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INTERVIEW: RACHEL E. PATTERSON, DIRECTOR, PROGRAMS FOR DIVERSITY, ACCESSLEX INSTITUTE

Rachel W. Patterson joined AccessLex Institute as Director, Programs for Diversity at the AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence in 2017. At AccessLex, Rachel oversees the Diversity Pipeline Research Grant Program and is responsible for implementing the organization’s diversity initiatives designed to help increase the number of underrepresented students admitted to law school.

Rachel came to AccessLex from Georgetown University Law Center, where she served as Assistant Director of Admissions. At Georgetown, Rachel oversaw diversity recruitment initiatives, reviewed files, attended forums and helped plan diversity-related events for prospective students. Before Georgetown, Rachel worked for several nonprofit organizations, including the Association of American Law Schools as Assistant Director and the Law and Leadership Institute (“LLI”) as the Program Director. At AALS, Rachel provided ongoing support to members of the Executive Committee and Membership Review Committee, particularly as it related to assessing whether schools were complying with the organization’s diversity requirements. At LLI, Rachel recruited 8th grade students to participate in a four-year pipeline program designed to help students from underserved communities get into college and ultimately law school.

Rachel earned a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania where she played Division I basketball, and a Master of Science in Teaching degree from Pace University. Rachel began her career as an 8th grade English teacher in the Bronx with Teach for America and shortly thereafter attended law school at the University of Michigan where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Michigan Journal of Race and Law.

Describe a day in the life of a Director of Programs for Diversity. Describe your most memorable day on the job.

As Director of Programs for Diversity, I’m responsible for overseeing and spearheading the organization’s diversity initiatives. We have a 2025 Strategic Plan that has specific strategies to help us achieve our ultimate objective of having graduating law school classes reflect the diversity of society. Our multi-faceted approach includes engaging with prelaw advisors, legal education stakeholders, and students. This approach also involves research and grant-making to determine what challenges underrepresented students face and what students and administrators could potentially do differently to yield positive results. On a daily basis, I oversee and work with my team to implement the strategies incorporated into the diversity objective of the Strategic Plan. On a typical day I may spend time reviewing interim or final reports from grantees, submit a proposal for a presentation at a conference, meet with our Research Analysts on the diversity team to see how various projects are progressing, conduct a webinar for prospective law school applicants etc.

What attracted you to this field? Describe your career path.

I initially planned to attend law school immediately after college, but I decided to instead work for two years as an 8th grade English teacher in the Bronx, NY with Teach for America. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching, but I yearned to learn more about the structures and laws that created our school systems that remain separate and unequal. I ultimately knew that I was primarily interested in using my JD to help increase diversity. My teaching experience fueled my passion for helping underrepresented students gain access to a high-quality education.

When I graduated from law school, I worked as the Assistant Director at the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) in Washington, DC. At AALS, I worked on various projects but most enjoyed the diversity work within the membership review process. I worked with members of the Executive Committee and Membership Review Committee to determine whether member schools were in fact making significant efforts to increase student and faculty diversity. My time at AALS piqued my interest in diversity in legal education.

I then moved to Columbus, Ohio to serve as the Program Director of The Law and Leadership Institute (LLI), a statewide pipeline program designed to help underrepresented students get into college and hopefully matriculate to law school. While I was familiar with pipeline programs, this was my first hands-on experience working for a program. At LLI, I recruited students, trained and evaluated instructors, and created and edited the curriculum. I enjoyed this experience immensely but also knew that I wanted to move back to the east coast, closer to my family.

Several years later, I returned to DC to serve as Assistant Director of Admissions at Georgetown Law. At Georgetown Law I reviewed applications, made various presentations at law fairs, and spearheaded diversity recruitment efforts. After reading lots of applications and speaking with many students, it became clear to me that so many underrepresented students want to go to law school but are unaware of the “rules of the game,” meaning the specific steps they needed to take in order to do so successfully. My current role at AccessLex allows me to call upon my prior experiences in an effort to both share the rules of the game with underrepresented students and to partner with colleagues and key stakeholders in legal education through grant-making and research to determine what additional steps can and should be taken to increase diversity.

The beauty of a JD is that the skills you acquire are transferable to a variety of realms. In law school, we are taught how to think critically, negotiate, see the world through the eyes of others, anticipate challenges and provide solutions, and use evidence to make our case. I use my JD on a daily basis. I use it when we make decisions pertaining to our grant program regarding what changes we need to make to our policies, procedures, grant agreement, review process, funding decisions etc. I use my JD while I strategize with my colleagues as to what the best approaches are to successfully support and encourage underrepresented students making their way through the law school application process. I use my JD as I think through how to understand, engage with, and provide meaningful content for prelaw advisors and diversity and inclusion officers, and law school admission personnel as they strive to increase diversity in legal education.

What are some of the rewards and downsides of working in the area of diversity and inclusion in legal education?

For me, there are two great rewards in diversity in legal education. The first reward occurs when a student whom I’ve mentored ultimately ends up being admitted to law school. That reward is precious because after months and sometimes years of hard work, it is both thrilling and humbling to witness a student achieve his/her dreams. A second reward is when a law school administrator or pre-law advisor incorporates some of the strategies and ideas we shared with them into their work and it yields positive results. When tactics translate into tangible and positive results, that is particularly rewarding and exciting.

A downside to diversity work in legal education is that change is often slow. It can take months but more often years to actually witness meaningful positive progress. As a result, it is critically important to remain vigilant, focused, determined and encouraged over an extended period of time.

Do you have any advice for an undergraduate interested in pursuing law school or a career in diversity and inclusion?

As As my favorite Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson says, “the separation is in the preparation.” In order to be successful in the law school application process, during law school, and during your career, you can separate yourself from the pack by sufficiently preparing. Specific advice regarding how you can prepare is available below.

If you are interested in applying to law school my advice is as follows:

1) Apply early in the application cycle.

2) Devote ample time to prepare for the LSAT. Consider taking an LSAT course. Pipeline programs offer discounted LSAT courses and Kaplan, through a program called The Starting Line, offers students up to 60% off courses if they demonstrate financial need. Visit our Directory, for more information on pipeline programs.

3) Consult your prelaw advisor, who will provide you with personalized advice prior to and during the law school application process.

4) Identify which factors are most important to you in the law school application process (i.e. location, cost of attendance, diversity etc.).

If you are ultimately interested in pursuing a career in diversity in legal education and/or the profession, my advice is as follows:

1) Familiarize yourself with literature on diversity and inclusion. ARC is a great resource to that end.

2) Connect with D&I professionals to learn more about their work. What do they enjoy? What challenges them?

3) Pursue professional development opportunities on an ongoing basis. There are various D&I certificates and courses that you can take to continue to perfect your craft. The more you learn, the greater credibility you can acquire.

Contact Information:

Rachel is happy to answer questions and is reachable by email at: rpatterson@accesslex.org.

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