult but achievable path for aspiring lawyers of color — getting into law school and succeeding while there, passing the bar exam and settling into their first legal position — will be at the center of an ambitious virtual forum to be held on April 16.
“Pathways to Equity in Legal Education and the Profession” will bring together nearly a dozen educators, judges, practitioners and activists to discuss ways in which students of color can be better prepared and supported during their journey to become licensed attorneys. The program is co-hosted by the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission, City University of New York School of Law, St. John’s University School of Law, Syracuse University College of Law and the UB School of Law. Registration for the virtual forum, which will take place from noon to 2 p.m., is available here.
Organizers say topics will include the current diversity gap in the legal pipeline, existing programs that help undergraduates from historically underrepresented communities prepare for law school and what schools are doing to support students of color in their coursework and in preparing for the bar exam. Recent law school graduates will participate to reflect on their experiences as well. The panel will be moderated by Tolulope Odunsi, lecturer in law, legal analysis, research and writing, and former assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion at the UB law school.
“We believe it is our obligation to ensure that membership in the legal profession is open and inclusive to all, especially underrepresented members of society,” says Hon. Shirley Troutman, associate justice of the New York State Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Department, who co-chairs the Franklin H. Williams Judicial Commission. The commission, which is marking its 30th anniversary as a permanent part of the New York State court system, promotes racial and ethnic fairness in the courts.
Quoting the late U.S. Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, Troutman says: “None of us got where we are solely by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We got here because somebody ... bent down and helped us pick up our boots.”
“We strive for equity across the board for all students,” says Bernadette Gargano, vice dean for student affairs at the UB School of Law and a member of the event’s organizing committee. “But students from underrepresented communities and other diverse backgrounds often face systemic inequities. We’re looking at ways to make sure we have strong pathways, both to law school and to the profession.”
For example, she says, some students may lack a quiet place to study or find it hard to pay for a bar preparation course. The challenge is more than admitting a diverse student body, Gargano says. “Inclusion is having a welcoming space where all students can learn and feel that they are a part of the community. If we’re really going to have a more diverse legal profession, it has to start with both a more diverse student body and support for those students to succeed.”
Panelist Paula C. Johnson, professor of law at Syracuse University College of Law and a new member of the Williams commission, notes it’s important to hear from people “on all corners of this issue, so we can make the real changes that are needed.”
The forum, Johnson explains, will address many facets of opportunity. “What’s going on in the law schools? Are there things that we could be doing better in the curriculum? What kind of support programs are needed to make sure everybody can be successful? What are our admissions policies? We have to look at every part of this, from input to output. Each of those significant junctures should improve diversity.
“We also need to hear from recent graduates,” she adds, “who can say, ‘This would have been helpful to me,’ so we get insight from those who have recently passed through the system. That informs us of what we should adopt that would be helpful to them.”
For more information, contact Ilene Fleischmann, vice dean for alumni, UB School of Law.