Long before becoming a Nevada Supreme Court Justice, and long before becoming the first African American to serve on the state’s highest court — even long before moving to Las Vegas in 1982 to continue a law career that started in Philadelphia — Michael L. Douglas was a youngster growing up in Los Angeles. It was there that the future justice first developed an interest in law.
That interest was fostered independently, because as he was finding his way as a young man, Douglas didn’t know any lawyers. Nobody in his inner circle — no family members, no friends, not even any acquaintances — had ever gone to law school. As a result, Douglas didn’t have access to a role model, somebody who could show him the way on his journey into law.
Now, after a long and distinguished legal career that’s spanned private practice, legal aid, and years on the bench, Douglas wants to be that role model — especially for members of underrepresented communities and first-generation students who aspire to study and practice the law. Which is why, in partnership with the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law, he’s created the Justice Michael L. Douglas PreLaw Fellowship Program.
Designed as a sort of law school roadmap, the program will debut at Boyd in summer 2020 and introduce college and even high school students to the idea that a career in law is achievable, then give them a real-life look at what law school is all about.
“How can you equip them to be successful?” Douglas asked. “For me, the term of art is ‘inclusion.’ Why not include all people eligible to be in the profession?”
For many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the thought of becoming a lawyer may seem as realistic as working on the International Space Station — at least until someone with Douglas’ vast and impressive credentials can unshroud the mystery that surrounds a legal education. “We are all visual animals,” Douglas said.
Translation: It’s important for students contemplating their future to see people who are similar-looking having success in their fields of interest, be it law or any other vocation.
Douglas was inspired to launch a PreLaw Fellowship Program after reading about a program with similar goals. Convinced such an initiative could help both Nevada and its only law school, Douglas approached Dan Hamilton, dean of Boyd Law. Not only did Hamilton embrace the idea, he knew of the perfect person to lead it: Douglas himself.
Starting Next Summer
The program will work on two tracks, the first of which will debut next summer and target college students. Undergrads interested in participating in the one-week session at Boyd must partake in a selection process that will mimic actual law school: application, academic transcripts, and recommendation letters.
Those who make the cut will be assigned to a cohort consisting of 15 to 20 students and get to experience life as a law student, including taking classes taught by Boyd professors and learning about the expectations and demands law students face, especially the critical-thinking skills required of future lawyers. Current law students — those closer in age to the program’s participants — will also be involved in the weeklong program, giving peer-to-peer advice and sharing experiences. Fellows will get the opportunity to network with representatives from visiting law firms, the Nevada Bar Association, judges, and other key members of the state and local legal community.
Additionally, the agenda will include practical training, such as how to save money for law school, how to apply for scholarships and financial aid, how to prepare for the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT), and what college courses to take to best prepare for law school.
What will the students learn from Douglas?
“The first part is just getting prepared (for law school), getting in. And then once you get in, what do you need to do to succeed?” Douglas said. “Most people who get into law school are happy as hell just to have gotten (accepted), especially if it’s the school of their choice. But nobody tells you why you should try to get on the Law Review and why you should aim to graduate in the top 10 percent of your class, which all goes to (expanding career) possibilities after graduating.”
Indeed, those who finish in the top 10 percent of their class and emerge with solid résumés usually find a much smoother path to careers at top law firms, in prosecutor’s offices, and, ultimately, on the bench. But Douglas said this message is best delivered early in the law school process, which is why it will be a key component of the PreLaw Fellowship Program.
Another piece of advice Douglas will disseminate: Law school is difficult and requires a great commitment of time and effort. But it’s also the best education that allows you to do almost anything in life. He notes that a law degree puts people in position to take care of themselves and their family, as well as help others in need. “Because law school teaches you how to think,” he said.
While the PreLaw Fellowship Program is open to all Nevada students, applications from youths in underrepresented communities are encouraged. That’s crucial not only to increase diversity within the state’s legal community, but also to begin creating a deep pool of minority mentors for future generations of law students and young lawyers.
That latter point is particularly significant to Douglas, who recalls arriving in Las Vegas as a young lawyer in 1982, when less than a dozen African American attorneys were in town — in other words, it wasn’t easy to find a mentor to show him the ropes. Says Douglas rather matter-of-factly: “You can’t gripe about the lack of minorities in law schools if you’re not willing to do something about it.”
