By Ruthe Ashley
“I never thought I could be a lawyer until I was lucky enough to be one of the first high school law academy students at my school,” stated a DeAnza High School Law Academy student in Richmond, Calif., who is now a Public Defender in Los Angeles. She was in one of our first six high school law academies launched in 2011 to introduce diverse students to law and law-related careers.
Twelve years after our first high school law academies started, the California Lawyers Foundation (CLF) has offered us a new home and breathed new life into our commitment and passion for our students.
History of CA Law Academies
In 2010, the State Bar of California had a unique partnership opportunity to work with the California Department of Education in building its first six high school law academies throughout California. Specific legislation for creating California Partnership Academies (CPA) in Ed Code 54690-97 required them to be in public high schools of 350+ students where at least 50% of each classroom was classified as “at risk” students. These two requirements alone produced classrooms of at least 70% students of color.
This was precisely what the State Bar was looking for—a “boots on the ground” project to take its diversity commitment to the next level. By 2010, the bar had supported a year-long Diversity Pipeline Task Force project, creating an online listing of current diversity pipeline programs. This task force, which I chaired, led to the creation of the Council on Access and Fairness to institutionalize the commitment to the bar’s diversity work. The creation of the high school law academies was a natural next step.
Return to Our Roots
After the State Bar of California refocused its diversity work, the Foundation for California Community Colleges housed the CaliforniaLAW Pathways organization in 2015, where our high school team continued to support our law academies. We are delighted to come back to our roots in the law. Our new team focused on support of our high school law academies has a new name: The California Legal Pathways Collaborative (CLPC), chaired by me with an experienced pipeline expert as Vice Chair, Patricia Lee.
In 2024, we have grown to 22 high school law academies that we support with volunteer lawyers and judges. With a cohort of approximately 90 students per academy (or 2000 students/year), our legal professionals act as mentors, create internships, assist with curriculum and as speakers in the classroom, coach mock trial teams, and support work-based learning experiences such as Legislative Day, professional development for our teaching teams, Advisory Councils that work closely with our teaching teams in mapping out the work for the year and more.
Each academy curriculum has one hour of a daily law class for three years. In the end, students are both work-ready and college-ready. Our first law school graduates emerged in 2022, with all students learning critical thinking and public speaking skills and understanding how the justice system serves all students throughout their lives.
Our volunteers come with a passion for students and service, and many keep their relationships with their students throughout their post-high-school years. If you want to be part of this volunteer army, please contact us, and we’ll find a local high school spot where you can personally motivate and inspire the next generation of lawyers as we aim to produce a profession that reflects the rich diversity of our state of California.
Ruthe Catolico Ashley is Chair of the newly created California Legal Pathways Collaborative (CLPC), which focuses on expanding resources for the high school law academies project she started in 2010.