Houstonian Mariesha Keys realized she wanted to become a lawyer in eighth grade, while prepping for a mock trial in her English class. Watching Wizard of Oz, she says, “I decided I could be the defense attorney for Dorothy because her house fell on the Wicked Witch of the West.” Presenting her case, she adds, “I found confidence in front of my peers and calm I didn’t think I had. After that, I always found a way to guide my interests back to law.”
Keys went to college at UH, where she pursued a bachelor’s degree in creative writing and became one of two members of the inaugural class of the university’s Pre-Law Pipeline, which assists underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation undergraduate students interested in law. Keys, who is African American, graduated in 2015, applied to the UH Law Center, and got in. Next May she will receive her degree.
The Pipeline is a tremendous resource, offering an eight-week summer program that prepares undergrads for the rigors of law school while helping them with LSAT prep and the application process. Those who are accepted—to the UH Law Center or elsewhere—receive assistance with professional development, networking, mentorships, internships, and scholarship opportunities.
Leonard Baynes, who took over as dean of the Law Center in 2014, has made diversity a priority from day one, in an attempt to address a serious problem: Only about 15 percent of attorneys in the U.S. are people of color, and of those, only 8 percent are partners, according to the National Association for Law Placement’s 2017 Report on Diversity.
“Lawyers are integral parts of our society, and we need to make sure that we have a representative group of people who can take the baton from the previous generation and assume these leadership responsibilities,” Baynes explains. “The Pipeline provides students with almost a boot camp to make sure they put their application in the best light.”
In September, thanks in large part to the Pipeline—which worked with more than 40 students in 2018—the UH Law Center received the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award from INSIGHT magazine for the third straight year, the only law school in the country to do so. “It is a wonderful recognition and appreciation for all the hard work that goes into making the Law Center a more diverse and inclusive place,” Baynes told Business Insider at the time, thanking his faculty, staff, and the team that runs the Pipeline.
Baynes implemented a similar effort when he was a professor at St. John’s University in New York. Over the past decade, the Ron Brown Pipeline Program, named for a former student, has helped place 100 students in law schools around the country. “These students recognize that the law helps change the world and society,” he says. “They want to go back and help their communities.”
Keys, who plans to practice family law in Houston, her hometown, recently interned for an organization that assists victims of domestic abuse. She says her time at the UH Law Center, particularly the chance it affords to interact with people from all walks of life, has been invaluable. “The more exposure you have to different people from different backgrounds, the more knowledgeable and informed you are,” she says. “Everyone has a story to tell.”
As for Baynes, he believes he couldn’t be in a better spot to make a difference. “I find Houston to be the land of opportunity,” he says. “You don’t have to start with much, and you can succeed on your own merit. I see the program as being emblematic of the city.”