Eja Richardson is a first-year student at Howard University from Orlando, Florida. Michaell Santos is a high school senior in the Bronx, New York. While they come from different backgrounds and areas of the country, both have an interest in law, but say that the lack of resources and opportunities in their communities sometimes made the idea of law school — and the legal field — feel remote and unattainable.
In July, Richardson and Santos, along with almost 60 others, participated in a pilot course led by the National Education Equity Lab, a nonprofit aimed at bolstering economic and social mobility for high-achieving students of color and students from low income backgrounds, in collaboration with Harvard Law School. The course, called Future-L, was based on curriculum that Harvard originally created to teach incoming first-year law students the basics about the law and legal profession.
Today, Santos and Richardson both say they not only better understand the American legal system – they can also see themselves working in it.
“I took this course to solidify my confidence, and my hope, to one day go to law school,” says Richardson. “With Future-L, I learned that yes, this is exactly what I want to study. This class has given me a boost to really work hard for the reform that I want to see in my community, and this country.”
Law schools have made strides in diversifying their student bodies in recent years – a record 56% of Harvard Law School’s Class of 2024 identifies as people of color – but data show that nationally, many students still tend to come from wealthier families. A 2011 study by Richard Sander, a professor at UCLA Law, found that at law schools ranked in the top 20 by U.S. News & World Report, just 2 percent of students come from the bottom quarter of the income bracket.
Yet as Leslie Cornfeld, a 1985 graduate of Harvard Law, and founder and C.E.O. of the nonprofit National Education Equity Lab, puts it, “Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not. Our mission is to help change that.”
Cornfeld’s organization is dedicated to fostering talent and building opportunities for young students from across the country, particularly those from historically underrepresented groups and lower-income backgrounds. Through partnerships with a rapidly growing number of leading universities — including Stanford, Princeton, Brown, Howard, Cornell, and others — the National Education Equity Lab makes available free online college courses for college credit for students in teacher-led high school classrooms across the nation. The model empowers students to advance and demonstrate college-readiness to admissions offices – and themselves. It started in 2019 with a Harvard humanities course, and in just over two years has expanded to 32 states, 90 cities, and will have served over 10,000 students by the end of next year.
Cornfeld had heard about Zero-L, an online learning experience designed by Harvard Law School for incoming law students. The classes, all taught by Harvard Law professors, introduce learners to the American legal system, legal terminology and procedures, how to read statutes and cases, the structure of federal and state courts, and how cases move through the courts.
Cornfeld believed that her students would benefit from such curriculum, too. “We wanted to expose students to professions in the law, prior to college, to inspire them and demystify the process and profession. Too many potentially great attorneys from under-resourced communities have never met a lawyer, have never understood why their voices are vital to the legal system, let alone how to become lawyers themselves. Expanding exposure and opportunity is how we expand and diversify the pipeline into leading law schools, and the legal profession,” she says.
Cornfeld reached out to John F. Manning ’85 – the Morgan and Helen Chu Dean and Professor of Law and a first-gen student himself – who she says was immediately receptive to partnering with the Ed Equity Lab on a pilot program around equity and access.
“The Future-L program seeks to create an opportunity for students from traditionally underrepresented communities to learn about the fundamentals of the American legal system, and to show them how their ideas and experience could contribute to the field,” says Manning. “We very much hope that this partnership with the National Education Equity Lab will help open doors and provide inspiration to these wonderfully talented students.”
“It is crucial that those working in the law are reflective of the full diversity of our nation,” says Plunkett. “The Future-L collaboration demonstrated to these young scholars that a legal career is not only achievable for them, but that the legal community needs their perspectives, experience, and vision.”
The format was simple: each week, Future-L participants accessed video lessons on a new subject, watching or re-watching at their own pace. Then, on a designated day, students met virtually in small groups with their learning team leader — a current Harvard Law student — who helped them digest that week’s issue and discuss how it applied in real life.
