Creating Community on the Path to Law School
Inaugural fellows from Yale Law School’s Access to Law School Program are halfway through their first year of law school.
Addys Castillo has worked for more than two decades as a community organizer and in social services; she has two master’s degrees in public administration and criminal justice management. But she always wanted to be a lawyer.
“My work is very much entwined with the law,” she said. “No matter what we do, I always feel like we need a lawyer.”
Until recently, Castillo’s dream of law school felt far-fetched — “I was just afraid I wasn’t good enough to get in,” she explained. Then, in 2020, a friend recommended she apply to Yale Law School’s new Access to Law School Program. Created by Professor James Forman Jr. and several students in the spring of 2020, the program supports people from the New Haven area who are first-generation, low-income, formerly incarcerated, or members of an underrepresented racial group as they navigate the admissions process.
Today, Castillo and seven other individuals from the inaugural cohort are finishing up their first semester of law school at institutions across the country, including Yale Law School. Castillo is a student at the University of Connecticut School of Law and continues to work full-time as the executive director of New Haven’s Citywide Youth Coalition, which she has led since 2015.
“[The Access to Law School] program aligned perfectly with what I needed,” Castillo said. “It created a space to be in fellowship with other people who were going to be on the exact same voyage as me. It was like a community of accountability.”
Paving a Path
Forman began to think about creating the Access to Law School Program when teaching his Inside-Out class. Students in the course, which takes place inside correctional facilities, are divided equally among people who are incarcerated and individuals who are attending Yale Law School. Incarcerated students often asked Forman if they could become attorneys.
“I would give them the technical answer — absolutely — but I realized over time that I was instilling belief by itself without the scaffolding to make it happen,” he explained. “I wanted to do something that was more concrete.”
The Access to Law School Program is part of Yale Law School’s Law and Racial Justice Center, which has two aims: to work in concert with local stakeholders to increase individual mobility and community wealth in New Haven and to explore government- and community-led approaches to public safety that do not rely on the carceral system.
The two-year Access to Law School Program provides fellows with Yale Law School student mentors; 12 Saturday “academies,” in which students guide the fellows in completing their personal statements and other parts of the application process; and access to LSAT preparation courses and practice tests. Forman and Kayla Vinson, who was named executive director of the Law and Racial Justice Center earlier this year, also teach a seminar for the Yale Law School students participating in the program. The seminar, which meets weekly, examines the history of New Haven and Connecticut, with a focus on historical and present-day racism and bias; the obstacles first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented minorities face in applying to and succeeding in law school; and the dynamics of building a social justice program from the ground up.
Before she went to college, Brittany LaMarr served four years with the U.S. Army as a combat engineer and interned with the Connecticut Secretary of State. But she also was incarcerated for three years at the York Correctional Institution for women. By the time she was released in 2018, she had been taking classes through the Prison Project, a partnership between Quinnipiac University and Trinity College, and wanted to see how far she could go with her education. She was back in school, taking classes toward an undergraduate degree in political science and government and a master’s degree in public policy when a former professor told her about the Access to Law School Program.
“I wasn’t even questioning whether I could be a lawyer,” she said. “I didn’t even think it was an option for me.”
For the first few months, LaMarr said she was “waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
But, over time, her skepticism gave way to confidence.
“I thought, ‘If these people think I can do it, I am going to do it,’” she remembered. “I really see the law as an additional pathway to create change.”
“I thought, ‘If these people think I can do it, I am going to do it.’ I really see the law as an additional pathway to create change.”
Today, LaMarr is a student at the University of Connecticut School of Law and also works full time as the project manager for the Tow Youth Justice Institute’s juvenile justice policy and oversight committee.
LaMarr says she found the Saturday sessions with Yale Law students especially beneficial.
“I was learning in every single session, every single conversation,” she said. “I’d never met a lawyer before — besides the ones who represented me.”
For others, the structure of the program was a major draw.
“As someone who was working a pretty rigorous job, the program helped me frame my timeline,” said Kevin Baisden ’25, who was working in finance when he was a fellow. “I’m certain if I had not done the program, I would have put applying to law school on the back burner because I was just so busy.”
