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Jumpstart program brings diversity to legal profession

By: Michelle Silverthorn, Diversity & Education Director, Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

August 27 , 2018

Our legal profession has a diversity problem. Of the 1.3 million lawyers in the country, 85% of them are white. As our country swiftly approaches majority-minority status, we all need to ensure that the legal profession better reflects the population that we serve. Jumpstart, a pipeline program coordinated by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, plays a key role in that effort.


A significant part of the diversity challenge in the legal profession centers on the education gap. Studies demonstrate that ethnic and racial minorities have lowered educational outcomes, starting before kindergarten and continuing through higher education. Once these students enter law school, many are further disadvantaged as compared to their peers by the lack of attorneys in their family or friends. With that comes other incomplete understandings about the importance of clerkships, law review, law firms, practice areas, the bar exam, among many others.  


Compounded with that are the very real concerns of implicit bias. Students from underrepresented minority groups often must overcome assumptions about what they are able to do, based on their ethnic, religious, or other identity. For example, a black student’s intelligence is second-guessed when he speaks in class; two Indian female students are consistently mistaken for the other as they sit in the lecture hall; a visually impaired student is dismissed as being unable to competently practice law. Some of these assumptions are said out loud; others are only made implicitly. Either way, the students have yet more hurdles to overcome.


And still one more hurdle. For many of these students, they are the “only” in their classrooms, or at least, one of very few: the only disabled student, the only Hispanic student, the only Muslim student. They may have no one else who they can look at – faculty or student – and think, “They understand my struggles because they have been here too.”


It is for all those reasons that Jumpstart exists. Founded by now-retired Seventh Circuit Judge Ann Claire Williams, Jumpstart is a collaboration between all six Chicago-area law schools, the federal judiciary, and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. The goal is to counter each one of those hurdles identified above and give incoming first year law students from underrepresented groups a “jumpstart” on their legal education.


The centerpiece of the program is a three-day preview and preparation pre-orientation program that takes place in the weeks before the first-year law students start law school. This year, sixty-two first year students participated in academic prep sessions, courthouse visits, networking receptions, resume workshops, and advice from Jumpstart alumni centered on the simple question: “What do I wish I had known my first year of law school?”


The orientation program is only the start. Through the Jumpstart program, there are also academic-year programs planned for 2018-2019. In addition, the 62 students have also created a Facebook group and a text messaging group. They are planning outings and get-togethers on their own. In the future, the goal is to expand the program to all nine law schools in Illinois. The Jumpstart mission is simple: to prep these students for success at law school and beyond, while making sure they know that when they walk into their classrooms, there are Jumpstart students across the city with similar backgrounds and similar struggles who can offer their support during the stressful, humbling, and exhilarating experiences of law school.