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Book Review: A Guide for Minority Law School Candidates by Oliver Enrique Rodriguez

Sahng-Ah Yoo

Book Review: A Guide for Minority Law School Candidates by Oliver Enrique Rodriguez
kali9 via iStock

The Legal Profession

The legal profession supplies presidents, governors, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, general counsels, and heads of corporate, government, nonprofit, and legal organizations. We are everywhere and we serve everyone. Given the widespread impact that legal professionals have on our everyday society, its membership needs to be as inclusive as the populations we serve.

Historical Lack of Diversity in the Profession

Yet, throughout its history, the legal profession has long been characterized by a distinct lack of diversity. According to the American Bar Association’s National Lawyer Population Survey, women made up just 30 percent of the legal profession in 2007 and only rose slightly to 35 percent by 2017. The same survey found that in 2017, Black and African American lawyers represented only 5 percent of active attorneys, up from 4 percent in 2007. Yet, as of 2016, Black or African American individuals made up 13.3 percent of the U.S. population. Hispanic lawyers are similarly underrepresented compared with their makeup of the U.S. population. And despite being the largest minority group at major law firms, Asian Americans have the highest attrition rate and rank lowest in the ratio of partners to associates.

According to Faisal Bhabhia in “Towards a Pedagogy of Diversity in Legal Education” (Osgoode Hall Law Journal, Fall 2014), the origins of these trends are in the “systemic and institutional bigotry and prejudice” (p. 78) that undergirded law school admissions well into the 1970s. In 2018, Native American students made up 2 percent of all admitted candidates, Black students made up 10 percent, Asian students made up 10.5 percent, and Hispanic students made up 11.5 percent. While law students and faculty are as racially and ethnically diverse as they have ever been, this level of diversity falls short of being representative of the population at large.

The Book's Origins

For Oliver Enrique Rodriguez, this lack of diversity was both a personal struggle and a welcome challenge. As a first-generation Latino with no ties to the legal profession, he was determined to become a lawyer but didn’t know where to begin. Googling his way through the application process and proactively seeking advice and guidance from practicing attorneys, Rodriguez persevered. It all paid off, and in 2015, Rodriguez entered University of San Diego (USD) School of Law as a 1L.

While at law school, he took part in USD’s various recruitment efforts, including Diversity Day and other events targeting minority applicants, giving him the opportunity to interact with diverse members of the community. And the most consistent question he received at these events was “How did you get here?” His struggle to distill his knowledge about the application process within a short two-minute conversation crystallized for him just how much information he had amassed about the application process and just how little information minority applicants typically had. It was this information disparity that led him to begin writing A Guide for Minority Law School Candidates, meant for people from marginalized communities who are interested in applying for law school.

Although Rodriguez pitches the book as a guide for all minority law school candidates, trying to provide advice for such a large and diverse audience in a single book is really an impossible task. After I read the book and spoke with Rodriguez, it became clear that the core audience for this book is recent college graduates who are emotionally invested in becoming a lawyer but know nothing about the process—basically, people who are where Rodriguez was at the start of his journey to law school. And for this core audience, the book can be one of many excellent tools to “facilitate understanding” (Foreword; p. 76) and get a bird’s-eye view of the steps in the application process.

The Four Key Steps to the Application Process

The book covers four key steps in the law school application process: (1) deciding to apply for law school, (2) taking the LSAT, (3) preparing the application materials, and (4) reacting to law school admissions decisions. It also includes miscellaneous helpful items, including scholarship opportunities for readers to consider, suggested additional readings to supplement the guide, and a number of “Pep Talks” and inspirational quotes to motivate the reader along the way.

