LEOP: Opening Doors for Students of Promise

For 50 years, the Legal Education Opportunity Program has made law school accessible for disadvantaged students.

Elizabeth McGriff ’96 was a young single mother when she enrolled at UC Hastings through the Legal Education Opportunity Program (LEOP), which admits students from adverse backgrounds and supports them to succeed. Now, as the program approaches its 50th anniversary, McGriff has returned to take the helm as director, ensuring that LEOP cultivates the next generation of diverse legal professionals.

LEOP offers admission to approximately 50 high-achieving students each year—up to 20 percent of the class—who have experienced major life hurdles, such as educational disadvantage, economic hardship, or disability. The majority are students of color. Besides traditional admissions criteria, such as grades and LSAT scores, the program also considers students’ overall potential and the obstacles they’ve overcome. “These are extraordinary students who have been playing while injured in the game of life, but all they do is win,” McGriff said.

Once students enroll, LEOP supports them throughout their tenure at UC Hastings, offering a weeklong orientation, academic counseling, practice exams, and help preparing for the bar exam and job interviews, among other resources and services.

McGriff knows the benefits of LEOP firsthand. She was working as a teacher when she decided to attend law school in 1993 to better advocate for underserved communities. Her passion for social justice was inspired in part by her mother, Lulann Sapp McGriff, a civil rights activist who was a four-term president of the San Francisco chapter of the NAACP. “LEOP allowed me to access a top-tier legal institution and set the foundation for my career,” McGriff said. “One of the best things about it was the community; the connections you make and resources you share ultimately help you advance.”

McGriff, who has worked as a civil litigator, served as the senior legislative aide to a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, directed diversity pipeline programs for The Bar Association of San Francisco and ran another law school’s Law Student Support Department (while simultaneously working in its Law Career Development Department) before returning to UC Hastings in December 2017. As McGriff puts it, the opportunity to uphold LEOP’s values “lit my fire, melted my butter, and rang my bell.”

Origins in Student Activism

In the late 1960s, movements to protest the Vietnam War, protect the environment, and defend the rights of women and minorities swept campuses across the country. At UC Hastings, this spirit animated student activists to push the school to expand minority admissions.

After Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in 1968, faculty, students, and alumni launched a memorial fund in his name to support minority recruitment. The student government, known as Associated Students, instituted a mandatory fee reserved for financial aid for minority students. Additionally, the Thurston Society, an honorary academic group, began advocating for a program to increase minority enrollment by considering admissions criteria beyond test scores and grades. “Law schools were very exclusive and elite at the time, and there were lots of barriers for people who didn’t come from wealth or multigenerational lines of professionals,” McGriff said. “There weren’t many students of color and even fewer who came from challenged backgrounds.”

In the fall of 1969, Dean Arthur Sammis launched the Minority Admissions Program (later renamed LEOP) with an initial class of 40 students. The Thurston Society helped recruit candidates, and a committee of students and faculty evaluated applicants based not only on LSAT scores and GPAs but also on community involvement, motivation, letters of recommendation, and financial need. Within three years, the program increased minority enrollment from just 14 students to 140.

Even though the Thurston Society offered a tutoring program for LEOP students, many early participants struggled in the competitive law school environment. In response, in the 1970s, the program added additional support, including one-on-one mentoring from attorneys of color. By the end of the decade, UC Hastings had one of the largest legal education opportunity programs among public law schools in the nation. LEOP went on to count many prominent alumni among its ranks, including U.S. Senator Kamala Harris ’89; San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi ’85; Adelmise Warner ’01, chief counsel at Pandora; and Andrew Houston ’07, procurement counsel for the University of California’s Office of the General Counsel.

Houston was a first-generation college graduate when he applied to UC Hastings after attending UC Berkeley. His parents worked in retail, and he had never been to a professional event before arriving at law school. He says LEOP was instrumental to his success at UC Hastings. And while academic support was important, the biggest benefit was connecting with other students in an environment that could sometimes feel isolating. “A lot of my peers came from similar backgrounds, and it was a good personal support network,” Houston said. “UC Hastings doesn’t go on pause if your mom gets sick or your family needs money, and it was good to have people there to support me who understand the struggle that is not just law school but life.”

That network paid off after graduation by helping him land positions as a public interest attorney with Legal Services of Northern California and a contracts compliance officer with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Houston went on to work as an attorney for Bay Area Rapid Transit, where he hired three LEOP students as interns. He has continued to keep the network alive by speaking on UC Hastings panels and mentoring LEOP students over the years. “It’s been great to give back,” he said.

Five Decades of Barrier-Busting

Today, LEOP is one of the longest-running diversity initiatives at any law school and has yielded thousands of graduates. One of the latest is Adriana Mendez ’18, the oldest of six children who grew up with a single mother who had emigrated from Mexico. Mendez was the first in her family to graduate from high school and college, not to mention law school. She decided to become a lawyer when she was 7 years old, after her father was sentenced to 35 years in prison for a drug offense under harsh mandatory sentencing laws. “I vowed that when I got older, I would do everything I could to ensure we would never be powerless against the justice system again,” Mendez said.

LEOP was critical to making that dream a reality, she says, especially since she is raising a young son alone. “Law school is one of those places where they throw you in the deep end and say, ‘Figure it out,’ ” she said. “Not only did LEOP keep me afloat in times when I would have definitely drowned on my own, it taught me how to navigate proficiently through the uncharted waters of my legal education.”

At UC Hastings, Mendez participated in the Startup Legal Garage and worked as a law clerk at Sideman & Bancroft. She also received the Bay Area Minority Law Student Scholarship each year. Her goal is to work in-house at a startup. “Unlike other students whose parents have graduate degrees or are professionals, we can’t turn to home for help during law school,” she said. “But we can turn to LEOP.”

Ensuring Diversity in the Law

McGriff has plans to make LEOP even more robust through new initiatives. She plans to fortify partnerships with faculty, expand bar preparation opportunities, launch a mock interview program, add a programmatic component to address students’ executive functioning skills, and strengthen social bonds through interclass mentoring and social events. She also wants to find new ways to support students beyond academics by teaching them what she calls “corridor competence” and helping them understand the “written and unwritten rules” of the working world. Above all, she wants them to thrive because these students are uniquely positioned to address disparities in the legal profession.

“America’s population is diverse, and it needs representation from a diverse group of people who care about their concerns and can change the trajectory of underserved communities or influence policy,” McGriff said. “LEOP helps these bright students become all they’re meant to be.”

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