Lighting Up the Path to Law School

Law School Access Program
From left to right, Professor James Forman Jr. and Law School Access Program Fellows Alexis Willoughby-Robinson, Tai Walker, and Addys Castillo during a recent Saturday meeting. Story photos by Nina Oishi ’22.

When he was growing up, Shariful Khan ’22 assumed that his legal aspirations would never come to fruition and that law school was reserved only for those who attended the most prestigious undergraduate institutions.

But while attending the City College of New York, Khan discovered a program that helped college students from underrepresented groups prepare for law school. The program provided financial support, LSAT tutoring assistance, and professional mentorship to help participants prepare their law school applications. 

The result was transformative, both practically and psychologically. The experience not only helped Khan fulfill his law school ambitions, but changed his outlook on what was possible for him as a first-generation Bengali American. 

“The program helped me believe that people like me — a kid from Queens without any connections — deserved to go to law school,” said Khan, a 2L at Yale Law School.

Now, along with other current students and recent graduates, Khan is helping design and implement a similar law school access pipeline program at Yale to help New Haven residents achieve their own law school dreams and learn just how much they have to contribute to the legal profession.

The Law School Access Program, conceived by J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law James Forman, Jr. ’92, aims to serve first-generation, low-income, and under-represented minority students from New Haven by lighting up the pathway to applying successfully to law school and launching their legal careers. And it will all be provided to the Fellows, as the program calls participants, for free.

“New Haven is a city I love and care about very much,” Forman said. “It’s clear to me that this city and this community are full of people who have more potential than they do privilege. And thinking about the underdeveloped capacity that so many people in New Haven have is something I’ve thought about for a long time.”

Origins and Scope

Forman began to conceive of the program last spring, when he and several Yale Law student research assistants (RAs) read The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes Or Breaks Us. In the book, author Paul Tough reports on how high school students — including students of color and first-generation students — navigate the transition to college, the obstacles they face, and explores what programs exist to help them make that momentous transition. 

As Forman’s students reflected on their own backgrounds — nearly all were also first-generation professional students or people of color themselves — they thought that a program that aided in the transition from college to law school would be useful, and would especially fill a need in the New Haven community.

Law School Access Program Day 1

Law School students Daria Rose ’22, Kyla Eastling ’21, and Paula Garcia-Salazar ’22 at the first meeting of the Law School Access Program.

Law School RAs collaborated with Forman throughout the spring to help design the program, starting with the details of the application itself and on to selecting the Fellows and developing the curriculum.

This fall, the first cohort of 20 Fellows will experience a holistic program designed to instill them with the competence and practical skills required to navigate their way to and through law school. The program is also designed to build confidence in their own unique abilities and experiences.

“I know [the Law School Access Program] has the ability to change lives,” said Daria Rose ’22, one of the students who has helped Forman design the program. “Giving students the tools and resources to succeed in the increasingly competitive (and often hard to access) landscape of law school admissions and the legal profession is a worthy project.”

Khan said that the ability to change lives is what helped bring him to law school in the first place. “I came to law school because I care about the great American experiment of opportunity and helping people who tend to not have a lot of it get more,” he said.

The Law School Access Program comprises several distinct parts: first, a yearlong series of Saturday “academies” — workshops for the Fellows on different facets of law school — will demystify the admissions process, provide exposure to legal careers, and explain the financial aid process. The academies will also provide an opportunity to discuss racism and discrimination, and provide wellness coaching on issues like test anxiety and the micro- and macroagressions Fellows will face as they try to become lawyers.

“Not only will Fellows receive all of the logistical help they may need in preparing their applications,” said Elsa Mota ’20, a recent Yale Law graduate who has worked closely with Forman and remains involved in the launch of the program. “But they will also be discussing the struggles students of color and first-generation students face in law school such as imposter syndrome.”

The second part of the program focuses on personalized LSAT preparation. Similar programs might offer discounted spaces in a traditional commercial test prep course, but Forman’s research showed that one-on-one guidance was the key to achieving strong improvement in LSAT scores.

“My operating principle is that we should provide people without resources the best; we should give our Fellows the same support that you would get if you had access to a lot of resources,” he said. “And what really moves the LSAT the ability to sit down with someone who is skilled at understanding how the test works and can impart that knowledge to a student. Doing that over and over again helps students develop an understanding of what the test is doing.”

In the third part of the program, Fellows will receive personalized support during the process of applying to and accepting an offer of admission to law school. By next fall, Forman said, “the Fellows will have taken the LSAT, gotten a score that feels good to them, and be ready to apply to law school. And at that point we’ll provide them with individual counselling to help them with the application and financial aid process.”

“I want the Fellows to learn that they, and their stories, deserve to be heard,” he said. “The powerful tales these Fellows have — of overcoming adversity and finding hope when there was none to be found — that, to me says a lot about who they are and what they will bring to not just the legal profession, but the world.” —Shariful Khan ’22

To help the Fellows prepare for the LSAT, Forman is partnering with PrepMatters, a boutique test preparation firm that he first learned about in The Years That Matter Most. “They are...excellent at helping people get better not just at the analytical piece but that psychological piece” of test-taking, according to Forman, including how to develop the right mindset and overcome fears and anxieties about test-taking.

