August 22, 2017 Articles

How SEO Law Provides a Path for Underrepresented Students into Corporate Law

The SEO Law Fellowship Program identifies, trains, and develops talented black, Hispanic, and Native American law students for summer internships at the nation’s premier law firms.

By Van Ann Bui and Grace Pajonk

Donna Scaffidi, whose mother hails from the Dominican Republic, has dreamed of being an attorney since she was seven years old. While in college, Ms. Scaffidi began the process of compiling a list of target law schools. She searched LinkedIn for diverse students and alumni from those institutions to familiarize herself with the typical background and path of a successful “corporate lawyer.” During her investigation, she noticed one activity that continuously appeared in the profiles of the accomplished law students and lawyers she researched: SEO Law Program. Intrigued, Ms. Scaffidi reached out to learn more. In May 2017, she was admitted to the SEO Law Fellowship Program and, as part of the program, is currently interning at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP in New York before beginning her studies at the University of Michigan Law School.

The SEO Law Fellowship Program identifies, trains, and develops talented black, Hispanic, and Native American law students for summer internships at the nation’s premier law firms in order to increase the recruiting pipeline of attorneys entering such firms. Ms. Scaffidi, along with 99 other underrepresented incoming law students, were selected from over 1,300 applicants to participate in this year’s program. Participating law firms receive access to accomplished students as their interns who arrive at the firms prepared and trained through an intensive academic and career preparatory program.

The SEO Law Fellowship Program was formed in 1986. Among its earliest partners were Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP; and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. Today, the program partners with 34 corporate law firms, including 31 firms represented in the AmLaw 100, participating in 12 cities across the United States.

This year’s fellows will be attending 17 different law schools: Harvard Law School (22), Columbia Law School (19), New York University School of Law (8), University of Chicago Law School (7), Yale Law School (7), Stanford Law School (5), University of California–Berkeley School of Law (5), Cornell Law School (4), Georgetown Law School (4), University of Pennsylvania Law School (3), University of Michigan Law School (3), Duke Law School (3), University of Texas School of Law (3), University of Virginia School of Law (3), Fordham Law School (2), USC Gould School of Law (1), Northwestern Law School (1).

Prior to the start of their internships, fellows attend SEO’s Law Institute, a two-week academic and career development training session. Created to provide a strong academic foundation to ensure the fellows receive top grades in school, the Law Institute offers seminars taught by legal writing professors who help students understand how to read and brief legal opinions, how to synthesize a rule from a case or statute, how to prepare an effective law school outline, how to perform legal analysis, and how to draft legal memoranda.

The Law Institute supplements the seminars with lectures by law school professors that aim to simulate a real lecture hall, including a simulated exam at the end of each week. For many fellows, including Michael Vance, a fellow who is interning at Jones Day in Houston, Texas, and will be attending the University of Texas School of Law, the opportunity to take a practice exam before law school helps to demystify what to expect when they head off to school. Mr. Vance states, “A lot of it is so new—even though I had significant work experience, I didn’t know anything about what to expect going into law school or the legal profession. SEO helped me build up confidence going into school in the fall.”

In addition to the academic training, the SEO Law Fellowship Program organizes workshops and intimate panel discussions with its partner law firms to discuss with the fellows how to prepare for, and excel in, their internships and legal careers. Partner law firms provide training on various topics, including handling summer assignments, email and phone etiquette, making a good first impression, and networking and relationship building.

Following the Law Institute, the fellows head to their internships. Equipped with the training they receive from the Law Institute, the fellows arrive at their internships eager and prepared to work and learn. Malikah Williams, who is interning at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP in New York and will be attending Harvard Law School, will be the first lawyer in her family. Ms. Williams says, “No one I knew had any insight into this world—how to enter into the firm, how to navigate talking to attorneys, how to engage with my coworkers. SEO gave me a window into corporate law and made it apparent that this is something I’m interested in.”

Through the experience, students become strong firm ambassadors when they arrive on campus. Lucas Fernandez-Rocha, who is interning at Skadden Arps in New York and will be attending Duke University School of Law, says, “My experience at the firm has been incredible—better than I could have ever expected. I’ve loved the people I’ve met and the work I’ve received. Everyone is incredibly friendly and wants to help; so many attorneys want to give us advice. This experience has been invaluable.”

