Over half of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s (MMLA) clients identify as Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC). When they enter the legal system, they find that attorneys, court personnel, judges, and referees, are overwhelmingly white. That includes Legal Aid, where 80% of the attorneys are white.
Two MMLA legal assistants, Alisha Bowen and Luz Lopez Rosas, have a vision for changing those demographics. Their focus is on mentorship, breaking down barriers to make legal careers more accessible to BIPOC. One of the first hurdles for hopeful lawyers is the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
“You need the LSAT to get into law school, and it’s a determining factor for scholarships,” Bowen says. “Standardized testing is problematic, and the LSAT is one barrier we’re hoping to ease.”
Staff Attorney Law Schuelke, an LSAT prep instructor and tutor for 15 years, is very familiar with the disparities in the standardized test preparation industry. When he learned a course was in the works, he offered to develop and teach a complete LSAT prep course, including tutoring, for non-attorney Legal Aid employees.
“Standardized testing is a $1.2 billion per year industry, a massive force that greatly reinforces societal inequities,” Schuelke says. “Test prep fundamentally undermines the tests’ goal of objectively measuring candidates’ inherent abilities, disproportionately benefiting those who can afford to hire the best tutors and spend substantial time studying.”
Legal Aid can’t change the test prep industry, but Schuelke developed a 60-hour course that offers Legal Aid employees an increased chance of success on the LSAT. In the bigger picture, a more diverse pool of attorneys will help equalize the racial disparities, with a potential for real change in the experience of citizens accessing the legal system.
Legal Aid’s first LSAT prep course met twice weekly for three hours through the fall of 2021. The course was available at no charge to all non-attorney Legal Aid staff and included up to five hours of individual tutoring. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) partnered with Legal Aid to license the official test content at a substantially reduced rate.
Demitrea Kelley is a navigator coalition coordinator and diversity outreach advocate with Legal Aid’s Minnesota Disability Law Center. One of seven students who participated in the first course, she contrasts it with the LSAT prep she had done previously.
“With my own resources, I wasn’t able to enroll in a class at this level,” says Kelley. “When I studied before, I was on my own. This class is very much about accountability. Law expects us to be prepared for class, and we respect and support each other.”
Kelley hopes to become an attorney and work with underrepresented communities. Schuelke has observed similar motivations for the other students.
“Often, LSAT students want to get into the highest ranked law school and get the job that makes the most money,” he says. “These students, in contrast, are focused on the opportunity to get the training they need to become great attorneys and contribute more to their community. It’s really refreshing.”
Legal Aid students face the challenge of balancing a full-time job and family obligations with the rigorous course and homework expectations. Even with additional support, it’s a heavy load. While the LSAT course does not remove all obstacles to law school, it does give students a boost over the first one.
“This course is a great benefit for those of us already working in the legal services field,” Kelley says. “It’s also a good way to open doors for young attorneys, women attorneys, and attorneys of color. I hope the course will continue.”