Law Fellows Program at 20: Opening Doors for Aspiring Lawyers

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Leana Taing ’14 used her UCLA School of Law education to close a circle that had opened half a world away, before she was born. One summer as she worked toward her J.D., Taing — a Stockton native raised by immigrants who had fled the murderous regime of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge — served an internship at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, helping to prosecute war crimes.

It was, she says, an unforgettable experience — one that she owes to the UCLA Law Fellows Program. Now in its 20th year, the initiative demystifies law school and gives aspiring lawyers the tools to succeed in law. So far, more than 1,600 undergraduate students from a variety of schools have participated; about 600 fellows have gone on to law school, including more than 100 at UCLA Law. Fellows are overwhelmingly from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the legal profession.

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When Taing was growing up, she says, “There was a lot of gang activity in Stockton and a lot of resentment aimed at refugees.” She watched as many Cambodian immigrants were deported for committing aggravated felonies, and she felt an urge to help. She wanted to do public interest work, assisting those with limited means and little understanding of the legal system.

“Without Law Fellows, I would not be where I am today,” says Taing, who now represents indigent parents in Los Angeles’ children’s court. “I’m sure people have said that before, but I was thinking about how you make choices seemingly insignificant at the time, and the ripple effects can change the direction of your life. That’s what Law Fellows did for me.”

Each spring, about 100 undergraduates come to UCLA Law for the program.  They take in lectures by UCLA Law faculty, are paired with current law students who mentor them, and connect with Law Fellows alumni who have gone on to successful careers at top firms, in public service or in government. Admission is competitive but free of charge. Fellows who complete the coursework receive a free LSAT prep course.

Leo Trujillo-Cox, who earned his J.D. from UCLA Law in 1997, runs the program. He was president of one of the first classes at any Top 20 law school to have a majority of its members come from minority backgrounds. But Proposition 209, which effectively ended affirmative action in California two years earlier, contributed to a severe drop-off in minority applicants to law schools. Trujillo-Cox was tapped by then-Dean Susan Westerberg Prager to help bolster diversity at a time when non-white applicants with competitive GPAs and LSAT scores were few and rival institutions were unburdened by restrictive state laws.

“My thought was: Why fight over a small pie 20170217 Law Fellows Program 03when we can expand it?” says Trujillo-Cox, who is the school’s Executive Director of Academic Outreach & Development (pictured, with assistant director Monica Mar ’08). “Why not grow that pie and also create a pool of students that are sharp, deserving and closely linked to the school? We would do a service for UCLA Law and, since many students would also go to other law schools, we would do a service for the profession.”  

The trailblazing initiative has been a model for efforts at other colleges and has garnered widespread support. Last year, the program received a $125,000, two-year grant from the non-profit Access Group. The California State Bar Foundation recently renewed its annual commitment to back a Law Fellows extension effort at UC Merced, which assists students from California’s Central Valley. The University of California Office of the President has allocated funding for the program to provide three years of LSAT tutoring and counseling to undocumented undergrads. Law Fellows has also attracted money to help former foster children and second-time takers of the bar exam.

“Having a diverse student body contributes in deep and fundamental ways to UCLA Law’s twin pillars of access and excellence,” says Jennifer L. Mnookin dean of UCLA School of Law. “For many law fellows, setting foot in our building is the first time they’ve ever met a lawyer, and Leo and the Law Fellows Program clarify the application process and provide students with tools and a perspective that will help them gain admission to law school and succeed once they are there. The law fellows who end up joining us here at UCLA Law unquestionably broaden the perspectives that we bring to our building, to everyone’s great benefit.”

‘This is you in a couple of years’

20170217 Law Fellows Program 04Early on a Saturday in January 2017, a fresh group of 95 law fellows met at UCLA Law for the first of their semester-long Saturday Academies. Some had made their way from San Diego, Berkeley or New York. At least one crashed on a sorority house couch. All were there on their own dime.

Trujillo-Cox welcomed them into the “Law Fellows family.” Fellows would know each other for the rest of their personal and professional lives, he told them. He teased the day’s events: an introductory class from Professor Emeritus Paul Bergman, co-author of “Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies,” who used clips from “The Paper Chase” and “Legally Blonde to emphasize the rigors of law school; a lecture by Professor Pavel Wonsowicz, who used the Socratic method to give students a taste of the ways in which attorneys formulate legal arguments; and a panel of former fellows who spoke about their paths to becoming successful lawyers.

Speaking of those alums, Trujillo-Cox told fellows, “This is you in a couple of years.”

Like Taing, many fellows came from immigrant families or are first-generation Americans. Several in the 2017 class benefit from the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that delays deportation for undocumented people who came to the country as minors and allows them to seek work permits.

Viridiana Inguanzo, a 2017 fellow who is 20170217 Law Fellows Program 02a UC Berkeley senior and a DACA recipient, said the program is crucial for her aspirations. “It’s super-personal for me. My career and my life are basically on the line with all of the policies that Trump wants to put forward, so I feel like being in the legal field is a way that I can help my community most.”

The program’s free LSAT prep course was a big draw for Paola Dela Cruz, a senior at UC Santa Barbara. “I would have to apply for other scholarships or have to work extra hours to be able to pay for something like that,” she said.

But her first taste of legal education at the Saturday Academy in January had her fully charged. “Sitting in the classroom where law students learn, I literally felt the blood rushing through my veins,” Dela Cruz said. “It became so much more real. Like, it’s possible: I’m doing it. We’re all doing it.”