International Campus

Pre-law program paves way to career for once-wayward Bay Area students

Martha Perez-Belardes makes a point during a group discussion in a "Street Law" class at San Jose City College in San Jose, California, Dec. 5, 2017. Perez-Belardes is in the Pathways to Law program which offers the first steps of a pre-law major plus counseling and guidance to enable students to prepare then transfer to a university that has an associated law schools. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group)

Growing up in East San Jose, Marcelo Lopez dreamed of the day he would no longer need to worry about where to live or how to get enough to eat. Thoughts about a career were far from his mind.

After his mother died, Lopez, then 15, went to work as a laborer to support himself and two younger sisters. Gradually, he worked his way up to office jobs, most recently in human resources.

Today Lopez, 36, is on his way toward becoming an attorney. A novel state program helps lift those like Lopez from hardscrabble backgrounds toward law school and, ultimately, passing the State Bar.

Marcelo Lopez, right, poses with San Jose City College President ByronBreland at the San Jose City College graduation ceremony in May 2017. Lopez participates in the Pathway to Law program that helps guide community college students to law school. (Courtesy Jordan Ann Elliot)
Marcelo Lopez, right, poses with San Jose City College President Byron Breland at the San Jose City College graduation ceremony in May. (Courtesy Jordan Ann Elliot) 

The Pathway to Law program is intended to diversify the ranks of American lawyers. Latinos and blacks make up only 5 percent, and Asians and multiracial people make up 2 percent each, according to the American Bar Association, with only minuscule change over 10 years. The distribution doesn’t reflect our multi-ethnic society, particularly in California.

Pathway to Law draws from the community colleges whose students have a wider life experience than typical undergraduates. For students, it cuts out two years of tuition at a four-year university. It also unleashes possibilities for many who never dared to dream of going back to school, much less working toward a law degree.

In illuminating the way, Lopez said, the program also identifies him and others as potential success stories.

“It does make a difference in the way you see yourself and the way others see you,” said Lopez, who was steered toward becoming a tradesman or joining the military when he was at James Lick High in San Jose. But 20 years later, he began in Pathway at San Jose City College and transferred this year to UC-Davis.

Many Pathway participants are older students like Lopez who overcame obstacles early in life and whose struggles fuel their passion for the law.

Martha Perez-Belardes, 46, always wanted to be a lawyer. She liked arguing. The mother of four children, ages 28 to 9, is in her second year in Pathway and is determined to help single mothers negotiate Family Court. Melissa Santos, 29, wants to help the undocumented as an immigration or civil rights lawyer.

That guidance — offered even though the college has a 933-to-1 student-counselor ratio — is critical.

“I’ve learned about all these things I never knew about, like admissions processes, things to prepare you for the mindset of someone who’s going to apply for law school,” said Pathway student Melissa Martinez, 26. At Westmont High, she struggled in part because of poor eyesight, but didn’t realize at the time that she needed glasses.

Initiated in 2014, the Pathway program operates at 27 community colleges. Besides designated courses, students get academic counseling, visit law schools and sit in on court trials. Six universities and their law schools partner as transfer destinations. Pathway transfer student undergraduate applications are flagged, but not given preference, said Leslie Cunningham, executive director of California LAW Inc., the non-profit that runs Pathway. The six law schools — Santa Clara University, University of San Francisco, UC-Davis, UC-Irvine, Loyola Marymount University and University of Southern California — give Pathway applicants priority and waive application fees, she said

City College has augmented its Pathway program by partnering with San Jose’s Lincoln Law School, tailored to older, working students.

“We realized that students were out of funding by the time they paid for two more years of undergrad at Santa Clara University or UC-Davis — and then they had to try to find $160,000 for law school,” said Lincoln Dean Laura Palazzolo.

In contrast, Lincoln’s four-year curriculum of night classes costs about $75,000. And in age, ethnicity and life experience, Lincoln’s student body is much more diverse than better-known private laws schools

“I think the partnership with Lincoln holds a lot of promise. It’s local and affordable and it’s an excellent program,” said Phil Crawford, an attorney who teaches the “Street Law” course at San Jose City College.

In fact, he argued that students may further streamline and save money by skipping the final two years of undergraduate work. In California, a bachelor’s degree isn’t necessary to enter law school or take the bar exam.

With the February State Bar passage rate a lowly 35 percent, and with poor and minority students historically performing worse than the general pool of students, the bar has a challenge in its diversity mission.

Pathway to Law reimagines the idea of who can become a lawyer. “People are intimidated to go back to school because you think you’re too old,” said Perez-Belardes, who was supposed to graduate Lincoln High in 1989, but didn’t earn her high school equivalency until 2015.

At City College’s Pathway program, “the counselors and the teachers embrace you. You don’t feel lost once they get a hold of you,” she said. “They make you feel like it’s OK to be there. You can learn — it’s never too late.”

Among the 27 community colleges statewide with Pathway to Law programs are Chabot in Hayward, College of Alameda, Contra Costa in San Pablo, Gavilan in Gilroy, Hartnell in Salinas, Merritt in Oakland, San Jose City College and Solano in Fairfield.