On the pathway to (law) success

(From left) Edna Chavarry, Santa Monica College interim director of academic affairs initiatives, with Law Pathway student Alexander Gomez, business instructor Dana Nasser and political science professor Christina Gabler. (Photo: SMC)

Santa Monica College (SMC) is celebrating the graduation of the first students in its Law Pathway Program, which prepares traditionally underrepresented students to become competitive applicants to law school.

The 10 SMC students have offers from and are transferring this fall to Columbia University, UCLA, Stanford University and California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Their successful completion of the SMC program has earned them priority admission review at six prominent California law schools.

In 2016, SMC joined the California State Bar Association’s Community Colleges Pathway to Law School initiative, a collaborative effort between the bar association and 29 community colleges and six law schools, designed to help diversify the legal profession and smooth the path to law school for underrepresented students.

“Through this innovative ‘2+2+3’ program, students engage in an incredible career-focused opportunity,” said SMC Superintendent/President Kathryn E. Jeffery. “The solid educational foundation here at SMC along with real-world legal experience — plus the support students will need now and in the immediate future — is an invaluable launch pad for their future careers.”

Academics and experience

Among the students are Alexander Gomez and Nilou Sheikhpour, who have dreamed of becoming lawyers since childhood. Gomez, a communication studies major, is transferring to CSUN and Sheikhpour to UCLA.

“This program provided me with opportunities I didn’t think were possible at the community-college level,” Gomez said.

The program requires completion of nine courses — including two created specifically for the Law Pathway — and offers individual mentoring, exposure to careers in law, networking opportunities, counseling support, leadership training and an experiential-learning component at one of several legal service organizations in the area.

“I’ve had friends who work in law offices, and they didn’t learn as much as I did in just one day in my internship with Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles,” Sheikhpour said.

“They’re getting hands-on work experience,” noted Christina Gabler, SMC political science professor and faculty lead for the Law Pathway program. “Our students talk with clients, learn what their issues are, and work side by side with legal professionals to help deal with those issues.”

On her first day, Sheikhpour, a political science major, helped a woman file for a restraining order, and went through the whole process with her. On another day, she translated for a woman of Iranian descent who was filing for divorce.

Celebrating the first graduates of the Santa Monica College Law Pathway Program. (Photo: SMC)

In addition to Neighborhood Legal Services, current participating organizations include Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Bet Tzedek Legal Services, where Gomez volunteers. Students are required to complete at least 30 hours of service.

“As we grow the program, we hope to have both private and public organizations as experiential-learning partners, as well as law firms,” Gabler said. “So a student interested in entertainment law can intern at a firm specializing in that.”

As part of Experiential Learning in the Law, the capstone course of the Law Pathway program taught by Gabler, students journal about their experiences, write a research paper related to their work in the field placements and learn how to draft legal briefs, among other activities. The other new course developed for the program, Introduction to Law, explores constitutional law.

Those who complete the curriculum receive a special notation on their transcripts and, after earning their four-year degree in any subject, will receive preferential admission review at the six participating law schools.

Other student benefits

The Law Pathway program also emphasizes noncognitive skills needed by attorneys, said Edna Chavarry, interim director of academic affairs initiatives, who is also a graduate of the Loyola Law School.

“It’s a very conservative field, and you have to pick up the style of communication, dress and mannerisms of being an attorney,” she said. Through a partnership with the SMC business department, Law Pathway students get free access to a closet full of business attire.

Students also have access to representatives at a host of other institutions — including UCLA, Southwestern Law School, New York Law School and University of Seattle — through the California State University Pre-Law Society’s annual law fair. And throughout the year, students interact with the legal professionals on the SMC Law Pathway’s Advisory Council for networking and mentorship.

Chavarry said that she hopes to expand the program in the future, with more students taking advantage of it. Plans include field trips to judges’ chambers and one of the six law schools, as well as deeper mentorship with Advisory Council members, and interaction between SMC Law Pathway students and those at other community colleges.

About the Author

Grace Smith
is a public information officer at Santa Monica College in California.