Black Law Students Association reaches out to support diversity in legal field

Since 2007, the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Black Law Students Association (BLSA) has reached hundreds of undergraduate students in the Greater Philadelphia area through the Outreach Program, “Applying to and Succeeding in Law School.” The overarching goal of the program is to help remove systemic barriers that perpetuate inequity and maintain homogeneity in the legal field – a sector that is already riddled with exclusivity – and inspire a diverse cohort of future lawyers. During a series of weekend sessions, the program provides insight about the law school admissions process and mentorship for students from ethnically diverse, first-generation, and/or disadvantaged backgrounds. It concludes with the participants completion of a “JD Action Plan.”

“No one should feel intimidated by the process of applying to law school just because they are confused by the process or they don’t have any contacts in the legal field to ask questions. The legal field can only be improved by an increase in diversity of culture, background, and experience. It’s our job to enhance the pipeline to law school so that we can achieve that end result,” said Carla Anderson, Director of Access Initiatives.

Penn Law BLSA provides indispensable support to current and prospective students who identify as African American, Caribbean, or African, and fosters a strong community that celebrates their collective achievements. Through the Outreach Program, members of BLSA share tools and insight that further elevate Black individuals, as well as students who come from historically underrepresented communities, who show interest in the legal sector and ensure that information is widely available to them.

“The BLSA motto from 2016 ‘Lifting as We Climb’ has long been an inspiration and is fitting for this program because we want to show program participants that law school and a legal career are accessible, especially when we lean on one another for guidance,” said Victoria Gross L’22 and BLSA’s Admissions Chair. Victoria also participated in the Outreach Program as a junior in college.

Last year, the pandemic brought several program challenges. The biggest obstacle was having to revamp the program from in-person to virtual while still retaining as much of the personality of the original program as possible.

At the start of 2020, the program had 61 active participants but dropped to 46 participants in March. One unseen benefit that has come from the pandemic and transitioning to online is that the Outreach Program did not have to consider placing undue travel burden on participants. It was able to expand outreach for 2021 from area schools to all higher education institutions in the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. As a result of optimizing outreach, the program experienced a record-breaking 78 participants for 2021.

As it grows, the program is also expanding the assistance offered. Participants can now have their resumes reviewed by their assigned law student mentors. This supplements the personal statement review that was incorporated into the program three years ago to make the program even more robust. This personalized feedback is intended to bolster applicant competitiveness, and it has been proven to be effective by participants.

“The BLSA Outreach Program reaffirmed that law school and the legal profession had space for someone like me. From the assigned mentor who I still reach out to for law school advice, to the LSAT prep workshops, to the mock class instructed by Professor Dorothy Roberts, I left every session feeling emboldened and confident to pursue my dream. As a first-generation lawyer and graduate student, I am grateful to have been afforded the opportunity to learn from other law students of color. I am confident that other students will benefit from this program too,” said Chayla Sherrod L’23.

Participants of the Outreach Program who are admitted to law school have not only broken intergenerational cycles of disadvantage within their own families, but they continue to break down barriers by earning prestigious positions in Law Review, other journals, and numerous other leadership positions.

As Renee Post, Associate Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, notes, “The BLSA Outreach Program has been a vital resource to aspiring law students for 15 years. The Program provides prospective students critical information and resources aimed at breaking down the long-standing barriers to a legal education for students under-represented in the legal profession.”

Leticia Salazar L’22, the incoming Editor-in-Chief of Volume 170 of the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, exemplifies the success of program participants. Currently enrolled in a dual degree program, Salazar anticipates graduating with both her JD and MS Ed in Education Policy, in 2022.

“The BLSA Outreach Program was my first introduction to life as a Black student in law school – and I will forever be incredibly grateful for the experience,” Salazar said. “Through the panels, resume/application materials workshops, and the mentorship, I am so appreciative of the network that was made available to me so early on in my law school journey. Like so many others in the program, I do not have any lawyers in my family nor knew who to reach out to during the law school application process, and the BLSA Outreach Program provided me with the ability to be a part of an extraordinary community of successful Black leaders.”

To date, the program has hosted over 600 participants, many of whom are practicing attorneys today. Geneva Campbell Brown L’13, Associate Senior Counsel for Corporate Transactions at Cigna, was one of those students.

“The BLSA Outreach Program provided me with an essential foundation so that when I started law school, I had access to resources and a network that would allow me to hit the ground running. This early preparation was essential for someone like me from an underrepresented background that caused me to face unique barriers to my development and success as an attorney. The BLSA Outreach Program bridged those gaps for me and helped me build relationships with current and future attorneys who were invested in seeing me achieve.”

“One of the most inspiring things about the Outreach Program, in addition to the impressive undergraduates who participate in it, is that the program showcases the best of our law school community,” said Arlene Rivera Finkelstein, Associate Dean for Equity & Justice and Chief Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Officer. “Students, staff, faculty, and alumni all come together in these efforts, all united by a desire to promote access to law school and ultimately diversify the legal profession.”

The BLSA Outreach Program for the 2020-2021 academic year will commence this month and end in April. For more information contact Carla Anderson at contactadmissions@law.upenn.edu.

Comments are closed.