The weekly small group discussions were “transformational” for many of the high school students, according to Cornfeld. “Harvard selected an extraordinary group of students to help lead the program. They made the law come alive, and inspired an entire cohort to think about entering the legal profession.”
For Richardson, the group discussion and debate led to new insights and a deeper understanding of how others think about the law and social justice. “I did not know that there were so many different methods of interpretation, especially when it comes to judges applying judicial precedent and the Constitution. That was something that was new to me that we really weren’t taught in school,” she says.
Barbara Tsao ’23, a former public school teacher, current Harvard Law student, and Richardson’s learning team leader, was impressed and gratified by the depth of conversations sparked by the lessons.
“My students were always surprised that the hypotheticals I presented were based off real cases, which was the entire point,” says Tsao. “I wanted to illustrate to my students that the law is not just an abstract, ethereal thing — it touches real lives by working in tangible – and sometimes flawed – ways. If there was a rationale that didn’t make sense, we talked about it. If a student found an outcome totally silly, it was okay to question it in this space. Our discussions were rich and lively, with the conclusion almost always being that the law isn’t perfect and that’s part of understanding it.”
In a memorable session, learning team leader Kimberly Foreiter ’22 assigned her students to one of each of the three branches of government and asked them to debate which was most powerful.
“It was beautiful to see the students bring the materials they were learning in the course to a live setting. It was the most alive I have seen a Zoom classroom,” says Foreiter, adding that she always reserved time at the end of her meetings for questions and mentorship. “Being a first-gen daughter of immigrants myself, those are very real conversations I have had with mentors of mine that are incredibly important in knowing that law school is possible.”
While he enjoyed a number of the topics covered, Santos says that his favorite part was learning about the court systems and how they interact with one another.
“At that time, I was also doing an internship with the Southern District Court of New York, so when we got to the topic of courts, it felt like I was combining these two things,” he says. “The day after I watched that lesson, I was able to go into my internship and ask questions about things I’d learned about in the videos. To be able to connect what I was learning to my real life experiences made me really excited. People from my school and community don’t usually get those kinds of opportunities.”
As a complement to the weekly lessons and discussions, Harvard Law professors and other distinguished guests were also invited to speak to Future-L students to share their work, how they got into law, and why they are passionate about the legal profession.
“There are many young people today, particularly from poor and underrepresented communities, who do not have a lawyer in their family, who have never met a lawyer, or even spoken to one. Many of them have no credible source of information about what lawyers do, or what it takes to become a lawyer,” says Ruth L. Okediji
S.J.D. ’96, LL.M. ’91, Jeremiah Smith, Jr. Professor of Law, and Future-L guest speaker. “It was important to me to fill that gap. I did not come from a wealthy background, and I had to overcome the effects of poverty and other challenges related to my race and ethnicity. But I had parents and role models who loved me and encouraged me to be my best. Despite the many things I did not have growing up, I nevertheless learned a deep love for the law, and I came to appreciate the power and authority with which lawyers can step in to resolve problems for others. I shared with the Future-L students that it is important to have people from every background represented in the profession. The law is better off with such representation because law fundamentally is a social and moral enterprise; it’s about people and the way we order our lives and govern ourselves. Diverse experiences and backgrounds add rich texture to the development of the law and strengthen its capacity to meet the challenges of successive generations. I emphasized that their unique perspectives and insights can produce fresh approaches to perennial problems and deepen our understanding of what makes for a just society. I was hoping to ignite a passion in them about the different ways that lawyers serve their communities and society more broadly.”
Alexandra Natapoff, Lee S. Kreindler Professor of Law, who also served as one of the program’s faculty guests, agrees. “I’m honored to be part of the Future-L program,” she says. “The vision of the Ed Equity Lab is so important for American education, and it is exciting to share the pedagogical resources of the law school with the wonderful young scholars in the program.”
