Going to law school is Stephanie Rodriguez's dream.
To help turn her dream into reality, Rodriguez, a senior English major with a double minor in political science and legal studies, turned to the Law School Preparation Institute (LSPI) at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Rodriguez is among 20 aspiring lawyers selected to participate in the six-week summer course, now in its 14th year at the University. Considered one of UTPA's most demanding courses, it is also known as one of its most successful. More than 90 percent of its students who have applied to law school have been accepted by at least one institution.
"The national average generally ranges between 60 and 70 percent. The University average is generally between 45 and 50 percent, so it's been very successful. Over the 13 institutes that we've had of those students who have gotten into law school, they graduate, they finish," said Dr. Jerry Polinard, professor of political science and one of three LSPI instructors.
The competition is fierce to get into the program, which requires a 3.0 grade point average and completion of at least 45 hours of coursework. The LSPI, which has an intense daily and Saturday meeting schedule, focuses on developing skills necessary to be successful in law school or other academic/career routes the students might end up choosing, Polinard said.
"We're focusing on the analytical skills, the reading, writing, speaking and, most importantly, thinking, critical thinking, that are going to be useful to them if they're in law school, if they're in graduate school, if they're in a professional school," said Polinard, who in 2013 was recognized as one of the top law advisors in the nation by the Pre-Law Advisors National Council.
The only cost to LSPI students is the registration for six hours of advanced credit; LPSI covers the costs of course materials and a commercial preparation course for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT). Recently the LSPI garnered needed support from the Texas Bar Foundation to help cover the costs of books, the LSAT prep course and a stipend for the students who often have to take a leave from work while in the rigorous course.
LSPI also brings in law school faculty and admission officials from not only Texas but across the nation to talk to LPSI students about the skills they will need and preparing to take the LSAT and applying to law schools. Beth Youngdale, a lecturer in writing at The University of Texas at Austin School of Law, talked to the students July 24 about the need to develop excellent writing and research skills as early as possible in their academic careers.
"I think the program does a really nice job of preparing students for law school. It gives them exposure to skills that will serve them well wherever they're in law school, whether it's at UT or elsewhere in the nation," Youngdale said.
LSPI's interdisciplinary roster of UTPA instructors also includes Dr. John Darcy, professor of accounting who also has a JD degree, and Erik Anderson, lecturer of philosophy.
When LSPI was initiated at UTPA in 2001, it was to ensure and increase minority students' opportunities to be admitted to law schools. It has met that goal and more, said Polinard.
"First, it prepares the students for law school, so that they're ready, their applications are in hands and their performance in law school is in good hands and their success afterwards is in hand. Secondly, it exposes them to lots of different law schools, where they get more multiple offers that gives them a choice which UTPA students didn't have very often before LSPI. Thirdly, they succeed in law school ...then get out and become practicing lawyers," he said. "We're very pleased that a very large percentage of LSPI students who graduated from law school return to the Valley and practice."
For Rodriguez, LSPI is a "great opportunity she has been given."
"It was a little intimidating in the beginning and it was so much work that I didn't know if I could handle it, but now I believe we're about at the second week going in to the third week and I have a lot more confidence now in myself and my capabilities," she said. "Now, more than ever, I am planning to go, to pursue my law school dream."