Promoting Diversity in the Legal Field: a Fireside Chat with Aprill Hawkins

Meet Aprill Hawkins, Director of Engagement at Just the Beginning, a legal pipeline organization which encourages underrepresented students to pursue careers in law.  In her current role, Aprill engages in fundraising efforts, alumni engagement and raising the organization’s profile. She is an educator by trade, and received her Master’s of Education Degree from Loyola University of Chicago. Before joining the team at Just the Beginning, Aprill was the Career Program Manager at the Posse Organization, and was previously the Program Director at the Visitation Scholarship Program.

In this Fireside Chat, we spoke with Aprill about the role of diversity in law school, and barriers that prevent qualified applicants from entering the legal field.

Tell me  more about Just the Beginning       

We provide pipeline programming for middle school and high school students in addition to judicial internships and clerkships for law students. Our cornerstone program is a week-long legal immersion program called the Summer Legal Institute, offered in seven cities. This program is packed full of various legal-focused different activities: students get to visit the federal court rooms and corporate legal departments, meet lawyers and judges, and participate in activities like oral arguments and mock trials. Our hope is that they are able to gain a sense of the vastness of opportunities in the legal field, and the belief that these opportunities are available to them.

How can students get involved with  the organization?      

High school students in Chicago; Detroit; LA; Springfield, MA; DC; Twin Cities and Indianapolis can apply for our Summer Legal Institute by visiting our website, jtb.org. The deadline is May 1 and students are accepted on a rolling basis. Our Middle School Law Camp is available to students in Chicago and that application is also available online.

What is a typical day like for you?   

We are a very small organization. We have programming in seven cities, but have a full-time staff of just three. It’s definitely an all-hands-on-deck environment.

I am currently  working on implementing Salesforce as well as connecting  with funders who support the organization, which include lots of law  firms and corporate legal departments. We leverage all of our relationships to secure additional funding and engage with our grantors to build relationships  and share what we do.

There is also the operational side which entails ensuring that our donors are  acknowledged. I also do a lot of work with our associate board and am currently involved with planning our 25-year anniversary fundraiser.

What significance does diversity play within the legal field?         

The judiciary is not something a field that is always pushed to middle school and high school students, or even college students. When you look to the  judiciary and decision-makers—people who are creating and enforcing policies—they are  still overwhelmingly populated by white men. Our work at Just the Beginning is tied to the importance of diversity within this field. We firmly believe that when you have a legal system that reflects the demographics of the communities being served, you will have a more just legal system.

We believe in  the power of representation, and that if you see people like yourself doing certain things, you can conceptualize that for yourself. Our   work is about doing just that, and showing students that becoming a lawyer is achievable. We also want to  provide them with resources and tools that empower them to  attend law school. We want it to be a matter of access, choice, and equity.

It’s also important to note that diversity is not just about gender, sexuality, or race; it’s also diversity of thought. People with different backgrounds and experiences bring different viewpoints to the table, and it’s important  that everybody is represented.

 Has diversity and representation become a priority in the judiciary?                   

There has been slow progression. When President Obama was in office, he was very intentional about promoting representation within the judiciary. If you look at women and minorities in the legal field, the progress has been slow. From 2009 to 2016 the percentage of total minority lawyers only increased 2.3% and now stands at just over 14%.

Mentorship must be very important in bridging this gap, what makes a good mentor?

Listening. I listen as much as I talk with my mentees. I think mentorship should always be a two-way relationship. Sometimes when you are older and have more experience, it can feel like you are the one doling advice out, but I have learned so much from the students I work with.

They have such a different, yet valuable skillset in terms of how they use technology and interact with people, and I think that sometimes older generations are guilty of trivializing and discounting the way that younger generations interact and       communicate with each other. While I think that there are some things that we want to impart to them, it is important to recognize that young people are at the forefront of technology and that there needs to be a bridge there.

Finally, I don’t  think you can be an effective mentor if you don’t know who a person is. You need to know their fears, insecurities, and what drives them in order to have a sense of how to interact with them and motivate them. Knowing these things requires building trust and allowing a space for that honesty without judgment.

What are some of the barriers that keep qualified students out of  law school?

  1. Lack of exposure and not having a clear understanding of the field. Many students don’t actually understand what the profession is or all of the opportunities that are available
  2. Finances. Lots of law school students have over six figures of debt. When you look at the jobs and salaries available in the field, the amount of debt incurred many times outweighs income opportunity.
  3. Preparation for the LSAT which can be intimidating and expensive. Fortunately, there may be a shift in the necessity of LSAT. Harvard has announced that they will now accept GRE score for law school admission, which is huge! Hopefully other law schools will follow suit.

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