In addition to receiving exposure to the fellows interning at their own firms, our partner law firms receive a book of résumés for all of the students in the class as well as the opportunity to host events for the entire class of fellows throughout the summer. Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP recently cosponsored an event with SEO Law, featuring guest speaker Preet Bharara, who discussed the challenges and opportunities regarding diversity in the legal profession.

Other summer events organized by our partner firms include a New York Mets game hosted by Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP; a Diversity Networking Reception hosted by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, featuring guest speaker April D. Ryan (White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief for American Urban Radio Networks and CNN political analyst); and a Citywide Diversity Reception hosted by Simpson Thacher, featuring guest speaker Misty Copeland (the first African American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre).

Aside from the mentorship the fellows receive from attorneys at our partner law firms, the fellows also benefit from an incredible support network from the other fellows in the class. Mr. Fernandez-Rocha says that not only is he learning how to navigate the corporate law environment but he is also doing it with a vast network of diverse students attending schools across the country. “It has only been one summer but my best friends in New York are the people I met through SEO. I’ve developed close friendships and a wide network that I know will be vital to me throughout law school and my legal career.”

Ms. Scaffidi, who up until a couple of months ago had only encountered SEO Law through LinkedIn profiles of people she admired, adds that “[m]y journey—unchartered by anyone in my family—has been filled with great growth and learning opportunities because of the mentors, sponsors, and the support network I have cultivated through my SEO Law family.”

SEO also tries to instill the value of giving back to the community. “One of the biggest things I can do is to help those who don’t have access to lawyers understand the role of a lawyer and to use my position of knowledge now to provide access and opportunities to those communities,” says Mr. Vance. Mr. Fernandez-Rocha was recently approached by a prospective law student seeking his advice about the SEO Law Fellowship program. He says, “My whole life, I’ve had to reach out to people to ask for advice and now people are coming to me and I’m able to provide that advice.”

About her future in corporate law, Ms. Williams says, “It’s not often that you feel overprepared for something, but doing SEO, I feel more than prepared to be in this field now, and that’s a great feeling.”

If you are interested in becoming a partner of the SEO Law Fellowship Program, please contact Van Ann Bui, the director of the Law Program, at seolaw@seo-usa.org. Our partner law firms receive highly talented summer interns of color, access to the entire class of students entering the nation’s most selective schools through a résumé book, and an early opportunity to build relationships with the students through panel discussions and networking receptions throughout the summer. To learn more about the program, please visit www.seolaw.org.

The following law firms are participating in the 2017 SEO Law Fellowship Program:

  • Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City, Los Angeles)
  • Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP (New York City)
  • Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • Clifford Chance LLP (New York City)
  • Cooley LLP (San Francisco Bay Area)
  • Covington & Burling LLP (Washington, D.C., San Francisco Bay Area)
  • Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP (New York City)
  • Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP (San Francisco Bay Area, New York City)
  • Debevoise & Plimpton LLP (New York City)
  • Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP (New York City)
  • Hogan Lovells US LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • Jenner & Block LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • Jones Day (Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus (Ohio), Dallas, Washington, D.C., Houston, New York City, San Francisco)
  • Kirkland & Ellis LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP (New York City)
  • Latham & Watkins LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • Linklaters LLP (New York City)
  • Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP (New York City)
  • Morrison & Foerster LLP (New York City, San Francisco Bay Area)
  • O’Melveny & Myers LLP (Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, Orange County, New York City, San Francisco)
  • Otterbourg, Steindler, Houston & Rosen, P.C. (New York City)
  • Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP (New York City)
  • Proskauer Rose LLP (New York City)
  • Ropes & Gray LLP (New York City)
  • Shearman & Sterling LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • Simpson Thacher & Bartlett (New York City)
  • Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City, Wilmington (Delaware))
  • Sullivan & Cromwell LLP (New York City)
  • Vinson & Elkins LLP (Dallas, Houston)
  • Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz (New York City)
  • Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP (New York City)
  • White & Case LLP (Washington, D.C., New York City)
  • WilmerHale (Washington, D.C., New York City, Palo Alto)

Van Ann Bui is the director and Grace Pajonk is the associate director of the Law Program at Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO) in New York City, New York.


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Van Ann Bui and Grace Pajonk – August 22, 2017