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New program through Gonzaga, state law schools aims to narrow attorney shortage in Central Washington

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

Administrators at Heritage University, a small commuter school near Yakima, noticed a trend in tracking what its students did after graduating in the past five years: Only one of them went to law school.

One out of approximately 1,200 graduating undergrads.

Heritage University, a federally recognized Hispanic Serving Institution and Native American Serving Non-Tribal Institution, has instead seen many graduates move on to careers in fields including nursing, teaching and social work. Others have pursued doctorates or moved on to medical school.

“Grads from (Heritage University) do go on to earn advanced degrees in any number of fields,” said David Wise, vice president of external affairs at Heritage University, “but we have not been successful in law school matriculation.”

The situation draws parallels to the longstanding lack of attorneys in central Washington, particularly those of Latino or Indigenous descent, said Annette Clark, dean of the Seattle University School of Law.

Of the approximately 31,000 Washington State Bar Association members that live in the state, only around 1,500 (4.8%) reside in eight central Washington counties. That includes lawyers with active and inactive licenses, as well as those serving as judges.

In an effort to bridge the gap, the schools of law at Gonzaga, Seattle University and the University of Washington aim to launch a program this June in partnership with Heritage to give students a sense of what the life of a lawyer is all about.

The three-week program at Heritage’s Toppenish campus will focus on demystifying the law school experience and application process, administrators said. Key programs will include a visit by several Washington Supreme Court justices, a mock law school class and roundtables with minority bar association leaders.

Jacob Rooksby, dean of the Gonzaga School of Law, said the law school has previously attempted to make headway in central Washington through internships in hopes that students would continue to work out there after graduation.

“What we found is that if a student is not from central Washington, they’re less inclined to move there to take a job as an attorney,” Rooksby said, “which would often mean living in a smaller community where they are not familiar with the people or the community.”

The program will have 30 spots open for the first year, said Susan Lee, assistant dean of students for the Gonzaga School of Law.

Latino and Native American students will be given priority with registration. As administrators with the state’s three law schools developed the program, they found Latino and Native American individuals “are not as present (in the legal field) as we’d like or need them to be in order to reflect our society,” Lee said.

There are approximately 41,000 Washington State Bar Association members, according to the latest data. Of the roughly 27,000 who disclosed their ethnicities, 711 identified as Latino/Hispanic and 229 identified as Native American/Alaskan Native.

At Heritage University, Latino students represented 66% of the school’s 2019 full-time undergraduate population. Native American students represented 12% of students, the third-most populous group on campus just behind white students that year, according to the university.

“When we looked at the state of Washington, where the underserved people and the needs are, it made a lot of sense to partner with Heritage,” Lee said.

Heritage University was started to serve students that face obstacles with going to school, said Andrew Sund, president of the university. Heritage graduates choose against law school due to the cost of tuition, the cost and process involved in taking the law school entrance exam, difficulties in relocating due to family commitments and a lack of confidence in their abilities, according to the university.

While nothing would incentivize prospective law students to stay in central Washington after receiving their degrees, Sund said he’s confident the program could help create a pipeline for the region.

“Our experience has been that the people that we serve at Heritage really would like to stay here, and the majority of graduates stay in the region,” Sund said. “We have sort of a strong indicator that this is something that will work because there’s strong commitment.”

Program registration has not yet opened. Rooksby said administrators are looking to have a program director in place by the spring ahead of the program’s launch this summer.

Understanding that the path to a legal degree isn’t for everyone, Rooksby said the state’s law schools want students to make an informed decision, at least, about whether it’s right for them.

“For most students, going to law school entails incurring debt. … It’s a big investment of time, labor and it’s often borne not just by the students, but those that are close to them, their loved ones,” he said. “This can be, though, a generational-changing impact in terms of one’s career and trajectory in life.”

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