We want a future where every aspiring legal professional will have the opportunity to achieve their dreams, and families will have the legal support needed to overcome the symptoms of poverty. We want our communities to see courtrooms as a place of opportunity, not punishment.
In the least diverse profession in America, 86% of all lawyers are non-Hispanic whites. This is especially significant considering the profession supplies, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, general counsels, and heads of corporate, government, nonprofit and legal organizations. Unfortunately, economic and institutional barriers exclude many brilliant would-be attorneys long before they ever step foot in a law school. As a result, firms lack the language skills to serve their increasingly multilingual clientele and minorities remain underrepresented outsiders.
As the profession struggles to diversify, our courts continue to punish parties without financial access to legal services. Law school and legal aid clinics cannot satisfy the demand for financially accessible advice and simple cases become complex challenges for many families. This is particularly harmful to minorities who have far less access to legal representation.
The Youth Justice Alliance (YJA) is dedicated to running high school legal aid clinics staffed by an attorney and a team of high school student legal assistants. These clinics confront the inequities of our legal system by offering free legal support to lower-income communities and a rigorous legal education to predominantly minority high schools.
The focus on high schools is strategic and advantageous. First, current efforts at addressing diversity focus on offering special firm interview opportunities for minority law students. This is too late. YJA addresses the barriers when they happen, long before the LSAT. With the clinics, students from lower-income communities leave with a strong foundation of legal knowledge, experience working at a law office, training in legal advocacy, and attorney mentors. Instead of shifting the small number of minority law students toward larger firms, this process increases the pool of talented minorities in law school.
Second, while other pro bono service providers frequently struggle to meet the language needs of their clients, these students are the children and neighbors of the YJA clients. The students’ language skills and cultural competencies empower them to provide efficient and effective support, and will serve them well in a legal job market desperate for multilingual professionals.
Finally, YJA clinics have the benefit of partnering with existing schools. This allows for 1) the reduction of operating costs by utilizing existing spaces, 2) connection with school professionals to meet community needs, and 3) opportunities for easy expansion through new campuses.
This concept is already proving effective at the Eagle Aid clinic at Akins High School. Since 2017, the Legal Eagles demonstrated professionalism, compassion, and dedication to their clients. In South Austin, there are families with wills drafted by high school students, family issues resolved by high school students, and green cards received with the help of high school students. Akins alumni are now in college pre-law programs, paralegal training, and the oldest are now exploring the LSAT and law school applications. Everything accomplished at Akins was completed at a public school mislabeled as below-average, with predominantly low-income and minority students. As our model, Akins is evidence of the impact of this work. Now, we have attorneys ready to lead the next program. We just need the funding.
With new clinics at Navarro High School and Eastside Memorial added to our presence at Akins, we can provide coverage to all of the red, orange, and yellow areas representing Austin’s Crescent of Poverty in the map below. This is a powerful transformation for communities living on the wrong side of the highway in the most economically segregated city in the country. These areas are also home to the highest concentration of bilingual students. We are strategically situated to transform neighborhoods with limited access to legal support into breeding grounds for leaders with the language skills to stand out as law school and job candidates.
With $270,000.00, a law firm or foundation can sponsor one clinic in East Austin for three years. That funding will turn into free legal services for families that would otherwise lack representation, and a pathway for students rarely afforded opportunities for legal studies.
As we move from one school to three schools for the 2022-2023 academic year, Austin becomes our model city. We have partners in Houston and San Antonio ready to keep this mission of justice moving forward from one city to three cities for 2024-2025.