Baisden, who is interested in social justice issues, including alternatives to incarceration, was considering business schools as well but wanted the flexibility of a law degree.
“With a law degree, you can bounce between law and business or law and government,” he explained. “You can’t do that as easily with an M.B.A.”
Now, Baisden is a first-year student at Yale Law School.
“I’ve been able to find people that I kind of vibe with,” he said. “It’s been an extremely fruitful first semester.”
Another fellow, Jalyn Johnson, thought about going to law school as a freshman in college but was intimidated by the LSAT exam.
“I have a humanities brain,” laughed Johnson, who earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in social work.
After participating in the Access to Law School Program, she is now a first-year student at Villanova University’s Charles Widger School of Law and considering future work in tax law or trusts and estates.
Eight of the fellows in the program’s first cohort are in law school. Others decided not to apply or are applying now with the second cohort. The third cohort began this fall.
“We don’t see the fact that some folks did not apply as a bad thing,” Vinson said. “If we’re doing our work well, we’re helping people have a better sense of what kind of problems lawyers work on. Some people will decide that the work they’re doing now is the way they want to respond to those problems.”
Forman and Vinson are also trying to provide support for fellows who do enroll in law school, so they remain connected to the program and community. Earlier this fall, they hosted a session on best practices for time management.
“Our aim is to see them not just to law school but also through,” Vinson said.
One of the most enduring features of the Access to Law School Program are the connections formed between Yale Law School students and the fellows. Both LaMarr and Castillo say they are still in touch with their mentors.
“They walked with me through this whole journey,” Castillo said. “Those are my folks.”
Nicole Cabanez ’22 was one of Castillo’s Yale Law School student mentors. She said she enrolled in the Access to Law School class and signed on to be a coach to “be a part of a community that went beyond the Law School.”
“I am so thankful that I got to work with Addys,” said Cabanez, who is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Consumer Law Center. “During the years that we worked together, I saw how her unwavering commitment to bettering her community guided each of her career decisions, and bearing witness to her commitment helped me be true to my own path.”
“The ability to be impactful at the community level is directly related to how much fellows stay connected to one another and us.”
—Professor James Forman Jr.
Forman and Vinson see those relationships as mutually beneficial learning opportunities and are trying to build that potential into the program. In November, Vinson facilitated a Q&A in which Castillo and three current fellows — Daniel Dunn, Tiffany Minakhom, and Cashmere Streater — told the Yale Law School students about the work they do in the New Haven community. After a semester of learning about local issues of race and inequality, the law students heard from the fellows firsthand about community-led interventions. Fellows also discussed the ways that college and graduate students can work in solidarity with them during their time in Connecticut.
“We want to highlight our fellows not just as people receiving services but as people who have ideas and can lead and teach us,” Forman explained. “That aspect of the Access to Law School Program is quite distinctive, even from most clinic models where students and lawyers are sharing their expertise.”
Vinson says when fellows first start in the program, many see experiences in their past as “a ding against them.”
“They think, ‘Am I the kind of person who goes to law school?’” she explained. “And it just becomes so clear that, because of their life experience and their activism, they are the kind of person law professors want in their classroom. It’s the very things that make them wonder if they’re right for law school that will make them phenomenal law school classmates and lawyers.”
Eventually, Forman and Vinson want the Access to Law School Program to be a self-perpetuating network, with people and ideas flowing between Yale Law School and the broader New Haven community.
“Because so many of our fellows intend to work and lawyer right here in New Haven, one of the things we’re really excited about is how individual mobility will build up into community impact,” Vinson said.
“We want to have a robust alumni network that can support people and help them land good jobs,” he said. “The ability to be impactful at the community level is directly related to how much fellows stay connected to one another and us.”
Castillo, who will soon be transitioning to a new role as founder and director of the POWER Institute (“people organizing for wellness, equity, and reparations”), has already embraced that network and community. That’s why she spoke about her work to Yale Law Students in November as part of Vinson’s Q&A.
“This is a learning community,” she said. “I think that’s why me and my mentors worked out so well. It wasn’t me looking up to them — it was us sharing. We brought very different life experiences to the table and some shared experiences as well. We were learning from each other.”