Step 1

Three chapters cover the first step: “Pep Talk #1: The Reality of the Situation/Self-Evaluation”; “Things to Consider: Cost, Law School Performance/Attrition, Job Prospects”; and “Choosing Schools: US News & World Report (Rankings/Tiers).” Critically, Rodriguez asks the reader to ask himself or herself: Why do I want to go to law school? “Do some research on the reality of law school. Law school is expensive and the job prospects are not guaranteed. One’s commitment and dedication will be re-fined.” (p. 161)

Step 2

The chapters entitled “Pep Talk #2: The LSAT and Taking a Prep Course” and “GPA/LSAT” cover the second step: taking the LSAT. The LSAT is notoriously difficult. Given that a growing number of law schools are accepting GRE scores in lieu of LSAT scores, some prospective students may seek to avoid the LSAT and take only the GRE. Rodriguez discourages this for two reasons. First and foremost, he firmly believes in the predictive value of the LSAT in a law student’s potential success and thinks the discipline people bring to the LSAT preparation process is indicative of the type of discipline they will bring to law school. Second, “[p]erforming well on the LSAT can equate to scholarship offers.” (p. 229) For students coming into the process with limited funds, doing well on the LSAT can mean the difference between attending law school with significant or no debt at all.

Step 3

The third step—preparing the application materials—is covered by five other chapters: “The Application Process: LSAC, CAS, Fee Waivers, Transcripts, Full-time vs. Part-time”; “Personal Statement/Diversity Statement/Mission Statement/Inspirational Quote #3”; “Letters of Recommendation”; “Disclosures/Character Fitness Addendum/Inspirational Quote #4”; and “Resume.” This step covers a lot of the other material that goes into the application process. A key part of the application is the personal statement, which Rodriguez calls the applicant’s “mission statement.” “The mission statement is an opportunity to demonstrate how your personal goals align with the school’s vision. Read the statement and address it. It’s that simple.” (p. 271)

Step 4

Finally, the remaining chapters contextualize the fourth step: “The Waiting Game”; “Decisions and Outcomes”; and “Scholarship Opportunities.” Rodriguez encourages applicants to think of the application submission as the first opportunity to formally express interest in that law school. Continue to do well in college classes, solicit reference letters from employers, visit law schools, and be proactive about seeking scholarship opportunities.

The Book's Limitations

Covering a wide net of questions a prospective law student may have, this book offers many good things. But it is not perfect. Most critical to understanding how to use this book well is recognizing that it captures only Rodriguez’s personal experience through his law school application process. Every step of the application process can be of a very personal nature, whether it is deciding exactly which schools to apply to, deciding from whom to seek recommendation letters, or deciding to wait to do law school at a later point in time. Therefore, it is important that readers think critically about how to apply Rodriguez’s experience to their own circumstances to create their own unique paths toward law school.

The book’s discussion on LSAT prep is perhaps a good example of this. Rodriguez advises his readers to invest time and money into prep courses for the LSAT, and based on our interview, it is clear why: Rodriguez benefited immensely from the enforced discipline that the LSAT prep course provided him, boosting his LSAT score dozens of points from his first test, for which he had self-studied. But the advice to take a prep course should not be considered universal. While prep courses have helped many students bump their scores to become competitive applicants for dream law schools, for many others, taking an LSAT prep course is not an ideal choice, whether because it does not fit existing study habits or because it’s simply too expensive and can be a bad financial choice.

Conclusion: A Good Introduction to the Law School Process for Minority Students

Therefore, while this book alone is not enough to take any prospective law student from start to finish, it is a good first introduction for anyone who wants the general contours of the path to law school and its typical obstacles.

But perhaps the deeper lesson here is for those of us already in the legal profession, barred and serving our communities. In his book, Rodriguez speaks of his personal mission “to pave the way for others—to leave the door open and assist [them] in accessing an advanced education,” (Foreword; p. 76), and in 2015, he was awarded the Mario G. Obledo Memorial Scholarship by the HNBA Legal Education Fund for doing just that by writing this book. This book, then, may serve as an invigorating reminder to each and every one of us that as we continue to progress and break barriers in the legal profession, we should likewise endeavor to find ways—big or small—to open doors for others to step through after us.