As an African-American and proud Bronxite, the New York Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEO) changed my life. It introduced me to the legal profession and helped to guide me towards assisting Bronx families from the “People’s Court” in New York Civil Court to the “People’s House” in the New York State Assembly. But for those that came after me, this opportunity wasn’t available and many were unable to experience law in the same rewarding way that I did.
The LEO program was first introduced by former New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye – its primary goal was to help ensure diversity in the legal community and serve those individuals that have traditionally been under-served in the legal profession. Its core model includes a six-week summer program that assists minority, low-income and educationally disadvantaged students. Free of charge, students like me were granted access to academic courses, textbooks, dormitory rooms and meal plans. After I participated in the program, I went on to study law at the University at Buffalo Law School, where I served as the associate editor for the Buffalo Journal of Gender, Law and Social Policy. I also interned with the New York State Division of Human Rights in the Bronx, where I helped to investigate housing discrimination claims – a real problem for families and residents in the 77th Assembly District. The LEO program helped to influence my decision to become an attorney. I wanted to help Bronx residents and families that were unable to seek out this help themselves. I still serve the community in this capacity as a member of the New York State Assembly.
But lately, the New York State Judicial Institute – the functioning body that helps to institute legal and justice-related educational programs – has not received sufficient funding for the LEO program to operate. It pained me to find out that this great opportunity was lost due to fiscal constraints. Year after year, I was approached by peers and colleagues who sought my advice on how to become prepared for law school. Without hesitation, I encouraged them to apply to the LEO program. The lack of funding to this vital opportunity program has led to an unwanted and unnecessary domino effect that can bar minority and low-income students from becoming law school ready and possibly passing the New York State Bar Exam.
I commend Speaker Carl E. Heastie for granting my request to fund the LEO program in this year’s state budget and his commitment to opportunity programs. New York State has one of the most diverse populations and yet, the legal profession – meant to represent their interests – is not. While there has been progress among the diversification of law firms, there has been little movement at the senior level. Minority and women attorneys do not hold a real voice among the most senior leadership bodies at signatory firms, according to the New York City Bar Association’s 2013 Diversity Benchmarking Report. Also, “people of color and women are significantly under-represented on the bench,” the New York State Bar Association highlighted in a 2014 report. More shocking is that women make up nearly 52 percent of the entire New York State population, but men make up a 65 percent slice of the attorneys in the Empire State.
The statistics are not better nationwide. Eighty-eight percent of attorneys are white, said the American Bar Association. Meanwhile, black, Hispanic, and Asian Pacific Americans make up 4.8 percent, 3.7 percent and 3.4 percent of the legal profession, respectively. And for the incoming class of students, less than one-third are considered minority enrollment.
Former Chief Justice Kaye has said previously that a diverse bench gives the belief that the public has a stake in the justice system. In my opinion, the same premise can be applied to the legal profession and those representing our youth, our community members and our families. The LEO program can help us achieve this goal. As a member of the New York State Bar, this opportunity program truly helped to open up doors for me, as I transitioned from the court room to the Assembly Chambers.
Latoya Joyner is the Assemblywoman for the 77th Assembly District in the Bronx.