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September 22, 2021

University of Utah, BYU law schools' Achievement Fellowships aspire to change 'ecosystem' of state's legal community

SALT LAKE CITY — Over the past decade, Utah’s population has become increasingly diverse, a trend the state’s top demographer Pam Perlich has described as “irreversible.”

By 2065, the Beehive State is projected to look more like the rest of the nation, with slightly more than 1 in 3 Utahns racial and ethnic minorities.

In 2020, it’s closer to 1 in 5 and the makeup of Utah’s legal community lags far behind.

D. Gordon Smith, dean of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, said a recent self-reported survey of Utah Bar members indicates minority lawyers comprise less than 10% of all attorneys.

“That’s just not OK when you have a much larger percentage of our population who are in those categories,” he said.

Smith and Elizabeth Kronk Warner, dean of the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law, have had frequent discussions about how to increase diversity at their respective schools since Kronk Warner became dean of the U.’s law school in 2019.

“Diversity is something that is much needed in the bar. We’ve talked a lot with Supreme Court justices about access to justice and the need to have people who are serving underrepresented communities,” Smith said.

As he and Kronk Warner considered strategies to attract and support more diverse students in their respective institutions, Smith explored a program at UCLA Law that offers full-tuition scholarships to a small number of academically talented, high-achieving applicants who have also overcome hardships or challenges.

He became convinced that such a program in Utah would not only help attract qualified and diverse students to attend law school in Utah, it might also encourage them to establish their legal practices here.

Smith started shopping the idea with local law firms, which was about the same time Kronk Warner was visiting firms to introduce herself to the legal community. She is the first woman and Native American to lead the college.

One of the firms Smith visited was Kirton McConkie. The firm’s president, Lee Wright, was highly supportive of the initiative but told Smith that Utah’s two law schools needed to collaborate.

Diversity is something that is much needed in the bar. We’ve talked a lot with Supreme Court justices about access to justice and the need to have people who are serving underrepresented communities.

–D. Gordon Smith, dean of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School

“This is a community need, not just a BYU need, not just University of Utah need and not just a law firm need. This is a community need and a legal community need. They quickly put their heads together said ‘Absolutely, we’re in this together.'”

This fall will mark the launch of the Achievement Fellowships Program, which will offer full tuition for three academic years and mentoring opportunities for students by five participating law firms — Kirton McConkie, Durham Jones & Pinegar, Greenberg Traurig, Snell & Wilmer, and Strong & Hanni.

“We’re trying to do something collaboratively to change not just our respective schools but to change the ecosystem,” Smith said.

Smith said he hopes to award fellowships to 10 students entering law school this fall at BYU, and he believes a like number will be awarded by the University of Utah.

The law schools are seeking candidates who have experienced a broad array of life challenges, yet have persevered academically to the point they have been accepted to law schools.

The selection process will consider students’ hardships or challenges such as disability, being a first-generation college student, or being an immigrant or refugee.

Other considerations include experiencing homelessness, foster care placement, working long hours while attending high school or college, or family struggles with poverty, incarceration, abandonment, physical or mental health issues, and substance abuse.

Kronk Warner said aside from the generous financial support of the fellows, the five participating law firms have also committed to mentoring the Achievement Fellows, which will further connect them to the community and legal professionals who can guide and encourage them.

Smith, who was a first-generation college student, and Kronk Warner, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, both credit mentors for guiding them in law school, as professionals and in academia.

“I certainly was never taught that I needed to promote myself or how to develop business. So if I didn’t have mentors who were willing to teach me those soft skills and help me along and say, ‘You know, when you’re meeting a client, this is what you talk about, this is what you don’t talk about, and this is how you develop relationships and network,’ I don’t think I would be where I am today,” Kronk Warner said.

It is hoped that mentoring will not only help students “survive, feel comfortable and welcome,” but to also encourage diverse students to sink roots in Utah and become part of the legal community, she said.

Many top Fortune 500 companies seek out law firms that have lawyers with diverse perspectives, Kronk Warner said, explaining that this has implications for Utah’s economic development efforts.

Moreover, many studies show when people with diverse perspectives work on problems together, there are better outcomes, she said.

“We just know that having diverse people from diverse backgrounds as part of our profession is going to lead to a stronger, more robust legal profession here in Utah, which, of course, is going to lead to better results for our community as a whole,” she said.

Wright said when he initially discussed the state of Utah’s legal community and the proposed fellowship program with Smith, he told him that Utah’s legal community wants more diverse candidates but neither BYU nor the U. have produced a large enough pool to change the landscape.

“Let’s increase that pool and let’s get us access more quickly to those types of candidates, so that we can be a part of the change,” Wright said.

Kronk Warner said Wright’s commitment and belief in diversifying Utah’s legal profession “was really infectious.”

She added, “This is a pretty significant financial commitment for the firms as they’re supporting these efforts both at the U. and the Y. It’s a perfect example, kind of putting your money where your mouth is.”

Marjorie Cortez

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