Jurist Academy empowers future law students
Public Relations - Published: June 24, 2013

The 2013 Jurist Academy classes recently closed another successful year, in which student participants said the immersion experience helped solidify their desire to pursue law degrees – and provided them with skills to succeed on that path.

“It has totally changed my thinking in a positive way,” said Diamond Johnson, a rising senior at Aquinas College in Michigan, who participated in the Harrisburg program. “I’m going to go back to Michigan with a myriad of things that have to take place in my life over the next year, to enter law school and be successful.”

The Jurist Academy is a diversity pipeline program designed for students who come from backgrounds that are typically underrepresented in the legal profession. The two-week experience includes LSAT prep classes, mini law school courses and practice exams. Students also take field trips and hear from speakers about everything from law school admissions to financial aid to succeeding in school and how lawyers can be civic leaders.

The Delaware group visited Richards Layton & Finger, P.A. in Wilmington for a look at firm life, while the Harrisburg group spent time at Rhoads & Sinon LLP. The Harrisburg contingent also observed proceedings at the Dauphin County Court of Common Pleas, while the Delaware group watched court unfold at the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas. Judge Nathaniel C. Nichols, a former Widener Law associate professor, welcomed the Delaware group to the courthouse and later joined them for lunch.

“You have to remember that, in what you see, the law is a reflection of society,” Nichols told them, before sending the group in to court to observe family law proceedings.

The Delaware campus had 12 Jurist Academy participants. This was the program’s sixth year and the students brought the program alumni total to 133. In its first five years 24 students went on to law school, and another 15 went on to pursue other legal education or employment – such as paralegal careers, said Sydney Howe-Barksdale, the Delaware program director who also serves as an assistant professor of legal methods. Five more Delaware Jurist Academy alumni will attend Widener Law in the fall.

“The Jurist Academy goal is to diversify student bodies,” she said. “In our small way, we’re doing that.”

Harrisburg program Director Starla J. Williams, also an assistant professor of legal methods, guided 10 students through the 2013 experience. The Harrisburg program, now in its third year, has had 30 participants over the life of the program. Three students have gone on to law school, with two studying at Widener. Williams said she expects the favorable outcomes to grow, as many of her 2013 participants will not be eligible to apply to law school until 2014.

“This year’s group was particularly enthusiastic about the future and their desire to pursue law degrees,” Williams said. “I’m confident our program has provided them a valuable foundation for success.”

In one lunchtime session Williams arranged for members of the full-time faculty to speak with her group about what to expect in the classroom, and what brought them to law.

“As a professor, what I find really interesting is learning what students are thinking,” said Assistant Professor of Legal Methods David Raeker-Jordan. “You’ve got to be a self-motivated learner if you’re going to be a lawyer.”

The program was clearly influential.

“It motivated me to know I can go to law school and succeed as a lawyer as long as I work hard enough,” Harrisburg student Schneyder Metellus, a rising Penn State senior, said.

“I feel so much more prepared than I ever was,” said his Jurist Academy classmate, Maria Abreu, who recently graduated from the City College of New York. “I can’t wait to go back to New York and start a new life preparing for the LSAT. Even though it’s only been two weeks, I feel like I’m ready for the world.”

Both programs concluded with recognition and award ceremonies. Widener University President James T. Harris III attended the Delaware event on June 7 in the Barristers’ Club. The Harrisburg event was held a week later in the Side Bar Café.

The encouragement and eye-opening lessons about the realities of law school were instrumental, Delaware student Quandalasha Fambro, a Lincoln University graduate, said. Fambro, who dreams of becoming a juvenile defense attorney, said she benefitted from the program’s ability to provide information for multiple stages of life: on everything from the LSAT to law school final exams to expectations of lawyers in the professional world.

“That’s the thing I valued most about this program,” she said. “It’s the whole package.”

Law Dean Linda L. Ammons said the Jurist Academy would not be possible without generous support from multiple community sponsors.

“We are so grateful to our sponsors. Widener is able to provide this outstanding experience because of their assistance. They are instrumental partners,” she said.

The 2013 sponsors included:

Delaware campus
Morris James LLP
Ballard Spahr LLP
Delaware State Bar Association
The Gilliam Foundation
Reilly, Janiczek & McDevitt P.C.
Richards Layton & Finger, P.A.
Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP
Associate Professor of Legal Methods Micah J. Yarbrough

Harrisburg campus
Central Penn College
Dauphin County Bar Association
Eckert Seamans
Kaplan Test Prep
Keystone Bar Association
Pennsylvania Bar Association
Pepper Hamilton, LLP
Rhoads & Sinon LLP
Thomson Reuters