Lawtina Mentoring Program Offers Roadmap for Aspiring Lawyers
With two parents and three siblings who put the arts at the center of their lives, it would have made sense for Sofia Urias to choose a similar career path.
But she always saw her creative outlets in dance, choir and theater as just those – outlets.
When she began thinking during her senior year of high school about where her studies would take her, her parents weren't surprised at all when she told them she planned to study law. In fact, she said, they knew before she did.
"They just always thought that I was a really logical thinker, and that when I have a belief, I'm going to fight for it," said Urias, a Marana, Arizona, native and a senior in the Bachelor of Arts in Law program, offered by the James E. Rogers College of Law and the School of Government and Public Policy in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. "I think they just saw that my personality really matched with what it takes to study law."
But selecting her career path was just the first step on a long road to getting into law school. During her junior year, Urias found a resource that would serve as her roadmap and introduce her to attorneys who had already made the journey.
The Lawtina Mentoring Program has served as a hub for mentorship and guidance for Latina Bachelor of Arts in Law students such as Urias. The program, which was piloted in spring 2020 and returned in spring 2021, pairs students with mentors working in the legal field, and serves as a go-to resource for what to expect about applying to and navigating law school.
A Social Network for Aspiring Latina Lawyers
As a research scholar in the College of Law, Jessica Findley was interested in exploring diversity – or lack of diversity – in the legal field. An American Bar Association survey released earlier this year shows that 85% of active lawyers in the U.S. are white, and 63% are male. Attorneys who identify as Latina, Findley said, only make up about 2% of attorneys in the U.S.
Findley led the establishment of the Lawtina Mentoring Program with the support of Marla Franco, assistant vice provost of Hispanic Serving Institution Initiatives, and funding from the AccessLex Institute, which provides support to law students.
"This program has such strong alignment with HSI Initiatives and I am proud to see the College of Law investing in experiences that help make law school much more accessible and supportive for Latina students," Franco said.
Now the director of the program, Findley said Lawtina aims to answer key questions that many aspiring law students find themselves asking.
"How do students know how to apply if they don't have people they can ask, if they haven't actually seen lawyers working in the legal profession or they don't have family or friends who are lawyers to ask them questions?" said Findley, who is also the college's interim director for bar and academic success. "The program's primary goal, among others, is to help students create this social network where they could seek guidance."
The program is a semester-long, one-credit course that begins by pairing students with mentors – all women of color who work in Tucson as attorneys, judges and other legal professionals.
The program's regular meetings involve panel discussions by mentors or group activities that help students identify which law schools may be right for them and how to apply. Other meetings cover foundational skills such as networking or interviewing for a job.
Findley – who has a law degree and a doctorate in psychology, both from the University of Arizona – said that to build the Lawtina curriculum, she reflected on her own experience as a first-generation law student, as well as survey responses from the program's mentors and other women of color in the legal community about what they would have found helpful as law students.
Mentors as Motivators
Students in the Lawtina Mentoring Program are expected to meet regularly with their mentors outside of the program's meetings, especially for job shadowing opportunities. A survey of College of Law students following the Lawtina Mentoring Program's first semester showed that 94% of respondents who participated in the program found mentoring helpful in pursuing a career in law.
That was especially true for Urias, who was paired with Pima County Superior Court Commissioner Helena Seymour. Urias, in her initial meeting with Seymour, jumped at the invitation to sit in on the commissioner's hearings once a week and debrief afterward.
"Probably one of the best decisions that I ever made was fitting that into my schedule," Urias said.
Ruth Ballesteros-Saenz, who participated in the program in 2020 and is now pursuing a Master of Legal Studies at the College of Law, said the program was full of "little things that make a huge difference" when it comes to becoming a lawyer.
"All those little tips and things that will help us improve, for example, our resume – that follows us everywhere," she said.
Above all, Ballesteros-Saenz said, the program provided a community where aspiring attorneys could get the motivation they need to stay focused.
"I think, 'If they can do it, I can do it,'" she said. "If you have that support, the ability to reach out to people and talk to them about potential barriers you face that they went through, I think that will help you get through the process."
Building on the Success
The motivation and community Urias found in the Lawtina Mentoring Program proved invaluable last year when her LSAT score was lower than she had hoped. She turned to Findley and Seymour to give her the boost she needed to try again.
"I called Jess and she said, 'You know what, it's OK, a lot of people have to take it multiple times. You know what you're capable of, and that's all that matters,'" Urias said. "They really helped me through that, because I thought my chances were over."
Urias is now a first-year UArizona law student. As a student in the 3+3 B.A. Law & Juris Doctor program, Urias can finish her undergraduate degree while working concurrently toward her law degree. And even though Urias opted not to pursue a career in the arts, she's interested in entertainment law.
Ballesteros-Saenz is the legal secretary for the Tucson law firm Goldsmith & Mendoza. She said she's still interested in the possibility of law school and was invited by Findley to give a talk during a Lawtina program meeting about her experience in the Master of Legal Studies program.
Findley said she hopes to bring the Lawtina Mentoring Program back in the spring and build on its success. In the survey of program participants following the pilot program, 94% said they were interested in pursuing a career as an attorney, compared to 72% of students in the college who did not go through the program. The survey also suggested that students are hungry for more content, so Findley hopes to expand the curriculum from one credit to three.
But the feedback that really stands out, Findley said, comes in the form of text messages and phone calls from students who want to stay in touch to share their successes and maintain the network they've built.
"That really demonstrates to me that this is making a difference in students' lives," she said. "Even seeing that it made a difference for one or two students really shows me how important the program is."