Local community college students setting their sights on becoming lawyers soon will have a more seamless transition to a few of the state's top public and private law schools.
Starting in the upcoming school year, students at Fresno City College, College of the Sequoias and 22 other state community colleges will qualify for extra counseling services, guaranteed transfer credits for certain classes and a free application to as many as six law schools.
The colleges are applying for grant money to help cover the cost.
It's part of a 10-year pilot program designed to increase diversity among State Bar of California members.
Students will get specialized counseling and have more time with recruiters in hopes of flipping trends that show California attorneys are mostly older white men.
Women and minorities are double-digit percentage points behind their white male peers, a cause for concern among many who say the legal community is a far cry from representing the Golden State's diverse population.
There is little financial incentive attached to the pilot project -- there is no dedicated scholarship fund, and students still face risks like a weak job market and shouldering thousands of dollars in student loans. But backers say it's an important first step.
"In many ways, we are at a crisis time in the legal profession in terms of economic and other diversity, and the community colleges are much more diverse than the California State (University) or University of California campuses," said Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law. "It seems important to me to try to reach out to underserved communities."
UC Davis, UC Irvine, Loyola Marymount University, Santa Clara University, University of San Francisco and the University of Southern California and their respective law schools are partnering with the community colleges starting in the 2014-15 school year.
Community college students who complete certain courses in English, critical thinking and other areas will have guaranteed transfer credits if they are admitted to any of the six four-year undergraduate schools.
The agreement won't relieve students of having to meet standard admissions requirements. Applicants still will need to meet test score, essay and recommendations criteria to earn admission into both the undergraduate and law school programs.
But some say shining a light on what it takes to get into law school is a feat in itself.
"There are a lot of students who are not aware of the opportunities that are available to them, and I think this program is really going to be able to chart a path for those students and really streamline the process for them," said Eric Payne, State Center Community College College District trustee.
Those involved in creating the program say it will help nudge more minority students into the state's mostly monochromatic legal community. More than 60% of Californians are people of color, yet only 20% of State Bar of California members are an ethnic or racial minority.
A December 2011 survey of the association's members shows about 79% are white, nearly half are older than 55 and about 60% are men. Only 4.2% are Latino, just a slight uptick from 3% more than 20 years ago.
"The changes among lawyers of color are occurring at a snail's pace, with most of the increases among those of Asian or Pacific Islander descent ... The numbers of Latino and African-American attorneys has remained virtually static," the report reads.
At the same time, about 70% of community college students are ethnic minorities. At Fresno City College, it's 75%.
It only makes sense to use community colleges as a recruiting ground, said Thuy Thi Nguyen, general counsel for the Peralta Community College District in Alameda County.
The pathway program was Nguyen's idea.
"I said to myself, 'You know, community colleges in the state, particularly in my area, they're very diverse,' " she said. "In fact, we're more diverse than the state."
Nguyen, a member of the State Bar of California's Council on Access and Fairness, said that when stacked against other high-earning professions -- like doctors, engineers and accountants -- lawyers rise only above dentists and veterinarians when it comes to the percentage of minorities.
But until now, there has been remarkably little effort to recruit from the community college pool.
"Community colleges are still in some minds seen as just a two-year vocational school, maybe a feeder to a four-year terminal degree of some sort, but not really the place where people who are going to go for a professional degree begin," said Peg Mericle, dean of instruction in the social sciences division at Fresno City College.
Bringing more local community college students into the fold could be a financial boon.
A juris doctor degree often can be synonymous with financial success.
Many of the state's top business leaders and elected officials hold the degree, and research shows lifetime earnings of lawyers often equal hundreds of thousands more dollars than for people without a legal education.
It's also a golden goose for law schools. With the cost topping $150,000 for a degree from UC Davis -- and more than $165,000 at private institutions like USC -- a decision to attend could mean decades of debt.
For years, a law diploma was a surefire path to prosperity.
But a tightening job market could increase risks for prospective law students. Only 57% of the 2013 law school graduating class nationwide had a full-time job that required a law degree, a report from the American Bar Association shows. More than 11% said they were unemployed nine months after graduation.
"There's not a whole lot lawyers can do right now, the market is pretty saturated, so someone deciding to go into law not only has to have a passion for it, but has to be willing to take on an awful lot of debt," Mericle said.
Law school officials admit that cost can be prohibitive. But there is aid available: More than 83% of UC Davis law students get financial help and the median award is $25,200, said Kristen Mercado, assistant dean of admissions and financial aid at UC Davis.
The pathways program certainly isn't a perfect fix.
And its biggest potential drawback is the exclusion of Fresno State and the state's other 22 CSUs. Students who transfer from Fresno City and College of the Sequoias overwhelmingly attend Fresno State, an affordable option and one that is close to home, administrators say. The CSUs don't have law schools, which is why they were excluded.
But that could trip up some students who complete all their requirements in community college and transfer to Fresno State but fall off track when they no longer can take advantage of special advising and law programs.
"That may be a difficult prospect some of these students are going to have to factor into their decision," said Juan Arzola, associate professor of political science at College of the Sequoias. Arzola spearheaded the college's pathway program application.
"How could this program still be utilized (if students attend Fresno State)? To be quite frank, we have yet to gain any direction on that."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412, firstname.lastname@example.org or @hannahfurfaro on Twitter.