October 2018

My Experience in the SDCBA Diversity Fellowship Program

By Matthew Mushamel

University of San Diego School of Law

Every winter the San Diego County Bar Association opens applications for its summer Diversity Fellowship Program. The fellowship allows first year law students from diverse backgrounds to gain invaluable experience in their first summer with some of San Diego’s most respected firms and corporate legal departments. The students typically come from underrepresented communities in the legal field with little to no professional contacts in their network. The fellowship allows students to make these connections and develop their skills in an environment typically unavailable to first year law students. While most first year law students spend their summer working unpaid externships in the public sector or in smaller firms, the participating DFP Employers are firms and corporate legal departments which typically only hire students in their second summer of law school. This assists the fellows even after the program has concluded, providing them much needed experience and setting them apart from their fellow students in the following summer’s application process.

The fellowship begins with an extensive application process, consisting of a resume, personal statement, two letters of recommendation, and a writing sample memorandum on the programs question of choice. After applications have closed, candidates are selected for interviews held by DFP Committee attorney volunteers. The fellows are then selected by the committee and introduced to the DFP Employers in a speed meet and greet event. After having the opportunity to meet each fellow individually the employers select their preferred fellow for summer placement. This past summer, the program held multiple events exclusive to the fellows including a career and professionalism panel with attorneys and judges, a luncheon with the San Diego Superior Court Presiding Judge, and an end of summer mixer.

As part of the application the fellowship allows applicants themselves to explain what makes them a diverse candidate. For me, it was my race and family history. Both my parents had immigrated from Syria not speaking a word of English. It wasn’t until I started my education that I was fully taught the language, and my acceptance into college was the first in my family’s history. Throughout my educational career I lacked the support and aid many of my fellow students had at home. My parents, however, nevertheless instilled the value of an education in me by making sure I appreciated the opportunity I was given here in America, which they were not back home in Syria. A combination of my commitment towards public service and academic success lead to my selection as a 2017 California Bar Foundation Diversity Scholar from a pool of nearly 250 California students entering their first year of law school. This scholarship opportunity first introduced me to the importance of diversifying the legal community here in California and instilled in me the desire to push towards supporting such a cause.

Out of the many great firms that participated in the DFP this year, I was fortunate to be placed with Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP for my summer law clerk position. Paul Plevin specializes in labor and employment law, which I had a great interest in even before applying to the program. From my very first day, I was given substantive and meaningful work. One of my first assignments concerned researching an evidentiary issue for an upcoming arbitration. Having completed only my first year of required core classes at the University of San Diego School of Law, I had no prior experience evaluating evidentiary issues. This was the case with many of the assignments I was given in my summer. This meant that almost every project had to begin with a much more detailed study and examination of the surrounding field of law before even beginning to be able to understand the underlying facts or what my assignment entailed. Attorneys at Paul Plevin provided endless support and guidance to help me along the way. While these skills developed with a slow start, by the end of the summer I had learned a lot about the substantive practice of labor and employment law and gained invaluable experience.

I was also lucky enough to arrive at the firm on the heels of two trials and an upcoming arbitration. I had the chance to observe and participate in witness preparations, mediations, and the actual trials throughout the entire summer. I was exposed to almost every phase of the litigation process within just ten short weeks. This experience was especially valuable to me as multiple professors have pointed out in the past that some attorneys could go their entire careers without seeing the inside of a court room. There are plenty of 1L’s who enjoyed their summer experience and learned a great deal under some of San Diego’s most talented attorneys. For diverse students, however, the fellowship provides an unmatched opportunity to develop valuable skills and grow one’s professional network.

Needless to say, the fellowship provided me everything a law student in their first summer could hope to experience, while being able to develop both professional and personal relationships that have extended beyond the season. Though scarce and difficult to obtain, these opportunities are available for students who wish to experience them and should be sought out early on in their law school careers. The fellowship application is open to any first-year student enrolled in an ABA-accredited law school, in good academic standing, and with a diverse background. First-year law students should keep a look out for an orientation put on by the program on each of San Diego’s three accredited laws schools in November, and for the applications to likely open in early December.