The Pledge to Diversity Summer Clerkship has A Lasting Effect on Colorado’s Legal Community ~ By Sara Sharp

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The Pledge to Diversity Program has been promoting diversity in the Colorado legal landscape since 1993. In 2000, the program developed its Summer Clerkship Program. For the last 17 years, this program has matched hundreds of historically underrepresented and diverse students in their first year at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and Colorado Law with paid summer employment.

The idea for the Summer Clerkship Program came from Colorado companies exerting pressure on law firms to hire more diverse attorneys. As unpaid internships for law students were becoming more and more commonplace, the law schools were noticing that law students who were in a financial situation to accept unpaid internships after their first year of law school were often more competitive for the on-campus interview process during their second year. The new culture of unpaid internships has had a disproportionately negative affect on historically underrepresented and diverse students. Attorneys who were placed through the Pledge to Diversity Program when they were first-year law students can now be found all over Colorado — at top firms, legal departments and even in the courts.

The Pledge to Diversity Program is often the first encounter that these students have with the Colorado legal community. Meshach Rhoades, a partner at Armstrong Teasdale who participated in the program as a 1L in 2001, states, “It was the first major interview I’d ever had, and it was a great opportunity to get in front of potential employers and get feedback from experienced attorneys.” Rhoades was ultimately placed with Holland & Hart and she continued working with them for four years after graduating from law school. Throughout her career, and with each of her employers, she has participated in the program and routinely finds herself on the other side of the interview table. She explains, “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Pledge program. I had a tremendous opportunity to work at a phenomenal law firm, and I really feel fortunate to have had that immersive experience so early in my career.” The Pledge continues to affect students’ careers well beyond their first summer. Rhoades explains she hired an associate in part because of his experience as a participant in the program, noting, “Because I was familiar with the program, I knew to some degree what his experience was like and was confident that I was getting a really dedicated, high quality attorney.”

While the summer clerkships do not always result in permanent placements down the road, they are always beneficial to students’ professional development. Once you start looking, you’ll find the Pledge’s fingerprints all over Colorado’s legal landscape. For instance, the current co-chair of the program, Liz Titus, is counsel at Hogan Lovells. Liz began her involvement as a 1L participant and was placed at Davis Graham and Stubbs (DGS) for her summer clerkship. DGS offered her permanent employment after law school. While at DGS, she was involved in the firm’s side of participation in the program. She hired Anna Minkinow for the Summer Clerkship Program. Minkinow is now an attorney at DGS, and she and Titus work together on the Executive Committee for the program.

Rhoades describes the program’s benefits as twofold: “The program has created opportunities for law students to work in-house and at law firms very early on in their careers, and, at the same time, it creates opportunities for law firms and corporations to see how well diverse candidates perform in the legal profession. I think that’s incredibly invaluable.”

When describing the method of the program, Titus says, “We are making an extremely conscious connection for these diverse students. Of course, as with all jobs, there’s a lot of luck involved too.”

The Pledge to Diversity Program has made great strides in the last couple of years, increasing employer participation by 35 percent between 2013 and 2016 and continues to spearhead efforts into 2017 with the help of Executive Committee members CiCi Cheng, Matthew Douglas, Ana Gutierrez, Jennifer Jaskolka, Anna Minkinow, Benjamin Ross, Sara Sharp, and Elizabeth Titus.

The Pledge to Diversity Program encourages attorneys who have participated in the program as 1Ls to partake in its alumni group. For more information, email bross@jacksonkelly.com or join the “Colorado Pledge to Diversity 1L Program Alumni Group” on LinkedIn. D

Headshot_SharpSara Sharp is of counsel at Sparkman + Foote, LLP, as well as an Executive Committee member and the treasurer of the Colorado Pledge to Diversity Program. She can be reached at sharp@sparkmanfoote.com.

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