The one-on-one LSAT test preparation portion of the program is the costliest element of the program and requires outside fundraising. “There are no shortcuts to that,” he said. “And because there are no shortcuts, it’s more expensive.” A grant from Yale Law School’s Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund has allowed the Access Program to get started, but to survive long term, says Forman, “we will need to find other funders, including law firms, foundations, and individual donors.”

A subset of the students in the seminar will teach the PrepMatters curriculum as teaching fellows in small groups of six to seven fellows per Yale Law student. “A lot of our [YLS] students come from teaching backgrounds, and the love of the classroom is there,” Forman said.

As the most intimate part of the program, Forman expects that all the students in the seminar, but especially those involved in teaching the LSAT, will develop a deep relationship with the Fellows. “There’s something really particular about helping somebody move that LSAT score and watching them get into a good law school,” he said. “There’s nothing else like that experience.”

“Part of the admissions process is the psychological aspect — you have to believe you’ll get in or you won’t even try!” said Paula Garcia-Salazar ’22, another student who has helped design the program and who benefited from a law school pipeline program herself. “But we also hope the program can actually substantially increase our Fellows’ odds of admission into the law schools of their choice through the variety of support that we’ll be giving them.”

A Focus on New Haven

Similar law school pipeline programs exist across the country but often serve students nationwide, meaning that other programs are competing with each other for the same pool of students. Forman wanted the Law School Access Program to be distinctly local and serve the community where Yale Law School and its students reside.

Law School Access Program Day 1

Law School Access Program Fellows and Yale Law School students meet during the first in-person meeting of the program in September.

With its deliberate local focus on New Haven residents, the program will catalyze a group of future law school graduates that can have a profound impact on the legal profession city- and statewide.

“I felt that having a local focus would help make this program more than about the individual mobility of the Fellows who participate,” Forman said. “Three or four years from now they are going to become lawyers, and I hope many of them will come back to New Haven and Connecticut.”

With a 20-student cohort each year, “pretty quickly you can have an influence not just over the lives of individuals but the communities they are a part of,” Forman said. “This is about bringing wealth to communities that have been denied it — our Fellows will be able to get much better paying jobs than before — and it’s also about diversifying the local legal profession.”

Forman is teaching a yearlong 12-person seminar class to Yale Law students administering the program. The seminar will address the obstacles facing first generation low income (FGLI) and under-represented minority (URM) students as they try to enter spaces of power and privilege, like law school.

“In this class we study the underlying problem [of access to these spaces],” Forman said, “and we also explore how you intervene in this underlying problem and how you help overcome some of these barriers.” The seminar covers unequal access to law, housing segregation, educational disparities, police violence, and poverty, among other topics.

As a result of outreach about the program into the community by Law School students and Forman, the program received 90 applications for 20 slots. Some of the incoming Fellows are on a more traditional path and are currently in college; others are older, including some who have been incarcerated. “Maybe they got off track,” Forman said, “and their personal stories reveal why, but they still have it in their mind that it would be great to become a lawyer.”

Forman said he hopes that inter-generational aspect of the program is one of its great strengths, and that the commonality of being from the same city will aid in the group’s cohesion.

“I want our Fellows to develop an attitude like ‘we’re in this together,’” he said. “They know one another’s neighborhoods and high schools. They know what it means to be from this city and know collectively what they can do to help transform the city and the state.”

That sense of community has the potential to create lasting change, according to Mota. “I’m really excited for the community the Fellows will build for themselves,” she said. “We have selected an extraordinary group of powerful individuals who are sure to make huge changes to the city of New Haven and the world.”

Each Fellow will have a Yale Law student mentor and a professional mentor such as a local New Haven lawyer, a Law School alum, or another legal professional. “Their mentor will be somebody we feel they’ll be able to make a connection with, and who is working in a job that they think they might like,” Forman said.

For many first-generation professional students, having a mentor can put a human face on an intimidating professional world.

“As a first-generation college student, I had not actually even met an attorney until I was in college, and being part of a program like this really helped demystify the process,” Garcia-Salazar said. 

Learning How to Make Change

Even before the first Saturday academy with the Fellows, the Program has been impactful for the Yale Law students involved.

“Coming into YLS, I knew I wanted to be connected to the community of New Haven in a tangible and concrete way,” Rose said. “I’ve already learned so much just from interviewing and interacting with our Fellows. They have incredible stories and life experiences, much of it coming from outside of a classroom.”

She hopes that the program can be a part of a broader antiracist initiative to empower people in the New Haven community, and the program launches at an especially pivotal moment in time.

“I do view this as racial justice work, as antiracist work,” Forman said. “All of the students in the program are first-generation or students of color. Sixty to seventy percent are African American, which makes sense given New Haven’s demographics.”

Forman also hopes that the Law School students in his seminar will learn another vital skill for people who are interested in making change: how to build an innovative social justice program from the ground up.

“Someday, our students are going to go out into the world and see a problem in their community,” he said. “So how do you develop a program or intervention to respond to that problem?”

One of the problems the Law School Access Program aims to solve is instilling in the Fellows the kind of confidence Khan developed during his own law school access program back at City College. Too often, Khan said, first-generation or low-income students feel that they don’t have anything to bring to the table.

“I want the Fellows to learn that they, and their stories, deserve to be heard,” he said. “The powerful tales these Fellows have — of overcoming adversity and finding hope when there was none to be found — that, to me says a lot about who they are and what they will bring to not just the legal profession, but the world.”