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How to Diversify Law: Invest in the Early Pipeline

Photo: Najma Ali, senior at Oak Grove High School in San Jose and SVUDL debater, responding to questions raised by Judge Michelle Friedland of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Ali will be a freshman at UCLA in the fall.

T he legal community is one of the least diverse professions in the United States. While law departments and law firms have made strides toward building cultures that prioritize and value diversity, the industry continues to struggle with firms and companies competing for diverse lawyers.

A coalition of law firms and law departments is working to address this pipeline problem by reaching "future lawyers" when they are in high school, partnering with them over a long period of time to ensure they progress through the pipeline.

Finding the best partner for your community

High school students rarely have a clear view of their future career path, making it difficult for lawyers to partner with the right students. The Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL) changes this dynamic.

SVUDL is a nonprofit organization that goes into under-resourced high schools where graduation rates are lower than average. The majority of students SVUDL serves are minorities and will be the first member of their families to attend college. SVUDL offers these students the chance to compete in debate. These students spend their high school years researching complex policy topics, writing briefs, and arguing their cases — everything lawyers do. So far, 100 percent of SVUDL students have graduated high school and continued on to college.

It's not surprising that more than half of SVUDL students report wanting to pursue legal careers. These students spend their Saturdays throughout high school standing at podiums arguing their cases. When they say they want to become lawyers, it is because they have developed a passion for advocacy and a firm understanding of the power of their voice.

In fact, Urban Debate Leagues — with more than 20 chapters across the country — have long been endorsed as a method for diversifying the legal profession. Several years ago, more than 50 law school professors and deans signed the Law School Professors' and Deans' Statement of Support for Urban Debate. They stated:

"Based on our own experiences, we believe that high school debate is an excellent training ground for students to develop interests and skills that apply directly to legal thought and practice. Debate cultivates critical thinking, research, analysis, argumentation, and presentation skills. Not surprisingly, debaters are successful law students and lawyers. […] Urban debate leagues, reflecting the populations of the urban districts they serve, overwhelmingly comprise minority students. They, therefore, train a new generation of students, many of whom, if our own experience is any guide, will choose legal careers. As such, we enthusiastically endorse urban debate leagues as a valuable method by which to diversify the legal pipeline and profession."

Legal coalition builds mentorship program

Through debate, SVUDL students unquestionably learn the critical thinking and advocacy skills needed to succeed in law. However, when they leave high school and the debate program, there is no guarantee of their success. Most of them will be the first generation to attend college, and very few of them have professional influences in their lives. They do not have the network and support to guide them beyond high school.

Recognizing the needs of the students, a group of Silicon Valley lawyers built a Legal Advisory Committee to formally partner with SVUDL students. The coalition provides the students two critical offerings: (1) "corporate mentoring" that gives students access to the law firm and law department  partners during office visits; and (2) long-term individual professional mentoring to help guide students to the profession.

Corporate mentoring involves law firms or departments hosting the students for an afternoon to give them access to their office and lawyers, providing them a peek into the profession. These visits often incorporate training sessions such as, advanced research techniques or interview skills, designed to assist the students in both debate and their broader future endeavors.  In the process, they build a network of supporters who can help guide them towards the profession. These visits aim to remove the mystery of the profession and allow the students to realize they are welcome in this industry.

SVUDL Moot Court-James Mitchell

Photo: James Mitchell, freshman at East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy and SVUDL debater, arguing the constitutional limits of partisan gerrymandering to panel of federal judges.

It's working. Students who clearly have the skill and desire to excel are now encouraged to set high goals and get the guidance needed to help them stay on track towards law school.

"It's hard for some of us to think that big," says Bhargavi Bhatt, a former SVUDL debater and first-generation college student who recently completed her first year of college.

Bhatt began seriously leaning toward a legal career after participating in SVUDL. Her interest was sparked after being coached by practicing attorneys and preparing cases for SVUDL's annual Moot Court Competition, where SVUDL students argue a real Supreme Court case in front of a panel of federal judges, including judges from the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Despite her interest, she had no idea where to begin and had doubts about whether a legal career was open to her. Her mentor was there to help her think through these doubts.

"She has been so real about her own college experience that I now realize I can overcome many of the things I thought were obstacles. I can be a lawyer," Bhargavi says. She credits her mentor's advice with changing her life by helping her choose the right activities, such as student government.

Giving back to young people in their communities is an immensely gratifying experience for mentors as well.

"There's no substitute for the internal rewards of helping a person grow into a successful adult," says Carlos Orellana, senior assistant counsel for the Valley Transportation Authority. "I feel very lucky I can be there for him, and that he asks for my help."

SVUDL Moot Court-judges

Photo: Panel of judges for SVUDL’s moot court, from left to right: Judge Michelle Friedland and Judge John Owens of the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and Judge Edward Davila of the US District Court, Northern District of California.

Orellana has been mentoring a young man since his senior year in high school. Now in his second year at the University of California Riverside, his mentee and his brother are the first in their family to go to college.

Orellana describes his role as that of "a family friend or trusted big brother" with whom his mentee can share his fears and frustrations, and who can provide perspective on the impact of his decisions. Orellana says they discuss everything from family, school challenges, and current events to what classes would be the best fit to help get into law school.

"My mentee is passionate, and he reminds me of myself at that age," says Orellana. "It's nice I can provide him with the longer view."

"The goal of the mentorship program is to make a tangible impact on kids with a demonstrated interest in a law career, all the way from high school to at least day one of law school," he says, but he doesn't expect their relationship to end there. "I'll be there for him as long as he wants."

Legal community must continue to invest in the pipeline

As the legal community continues to seek the best ways to add economic and racial diversity to our ranks, partnerships with mentorship programs such as SVUDL can be a perfect match for the challenge.

"Our clients and corporations often expect or even demand that we staff our teams with attorneys from diverse backgrounds, and law firms/legal departments face a continual challenge of how to fill these gaps with current law school classes," explains Brandon Brown, partner Kirkland & Ellis LLP and member of SVUDL's Legal Advisory Committee. He continues:

"One of the best ways to ensure our law schools have a diverse population of exceptional candidates is to ensure that diverse high school students feel they can head in that direction. SVUDL does that by encouraging voices, empowering the disenfranchised, and then providing mentoring from lawyers. Programs like SVUDL represent a long-term investment for law firms and law departments to ensure there is a deep pipeline of diverse candidates to recruit every year."

When the legal community works together with urban debate leagues to open doors of opportunity for students of color and low-income students, they aren't just diversifying the legal pipeline — they're changing lives forever. Find out more at

About the Authors

Willie HernandezWillie Hernandez is vice president and deputy general counsel at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and chairman of the board of the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. [email protected]

Caren Ulrich StacyCaren Ulrich Stacy is the CEO of Diversity Lab and a member of the Legal Advisory Committee for the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League. [email protected]

Eric LancasterEric Lancaster is a partner in the intellectual property practice at White & Case and a member of the Legal Advisory Committee for the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League.

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