The glaring lack of minority attorneys in the United States is a big, complicated problem—one that critics say has created a justice system that’s not so just for clients of color.

How do we solve it? Melinda Benson’s high school English class is a good place to start.

The 2009 Illinois State alumna teaches at Legal Prep Charter Academy, a unique charter school on Chicago’s west side where the law and legal concepts are infused throughout the curriculum. In addition to special programs that regularly bring Benson’s inner-city students to downtown law firms for field trips, the school’s legal focus reaches into daily coursework, where classes such as Literature and the Law take a new path to old classics.

All this is being done in one of the most troubled and violent neighborhoods in Chicago, West Garfield Park, where Legal Prep opened in fall 2012. It’s a part of the city where children and their families most often intersect with the justice system in criminal court—not through a Tale of Two Cities.

“I see these kids connecting with literature that they’d never come into contact with otherwise,” said Benson, an English teacher education grad who grew up in Algonquin. “They’re talking about it with each other, they’re asking questions, and they just love it. That’s the coolest part.”

Legal Prep is now entering its third year, and Benson has been there from Day 1. Even more important than bolstering diversity at American law firms, Legal Prep’s No. 1 goal is to send 100 percent of its students to college and see them succeed there—no easy task when you consider some of Benson’s sophomore English students arrive in her classroom reading at a fifth-grade level.

Sam Finkelstein talks to kids

The school was founded by Sam Finkelstein, a lawyer and teacher.

The open-enrollment charter school, which now has more than 300 freshmen, sophomores, and juniors, was founded by Sam Finkelstein, a lawyer and teacher. Finkelstein’s school has the support of some of Chicago’s most influential law firms and companies, with a board of directors and advisory board stacked with practicing attorneys.

Their involvement is at the core of Legal Prep’s secondary mission: to increase diversity in the legal profession. In 2012, more than 88 percent of licensed lawyers in the U.S. were white, according to American Bar Association research, far more than the general population.

“For our legal partners, that’s a huge reason why they’re involved,” said Finkelstein, adding that some firms are being pressured by their clients to increase diversity in their ranks. He readily acknowledges it would be “a big victory” if even 20 percent of his students made it to law school. The legal framework is part of a larger effort to bring individualized attention and a culture of high expectations to a community where quality education options are lacking.

In addition to special classes like Criminal Law and Procedure, the law trickles down even to LaShawn Baclig’s math courses. The 1991 ISU business grad, who later earned her master’s in education, said her students learn to apply reasoning, debate, and negotiating skills as they prove answers and explain how they got there.

Crossover skills like those also come into play during a schoolwide program each year that sends students to law firms all around the city—one year to do mock trial, the next to practice the art of negotiation with real lawyers.

“That allows students to see how they can settle disagreements without harsh words, without harsh criticism, in a more logical, calm manner,” said Baclig, who travels with her students on the field trips.

The students come with a unique set of challenges for Baclig, Benson, and the other 15 teachers and staff members. More than 90 percent are from low-income homes. Many struggle with severe emotional and social issues that keep the school’s full-time social worker and two interns busy.

LaShawn Baclig with a student

The school’s staff includes math teacher LaShawn Baclig, a 1991 business alum.

With so many students from troubled homes, Benson sometimes has to balance a dual role between teacher and parent. If one of her students is sleepy in class one day, and it’s unusual for them, she’ll ask about what’s going on at home before resorting to punitive measures.

“That’s been a challenge, but it’s one of my favorite parts of the job,” said Benson, who is harnessing her ISU teacher training. She is now taking a leadership role at Legal Prep and coaching her newer colleagues. Her lesson plans are “impeccable,” as is her classroom management, said Finkelstein.

“I think she’s extremely talented, but she clearly received some great training,” he said, praising Baclig’s work as well. “If we could clone them several times over, we’d fill our entire staff.”

Current Illinois State students are equally impressed with the work being done at Legal Prep Charter Academy. Senior Muriel Dorsey, who is president of the Law Club and plans to be an attorney, grew up in the Austin neighborhood, right next door to West Garfield Park.

For Dorsey, the school’s concept makes a lot of sense—especially because it’s teaching valuable critical thinking skills, not just vocational skills like her inner-city high school did.

Dorsey, who is black, said many people in her old neighborhood—even her own relatives—are affected by a legal system they don’t fully (or even partially) understand. And even in Bloomington-Normal, where Dorsey completed two internships at the local courthouse, there is a demographic disconnect between those trying to navigate the justice system and those trained to represent them.

“More people of color really need to get into the legal field, because you’d start to tip the scales a little bit,” she said. “This system that we love and think is so equal and fair is really not.”

Dorsey plans to start law school in fall 2015, preferably in Washington, D.C., to pursue public policy. It was daunting, at first, to discover the lack of diversity in her chosen field. She is optimistic that Legal Prep will help create a much-needed “new wave of attorneys” of color, by giving students the critical thinking and other skills needed to score well on the LSAT and stand out among law school applicants.

Legal Prep students wear ISU shirts

Legal Prep students in Melinda’s class show off their ISU shirts.

“It’s just really going to put those kids a step ahead of what I wish I would’ve had,” said Dorsey, a sociology major with minors in women’s and gender studies and African-American studies.

Julie Jones ’90 understands Dorsey’s sentiments. When Jones finished law school in Atlanta, she was the only black female in her graduating class. Two decades later, she reports the needle hasn’t moved much on diversity and the law.

A member of the Illinois State’s Alumni Association board of directors and the Attorneys Advisory Board, Jones now works in private practice doing estate planning, real estate, and some consumer law. Her job sometimes takes her into Cook County probate court, where she finds the overwhelming majority of those using the court are people of color, and most attorneys are white men.

Similarly, Jones’ estate planning clients who are black bring with them some “unique cultural ideas about … how we take care of our seniors,” she said.

“Being an attorney of color, that’s something that doesn’t have to be explained to you,” Jones said. “When clients have attorneys with similar backgrounds, and similar cultural perspectives, it helps the clients to be more relaxed. That helps you provide a better level of service.”

People need to know more about the law, and at an earlier age, so that the legal system isn’t so intimidating for them later in life, she said. Legal Prep can go a long way toward tipping the scales.

“It’s an absolutely fabulous idea,” she said.

By the numbers

Inside Legal Prep Charter Academy on Chicago’s west side:

  • Number of students (at capacity): 810 (all grades)
  • Percentage of diverse students: More than 95%
  • Tuition: Free, public school
  • Admissions: Open enrollment for any Chicago student
  • Community service hours required: 100
  • Goal of students who will attend college: 100%