Black law students encourage Urban Prep seniors to consider legal training

High school senior Cedric Hakeem aspires to be a lawyer one day, but has always been somewhat baffled by the process it takes to get there. Many of his questions were answered during a recent visit to the University of Chicago Law School.

“When I heard my school was going here, I got so excited because I really don’t know that much about law school,” said Hakeem, dressed in his crisp school uniform of suit coat, striped tie, and khakis. “All I know is I can’t wait to get there.” As a first step toward his goal, he will be attending Grinnell College in the fall.

Along with more than a dozen classmates from Urban Prep Academy, Hakeem spent the morning of Wednesday, Feb. 23, touring the Law School, meeting with members of the Black Law Students Association, and talking with Randolph Stone, Director of the Criminal & Juvenile Justice Project at Law School’s Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. Urban Prep focuses its efforts on providing young, black, economically disadvantaged men from Chicago with high quality college preparation. It recently announced 100 percent college matriculation among its seniors for a second year in a row.

During an hour–long panel discussion with BLSA members, the Urban Prep Academy students heard about everything from the LSAT and various types of law practice to how to best prepare for success in law school and what particular hurdles young black men may face.

The BLSA participants came from an impressive range of backgrounds, colleges, majors, and job experiences. They each pursued the law for a different reason, including legal, political, and business interests, which was eye opening for the high school students. The BLSA members gave practical advice centered on the importance of developing reading, writing, communication, analytical, and time management skills.

The frankness of the discussion elicited nods of appreciation from the high school group, with one particular comment about the unique challenges facing many black men in law school drawing out murmurs of understanding:

“It’s just the reality of the situation,” said Ryan Dunigan, a South Side Chicago native who is pursuing a dual degree at the Law School and the Harris School of Public Policy Studies. “Our classmates, or colleagues, come from a certain background and probably come from a certain community as well. They probably already have some of these social connections, social networks, and social skills. So, for us to close the gap and for us to advance and do just as well, we have to gain those skills.” He said that college would help them achieve some of those goals, while extracurricular activities like public speaking classes and cultural events would add important social skills.

James Cole, an Urban Prep student who hopes to attend the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, is considering law school as a stepping–stone to starting his own business. He said BLSA members reiterated important skills he needs to help him succeed.

“Time management, they keep pushing it, and networking. Those were my two main takeaways,” he said.

Over lunch, Randolph Stone, who also is a Clinical Professor in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, encouraged the young men to see the law as a tool to solve important problems, like the mass incarceration rates that affect so many of Chicago’s black youth.

“The law gives you the opportunity to help someone change their life or help change the course of human events,” he said.

When a student asked Stone why he pursued a law degree, Stone joked that his mother claimed it was due to his penchant for helping the underdog while his grandmother maintained it was because she would only have accepted him as either a pastor or lawyer. Ultimately, though, he said he chose the law because he enjoys writing, oral communication, and arguing cases in front of a judge.

The BLSA students were interested in reaching out to the students to help expose them as early as possible to the idea of law school, said Ann Perry, Assistant Dean for Admissions.

“We were happy to be able to fund a field trip for the Urban Prep Academy students to let them know about what law school is like, what lawyers do, and how lawyers succeed,” she said, noting that the Law School Admissions Council’s Discover Law program supported the field trip.

While this high school group engaged with future lawyers studying at UChicago, other Urban Prep Academy seniors were busy visiting other role models at the Sears Tower, Tribune Towers, and Northwestern Law School, to name a few. The group’s advisor Jessica Vande Vusse (AB ’94) said the trips help the students discover opportunities in Chicago beyond their Englewood neighborhood.

“Seeing opportunities and seeing people who look like them being successful is important,” she said. “We are making sure they feel connected to the community.”