The program’s second element will focus on outreach in high schools, where grades determine the quality of college a student can attend. These students will get the chance to take part in round-table discussions with current Boyd students and professionals in the field of law. Special events also will be designed to remind students who might never have considered attending law school, for whatever reason, that the door to a legal career is open if they’re willing to put in the academic work.
Of course, building such an ambitious program requires support — fiscal and otherwise — from community partners. So Douglas reached out to the legal community and secured that support from a variety of individuals and entities, including three local law firms that have each agreed to sponsor one fellow.
John Delikanakis, a partner with Snell & Wilmer, says it was an easy decision for his firm to support Douglas’ program — not just out of a sense of civic duty, but also to champion diversity in the legal field, especially in a state that’s becoming ever more diverse. Cultivating the success of young adults who have been traditionally underrepresented in law school will make recruiting minorities to his industry that much easier.
“It really is something we need to do,” Delikanakis said. “It takes time, but it’s worth it. The law is becoming a more diverse place, so if we can grow [the number of] sharp young people from the minority ranks, we should do it.”
John Bailey, managing partner of the Las Vegas-based firm Bailey Kennedy, which also is sponsoring a fellow, echoed the sentiment. “It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said of the PreLaw Fellowship Program. “It’s been well received, both by the legal community and the Boyd Law School. It’s only going to grow and become an add-on to the Boyd experience.”
Unfortunately, with the exception of career fairs or other one-off events, firms like Snell & Wilmer and Bailey Kennedy have struggled to introduce underrepresented and first-generation students to careers in law. Douglas’ program aims to fix that by preparing students from those particular backgrounds for what it takes to succeed, while increasing the prospects that they’ll be admitted to, and ultimately graduate from, Boyd Law.
As much as anything, Bailey is excited that the program will introduce students to the realities of law school and beyond. Providing a glimpse into what a life in law looks like will help students avoid embarking on a career they may end up resenting, he said. Conversely, those who enjoy their experiences in the PreLaw Fellowship Program just might discover a love of law and yearn to practice it.
Marisa Rodriguez is someone who knows all about that discovery and yearning. The attorney at the Las Vegas office of Weinberg, Wheeler, Hudgins, Gunn & Dial completed her undergraduate degree at UNLV in 2004 and later got the itch to return to her alma mater to attend law school. However, faced with the daunting application process, she almost pulled the plug on the idea.
Thankfully, Rodriguez — a first-generation college and law school student — found a mentor who helped her navigate the admissions process, as well as a difficult first semester that she recalls as being “extremely intimidating.” Rodriguez ultimately persevered, earned her juris doctor from Boyd in 2013, and today is president of the Las Vegas Latino Bar Association.
“Had I had exposure to law school through a fellowship like this one, I would have prepared better for the LSAT, and I would have performed better my first semester,” Rodriguez said.
Through Rodriguez’s encouragement, the firm for which she works has also agreed to sponsor a fellow. Not only is Rodriguez proud of that decision, she’s eager to lend a helping hand as a member of the fellowship’s advisory board. “I am grateful to my mentor and feel a sense of duty to help others who may be in the same situation as I was,” she said. “I believe this program will open the law school doors to many who may not have otherwise pursued a legal career.”
That’s certainly the goal for Douglas, who has another message he wants to impart to young people in a state that has grown immensely in the last three decades, yet in many ways still operates just as it did a century ago. It’s a place where you can still get face time with your elected officials, interact with them, and network for future job prospects in ways that you can’t do in larger, more populous cities and states.
“Nevada still is a land of opportunity,” Douglas said. “And tomorrow’s future is today’s opportunity. This [program] is about creating opportunities for kids and showing them the possibilities. We can’t make everyone go to law school, nor is that the intent of this program. … But for some, law school is something they’ve never thought about. Nobody in the family, nobody they know, is a lawyer.”
But that soon will change, as a diverse group of high school and college students with a thirst for learning the law will have the opportunity to gain access to a man whose depth and breadth of legal knowledge is second to none — a man who has become the mentor he never had.