Early Support Means Everything

Diverse and first-gen students find a path to law school through the Justice Michael L. Douglas PreLaw Fellowship Program

By C. Moon Reed

When she graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, in December 2020, Emily Espinosa knew she wanted to become an environmental justice lawyer. But as a first-generation student with no family ties to the profession, the chasm between aspiration and attorney felt daunting. 

“One of the hardest things about law school, from my perspective, was just the fact that it seemed so unattainable,” says Espinosa, a native of Sparks. “I didn't know where to start, but I knew I wanted to go to Boyd, specifically for [commitment to] their community service.”

She stumbled upon the Justice Michael L. Douglas PreLaw Fellowship Program when scrolling the William S. Boyd School of Law’s website. “It was talking about diversity and helping students like me who really didn't understand the background or the process,” Espinosa says. 

Named after the first Black chief justice of the Nevada Supreme Court, the Douglas PreLaw Fellowship is designed to help diverse and first-generation students prepare for law school through a week of simulated law school classes and LSAT preparation. The fellows also visit Nevada courts, firms, in-house counsel and public interest organizations to meet lawyers and judges where they work.

Espinosa, who applied and participated in the fellowship in January 2021, is a member of its inaugural cohort. Today, she is a second-year law student at the Boyd School of Law. 

“It was awesome,” Espinosa says of the fellowship. “It was my first look at what being a lawyer would look like.” She found it “comforting” to connect with professionals as well as other students. “It just brought me a lot of peace and encouragement.” She especially appreciated how everybody helped her feel valued and took extra time to answer all her questions. 

“I owe absolutely everything to this fellowship,” Espinosa says. “I don’t think that I would be in law school if it wasn't for my attendance in this.”

Now retired, Justice Douglas still takes the time to participate in his namesake fellowship.

“He’s a trailblazer,” says Cameron Lue Sang, the program co-creator and Boyd’s Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. “He has mentored many young attorneys throughout the state. We’re very grateful that he’s there the entire week and [that] he spends the time with us.”

For John Delikanakis, a partner with Snell & Wilmer’s commercial litigation and alternative dispute resolution group in Las Vegas and Reno, the Douglas PreLaw Fellowship is part of a vital effort to “really change the face of the legal profession to be more representative of what society looks like.”

Delikanakis sits on the fellowship advisory board and helped craft what the program would become.

“It's important for a healthy democracy to make sure that all constituents have a working role in it, rather than just being simply subject to it,” Delikanakis says. He says that one of the best ways to help underrepresented groups become represented in a democracy is to encourage them to go to law school in order to be able to create and interpret the law. “It's important for a fair and just legal system.”

Delikanakis encourages Boyd School of Law alums, community leaders, and legal professionals to spread the word about the Douglas PreLaw Fellowship; to encourage prospective students to apply; and even to volunteer their time.

“I know that a lot of Boyd alums out there have a lot to add to this program,” he says.

Volunteer opportunities include sitting on the board, speaking, hosting luncheons for students, and simply talking candidly to students about what a career in law actually looks like. 

Perhaps ironically, Delikanakis says that the program’s ultimate success would drive it out of existence. “I hope that in 100 years, this program is not necessary because people of all backgrounds join the legal profession as a matter of course. That's my hope.”