“It appears to us that Cal Western law students have a bit of an advantage because they have more simulated courses and hands-on clinics.”
Robert Garcia, Chair of the Justicia Scholarship Committee, explains this as one of the possible reasons why California Western students have swept the board on Justicia scholarships for the two years that they have been awarded.
“Programs like the California Innocence Project, Competitive Advocacy Program, and the Community Law Project give Cal Western students an additional avenue to practice and demonstrate their commitment to criminal defense law,” adds Garcia.
The Justicia was started in 2012 by a group of Hispanic criminal defense lawyers in San Diego. The purpose was to have a closed-setting forum where they could have frank discussions on issues that arose with the courts, the prosecutors, law enforcement officials, and the law itself.
The organization awards scholarships to third-year law students who attend one of the local law schools. “We currently award up to four scholarships a year at this time,” explains Garcia. “We could expand, but we are just starting. We are only in our second year.”
Garcia stresses that the scholarships are awarded to those students who have demonstrated a commitment to becoming a criminal defense lawyer. The criteria the students must meet is strict and includes a 500-word essay on why they will become criminal defense lawyers and how they feel about it.
But it is more than just an essay says Garcia. “The awards are made based on what the students have done in law school. Not like a test or interview – but it is the experience they demonstrate, and you can't change that,” he continues.
Professor Floralynn Einesman, Associate Dean for Experiential Learning at California Western believes it is hugely important for students to learn practical skills and to use those skills. “The school’s administration and faculty are extremely supportive of experiential learning as evidenced by our requirement of 15 experiential academic credits. This number far exceeds the ABA requirement of six experiential credits,” says Prof. Einesmann. “We have an extremely robust externship program. The opportunity to extern in the community is guaranteed to every CWSL student,” adds Prof. Einesmann. “Nearly 70 percent of our students complete legal externships.”
The Justicia organization distributes the applications to the financial aid offices of the San Diego law schools in September with the deadline for submission four weeks later. “The very next day we review them as a group here in our offices,” says Garcia. “We may get 12 to 20 different applications, and we go through them and start ranking them individually.”
Once the decisions are made, the students are immediately notified by phone and the scholarships are then officially presented at the La Raza Lawyers Scholarship Awards dinner in October, adds Garcia.
Professor Justin Brooks, Director of the California Innocence Project feels the difference with California Western students is that they are ready to hit the ground running. “In the California Innocence Project students spend hundreds of hours reading through criminal case files, writing memos dissecting the cases, visiting clients in prison, and interviewing witnesses in the field,” says Prof. Brooks. “These skills, combined with the skills we teach in our trial program and other simulation courses, make them more practice-ready than students at other law schools.”
Come September 2019, this is precisely the kind of hands-on experience that Garcia and his Scholarship Committee colleagues at Justicia will be looking for in student applications.