UTPA students get a preview of law school life
Posted: 06/27/2005
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Nineteen students at The University of Texas-Pan American are gearing up for the opportunity to participate in UTPA's Law School Preparation Institute (LSPI) this summer.

The purpose of the institute is to assist potential pre-law students at UTPA in becoming more attractive law school candidates, said Dr. Jerry Polinard, UTPA pre-law adviser and LSPI coordinator.

"Institute participants are exposed to intellectual training they would not otherwise receive," Polinard said. "They enhance the skills needed to be competitive in the law school application process, so they increase their chances not only of being accepted to law school, but of having more schools to choose from."

Students who participate are much more prepared than their peers for the law school experience, which enhances their chances for success in law school, he said.

The LSPI is a strategy suggested by The University of Texas System Law School Partnership Task Force, in response to the Hopwood vs. Texas decision, to increase the number of minority students applying to law school in general, but particularly The University of Texas School of Law.

Through the LSPI, students are prepared for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT); introduced to legal research and writing; informed of the admissions process into law school; assisted in improving research and writing skills; and develop analytical and critical reading and writing skills; as well as review selected law cases to develop their analytical and argumentative skills.

Of the approximately 70 students who have completed the program and application process, 90 percent have been accepted into at least one law school. All but three have been accepted to more than one law school, which means most UTPA students have choices, Polinard said. Prior to the development of the LSPI, the UTPA acceptance rate to law school was 60-70 percent.

Initiated in 2001, this summer will mark the fifth year the LSPI has been offered to UTPA students.

Patricia Rigney, a UTPA alumna who is now a briefing attorney for the Texas 13th Court of Appeals in Edinburg, attended the LSPI in 2001 - the first year it was offered to students at the University. The experience and knowledge she gained during the institute was imperative to her success at The University of Texas School of Law in Austin, she said.

Rigney, who graduated from UTPA with a degree in communication in 2001, said the institute helped her especially because she didn't have a political science background.

"I didn't major in political science, but I knew I wanted to go to law school," she said. "The way they taught the different parts of the institute really prepared me for what I faced in law school."

Not only was she prepared intellectually for law school, but also mentally Rigney said.

"The Law School Preparation Institute gave me an idea of the dedication I would need and the type of work that I would have to produce in law school," Rigney said. "It was a real eye opener."

She highly recommends the institute to other students who are thinking of pursuing a career in law.

"Since I didn't have a law background, I think I would have been in complete shock had I not enrolled in the program," Rigney said. "It really helped me achieve my goals and offered guidance on how to prepare for law school."

In addition to the invaluable preparation and sharpened analytical skills, students also get a stipend of $1,000, six hours of advanced credit in a political science course, all books and supplies and Kaplan test preparation training for the LSAT at a special reduced rate. Rigney said the intensive preparation for the LSAT was the most beneficial aspect of the institute for her.

"I thought I would just study for the test like I normally did, because I've always done fairly well on tests," she said. "But the study sessions for the test really showed me that I needed to study more than I thought I did and also helped me know what kinds of questions would be on the test."

The LSPI at UT Pan American was the second of its kind in the state of Texas. Now, Polinard said similar programs are being created all over the United States.

Three faculty members - Polinard, Dr. James Wenzel and Dr. John Darcy - who have extensive experience in pre-law advising and criminal justice, conduct the institute. They work continuously with the students on various aspects of the application process through the fall and spring semesters after the program, including developing the personal statements of the students, arranging for letters of recommendation, putting the students in contact with various law school representatives and also maintaining on-going mentoring relationships. Also assisting are several UT School of Law, Texas Tech University School of Law and the University of Houston Law Center personnel who teach mini-courses to prepare participants for a law education.

The LSPI takes place during the second summer session and meets from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday-Friday, and 9 a.m.-noon on Saturdays. During that time, students attend various courses and meet with both public and private law firms to introduce students to the different fields of practice and the distinctions between public interest and private practice.

UTPA juniors and seniors from all majors are eligible for the program and selected based on their academic qualifications (at least a 2.8 grade point average). This summer 19 students were accepted into the institute. The intensive, hands-on approach of the course mandates limiting the enrollment, so they only accept 15-20 students for one summer session, Polinard said.

Institute graduates have gained admission to some of the nation's most prestigious law schools, including each of the nine accredited schools in Texas.

For more information, contact Polinard at the Department of Political Science at 956/381-3342.