Santos says he welcomed the opportunity to learn from Harvard professors, and that he appreciated that the school was reaching into communities like his to encourage the study of law. “There are many people in my community who may have passions for law, medicine, or other subjects, and the ability, but sometimes due to our circumstances, such as lack of resources and basic opportunities, there is a lot of settling for less. Settling for what we simply see around us, instead of what opportunities exist outside our zip codes. I feel like programs like these that offer a chance to see what we can be motivate students to keep pushing themselves to reach new goals.”
And as it turns out, Future-L scholars weren’t the only ones who were galvanized.
“My students reminded me of what drew me to the law in the first place,” says Tsao. “The law isn’t a stagnant thing; it is both a vehicle for change and an institution that needs changing. These high school students aren’t afraid to call it like they see it, and that’s refreshing to me a law student. In law school, I’ve always preferred approaching the law from a measured distance, but these kids have inspired me to be better about calling it like I see it.”
Cornfeld explained that the learning instructors were extraordinary and beloved by their students. “But what struck me most was how excited they were to be participating in this education justice effort,” she says, adding that several learning instructors have since applied to work at the Ed Equity Lab, including Foreiter.
“It wasn’t just about the materials the students were learning,” said Foreiter, who is
now working part-time as a national student success fellow at the Ed Equity Lab while completing her third year at Harvard Law. “It was also the mentorship, it was about providing these students an opportunity to meet with a law student and ask them questions about how they even got to that point. It was a full circle moment for me because, years and years ago, I was the student at all those pipeline organizations. Now, to be able to be the person on the other side, mentoring students myself – I am so grateful for that experience.”
At the beginning and end of the program, Harvard Law School and the National Education Equity Lab held virtual ceremonies for Future-L students and their families. At the program opening, Martha Minow, the 300th Anniversary University Professor and the former dean of Harvard Law School, offered a welcome and words of advice for the rising scholars. At the program’s close at the end of July, Manning offered his reflections, complimented participants on their tenacity and enthusiasm, and shared that he, too, was once an unsure young student finding his way in the world.
“The students were both awed and inspired by his remarks,” says Cornfeld. “He shared that he was a first generation college student himself, who then rose to become the dean of Harvard Law School. The number of students who commented on that afterwards was extraordinary — it resonated deeply. The fact that the dean took the time to address the scholars directly was also powerful; it signaled to them that they mattered.”
Future-L students and Harvard Law affiliates alike reported resounding success with the pilot. According to an exit survey by the Ed Equity Lab, 96% of respondents said they’d recommend the course to other students like them.
“We know how important it is to encourage students to consider law school early in their academic careers. The J.D. admissions team cannot wait to see this year’s Future-L scholars in our applicant pool someday,” says Assistant Dean Kristi Jobson ’12, head of the Admissions Team, which supported Future-L.
Santos says the program encouraged him to consider a career in the law, but that even if it had not, it would have been an invaluable experience nonetheless.
“Whether someone leaves the course loving or hating law, it was a way to figure out what they like or don’t like, what doors are open. To be able to figure that out early, when students are younger, when they’re exploring their passions – that is great.”
Tsao gushes that Future-L was the highlight of her summer. “It was a chance for me to reconnect with my teaching background and give back as a law student at Harvard Law School,” she says. “The experience was gratifying as well. At the conclusion of the program, my students shared with me that they felt like they had a far better idea of what the legal profession entails, and what skills sets they will need to exercise as successful attorneys. They told me they felt confident about the legal profession going forward, which in many ways is the goal of the Future-L.”
“It was wonderful to be back in the classroom,” agreed Foreiter. “I know that is somewhere I’d like to find myself once again someday, even as an adjunct. This experience has kept me close to those goals.”
And for Richardson, who is planning to study political science at Howard, the program reaffirmed her long-standing dream to become a lawyer – and she says she now has her eyes on Harvard Law School.
“For my community, the opportunities, the resources are not really there,” Richardson says. But today, “I know I can be the lawyer that I see on TV, I can be the legislator that I see on TV. I can be more than what society sees me as.”