EDINBURG - Proper planning and training are crucial for acceptance into an accredited law school. And to help future law students, The University of Texas-Pan American has initiated a curriculum track leading to a certificate in "legal reasoning."
The new endeavor was created by the UT System Law School Partnership Task Force in response to the Hopwood decision. The ruling, made by a federal appeals court in 1996, effectively makes any use of race in school admissions, scholarships or recruitment illegal.
For the 18-hour legal reasoning track, students take courses in philosophy, political science, English and legal research and writing. The legal research and writing classes likely will be taught by UT Law School faculty, said Dr. Jerry Polinard, chair of the Department of Political Science. The first certificates should be awarded in summer 2001.
"These courses focus on the kinds of skills students need for the law school admissions test and admission to law school itself," Polinard said. "And in time, this certificate hopefully will become widely known among accredited law schools."
The UT System Law School Partnership Task Force contains representatives from the UT System, the UT Law School and the four components with significant Mexican-American enrollments: UT Brownsville, UT El Paso, UT San Antonio and UTPA. UT El Paso already has a program in place, with Brownsville and San Antonio behind UTPA.
Overall, for the 1998-99 academic year, UTPA had 55 applicants to law school, Polinard said. Eleven were seniors, and the remainder were University graduates.
In fact, more former UTPA students are inquiring about pre-law advising each year, reflecting a national trend, Polinard said.
Of the 55 applicants, 26 registered at law school last fall - seven of the 11 seniors and 19 of the 44 non-traditional students. All but one enrolled in one of the nine accredited Texas law schools: UT Austin, Texas Southern University (Houston), Texas Tech University (Lubbock), Texas Wesleyan University (Irving), Southern Methodist University (Dallas), Baylor University (Waco), the University of Houston, St. Mary's University (San Antonio) and the South Texas College of Law (Houston).
According to Polinard, the average UTPA pre-law student has a 2.6 grade point average and a grade of 143 on the admissions test, which is scored from 120-180.
By comparison, 74,380 people nationwide applied to law school last year, and 51,262 people were accepted. The average GPA was 3.1, and the average law exam score was 151.
Because the law school admission test results for UTPA students are not as high as students in prominent law programs, Polinard said more emphasis is placed on letters of recommendation, special skills and personal statements.
"That is what's going to get them in," he said. "We've got to make the law school admissions office understand they are bringing to the table certain characteristics other applicants - perhaps with higher scores - don't have."
Like most universities with pre-law programs, UTPA students can have any major. However, coursework should emphasize analytical thinking and reading, Polinard said, as the law school admissions exam is among the most difficult standardized tests.
And to help interested students, the Pre-Law Society - celebrating its 26th year at UTPA - brings in guest speakers, elected officials and even law school admission officers. There also are reviews of the law school admissions test and field trips, such as a recent visit to the 13th Court of Appeals courtroom in Edinburg.
"This organization helps pre-law students learn what they need to do to get into law school," said Gracie Ruiz, Pre-Law Society president. "It helps you see what law is going to be like so you're not going into it blindly, and it provides students with different viewpoints about the law profession."
A past chair of the Pre-law Advisors National Council (PLANC) and past president of the Southwest Association of Pre-Law Advisors (SWAPLA), Polinard enjoys assisting pre-law students. He currently is program chair for the upcoming quadrennial national conference of pre-law advisors scheduled for November in San Diego and co-editor of the national pre-law advisors newsletter.
For more information about the pre-law program or the Pre-Law Society, call 956/381-3341. Handouts also are available in the Department of Political Science office, Social and Behavioral Science Building Room 208.