“I was very nervous and at the same time very excited.”
This is what Isidro Zuniga, a junior studying political science and Spanish, thought when he started to approach students to develop what is now Latino Students in Law (LSL). Zuniga felt a need to develop an organization that helped Latino students pursue a legal profession.
With a city council committee recently approving the details of RepresentLA which aims to offer free legal representation for immigrants in Los Angeles, the need for diverse legal aid is crucial.
“It’s from a personal level,” Zuniga said. “From not seeing an organization that is tailored to specifically Latinos here at USC but also on a broader scale outside of USC and in our society where we see there is a need for representation.”
Zuniga noticed a disparity between him and his peers, as unlike him, many came from families of legal professionals such as attorneys and judges. He believes the mentorship and guidance they can gain from this are currently unattainable for first-generation students who want to go into the legal field and a major setback to students such as himself.
A recent struggle Zuniga faced as he started to prepare his law school application materials for the fall was a review of his personal statement. USC offers personal statement reviews on the pre-law advising website and writes feedback will come “within 5 business days.” However, at the time of Zuniga’s interview, he said he had not heard back yet even after sending the statement two weeks prior.
“It’s small things like that where I’m like, ‘Yeah, the system is there, but it’s not doing anything for me,’” Zuniga said.
“Latino Students in Law is, by the name, tailored to Latinos. Most are really first-generation college students. Most are low-income,” Zuniga said. “Our purpose is to really help these students, including myself, get to law school, choose a career path within the legal field to follow.”
According to the State Bar of California, in 2022 Hispanics/Latinos accounted for 36% of California’s adult population but only 6% of licensed attorneys in the state. In comparison, white adults accounted for 39% of the adult population but 66% of licensed attorneys.
Anthony Solana, the founder of For People of Color Inc., was the first speaker LSL had come to present to their members. Solana’s organization offers free law school admission consulting services to prospective applicants. They help explain supplements such as personal statements, letters of recommendation and how to prepare for the LSAT, the law school admission test. He says it’s wonderful to see LSL build the community that is needed to be successful in this process.
“A lot of members of our community that want to go to law school are typically first generation, the first in their families to go to college, first in their families to even attempt to go to law school. And many of them do not have the resources or connections or mentors that can walk them through the process,” Solana said. “It’s a difficult process. It’s not easy. It’s not intuitive.”
According to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement, 29% of law students are first-generation college students, but among Latino law students, that percentage is even higher, at 55%.
Zuniga says he was motivated by other professional Latino organizations that are also tailored to Latino students at USC such as Latino Students in Medicine (LSM) and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers at USC (SHPE).
“I was trying to emulate that mission, the mission of providing resources to Latino students,” Zuniga said. “I knew this organization was possible because there were other organizations similar to this one, in the idea that it would provide resources and it would provide community to Latino students in particular.”
One of the ways LSL provides resources is with a biweekly newsletter that has information about internship opportunities, pipeline programs and scholarships.
However, one of LSL’s key attractions is their speaker events that have had speakers such as John Hoyt, USC Gould’s Director of Admissions, and most recently, L.A. Supreme Court Judge E. Carlos Dominguez. These speaker events have been spaces in which LSL members have learned more about different career paths and further details about the admissions process as they prepare to apply to law school.
Zuniga says above all else, these events have been able to provide members with a place of acceptance and to not feel overlooked among the many other pre-law students at USC.
Solana said he was honored to come to talk to the students about the law school process on the necessary items students need to understand when applying and he says he was proud of the organization’s formation and the support it aims to provide.
“They’re necessary at every campus in the country. I was actually frankly surprised that there wasn’t an organization like this already at USC,” Solana said.
Solana also said he also believes that LSL has placed the necessary building blocks to develop great community leaders and as an example to follow.
“Not only for SC, but throughout Los Angeles as a model as to what students at college campuses can do to provide that support network and that mentorship in order to advance their career ambition,” Solana said.
Silvia Aguerta, executive director of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, also agrees with the idea that one of the biggest motivations for her decision to become a lawyer came from exposure and mentorship from people already in the profession during her junior year at UCLA.
The Legal Aid Foundation is a nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services to people in L.A. on a variety of subjects such as immigration, housing, and medical issues. The foundation has various offices located throughout the city and is open to volunteers to assist with their services.
“I am forever in their debt because they showed me the way. They showed me a path,” Aguerta said. “They didn’t just say, ‘Hey, you should be a lawyer.’ Instead, they were like, ‘This is what you need to do. This is what you need to focus on.’”
Arguerta also said a non-diverse legal field can bring forth issues for the people who need legal assistance due to a lack of exposure and understanding of the resources available to them.
“When they end up in needing access to justice, that’s when they are faced with not having people who understand the issues that they’re facing because it’s culture or language or other barriers are either or even poverty,” Arguerta said. “And so I think having Latino attorneys is critical as we move forward as a community.”
In addition to providing resources for their professional development, Zuniga wants to make sure the general members maintain a cultural connection with the Latino community. Even the small things such as providing conchas and champurrado at general meetings are LSL’s attempts to remind LSL members of where the cultures they come from.
“In general, as Latinos, we are united, we are very family-oriented,” Zuniga said. “And so from the start, we have always thought about creating a community. It’s not really an organization, it’s not really a group, but it’s more so a community of students who are pursuing the same goal.”
LSL has demonstrated this commitment to the community with a collaboration with Latino Students in Medicine on a study night between members at the beginning of March followed up by a student mixer at Mercado La Paloma with its members.
“We just look forward to developing and strengthening that relationship with [LSM] and with the other Latino cultural organizations here on campus too,” Zuniga said.
In addition to their successful events throughout the semester, LSL announced at the end of March their official affiliation with the USC Gould School of Law which will provide them with funding and access to all the rooms in the school to use for their events. Zuniga and the team were excited to hear the news and are eager to now see what LSL will be able to accomplish in the Fall.
“We want to see you as Latino attorneys, and we need you to become a Latino attorney. We need you to become attorneys because our people and our community needs it,” Zuniga said.