When making a point, Gilbert Holmes always leads with his strong suit.
Few spend any real time with Holmes, dean of the University of La Verne College of Law, without hearing one of his stories. While his repertoire likely falls short of a million, there is no doubt he can hold his own with Scheherazade’s 1,001 tales.
When asked to name those who have mentored him during his life, Holmes, now in his 24th year working in legal education, responded “You don’t really need a lot of mentors; you just need a couple of good ones.” Such as civil rights lawyer Conrad J. Lynn.
“He was an amazing person. I started my (legal) practice and he took me in, charged me $50 a week for rent and secretarial services to get me started,” he said to begin his favorite Conrad Lynn story.
“Conrad had a client come in that looked like someone straight out of central casting as an ex-offender: big, bald-headed and muscular. Conrad was only five feet tall. And this guy is sitting there, yelling ‘Mister Lynn, you gotta give me my money back; you didn’t do a good job representing me.’ Conrad asks ‘What are you going to do, come around this desk and beat me up?’ Meanwhile, I am sitting at my desk, wondering what I’m going to do if this guy does start beating on Conrad.
“The guy left in a huff and I walked into Conrad’s office to tell him how really hairy the situation had been. As I do, I see he has his checkbook open, writing a check to give the guy his money back. I asked what he’s doing, and Conrad says he’s giving the guy his money back because he wasn’t satisfied with his representation. I asked why he didn’t give it back when the guy was confronting him. Conrad looked at me and said, ‘Never do anything under threat; do everything out of principle.”
A graduate of New York University School of Law in 1972, Holmes worked 19 years in private practice and, after he began teaching, served several more years as an arbitrator. It was when he began teaching he realized he’d found his true career path.
“I quickly discovered teaching is a calling for me and that I’ve been a teacher for as long as I can remember. When I was 10 years old I was participating and assisting in the Learn to Swim Campaign at the local YMCA,” Holmes said. “I loved doing it and really enjoyed teaching it.”
Holmes knew La Verne Law faced serious challenges when he accepted the position in spring 2013. He’d served as chair of the American Bar Association site team that visited in 2011 as La Verne was attempting to gain full ABA approval.
By the time he officially took office in June 2013, Holmes had given a great deal of thought to the law school’s situation as well as the state of legal education across the country.
“I came here with a specific mission – to develop and implement a new model for legal education. That was what I was focused on, the opportunity to do that,” Holmes said.
That mission required Holmes to expand on what was already in place and establish a solid base to support his vision. He began holding individual and group meetings with La Verne Law faculty, administrators, staff, students, alumni, donors, and members of the university and local legal communities. Stories were told, ideas exchanged, and concepts started taking shape.
Those efforts established a vision statement, a mission statement and, ultimately, five core principles forming the foundation of the La Verne Law Model of Legal Education.
• Basic Skills for Success: Grounding students in the ability to Read, Analyze and Present (RAP) for success in the classroom, on the bar exam, and in their chosen legal careers. Those concepts are incorporated in orientation, maintained and expanded upon throughout the curriculum, and finely honed during postgraduate bar exam preparation.
• High Bar Performance: Introducing students – in every class and at each stage of their law school life – to bar exam success concepts through the Center for Academic & Bar Readiness (CABR). It continues with the Bar Exam Strategic Training (BEST) program offering graduates preparation for their first bar exam.
• Ready to Practice Curriculum: Equipping students with the skills and experiences lawyers, judges, clients and the legal community expect from a law school graduate. Its revised curriculum exposes students to the interconnection of knowledge, skills and experience, making graduates highly attractive to potential employers.
• Being a Beacon of Hope & Inspiration: As an institution, the law school is involved in understanding and advancing the law as well as serving as a community resource. It promotes learning, academic research, cultural outreach and establishes itself as an interested and engaged partner with the local, regional and legal communities.
• Commitment to Access & Affordability: Addressing a national concern over the increasing cost of legal education and record levels of student debt, La Verne Law now offers a flat, no-discount tuition rate – the True Tuition Model. It breaks from policy used by most of the nation’s law schools of charging a high tuition rate and offering merit scholarships primarily based on high scores applicants receive on the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT).
Both CABR and the BEST program, established prior to Holmes’ arrival, have seen positive early returns. The July 2013 California Bar Exam results showed a double-digit improvement in the pass rate percentage of first-time takers versus the July 2012 exam.
The True Tuition Model, unveiled in March, has inserted La Verne Law into the national conversation on the expense of attending law school. It has been cited in articles appearing in several high-profile print and online publications.
A key concern with merit scholarships centers on problems relating to the LSAT test. The Law Admissions Council, administrators of the LSAT, has acknowledged disparities in student LSAT performance based on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic factors. Applicants having greater advantages both in preparation and personal backgrounds score higher and enjoy lower law school tuition costs by receiving merit scholarships. Those having fewer advantages and opportunities in preparation and personal background typically don’t achieve high LSAT scores, pay higher tuition, incur greater debt and, essentially, fund the education of the advantaged.
That puts merit scholarships in opposition to the University of La Verne’s core values.
“Once you recognize that the merit scholarship model is contrary to the University’s core value of Diversity and Inclusivity, you are then committed to another core value, Ethical Reasoning, to change your model,” Holmes said. “Our True Tuition Model expands access to all individuals by not charging some very little and others a tremendous amount for their tuition.”
While it is understandable for the University’s core values to be shared by its College of Law, Holmes incorporated them into the mission statement “because I believe in them.”
It came down to a matter of principle, much like his decision to join the university’s mentoring program.
“I have found, to my surprise and pleasure, that I resonate with La Verne as an undergraduate institution,” he said, leading to a story involving chance conversations with students and his attending a meeting of the Brothers Forum – a campus club for male African American undergraduate students.
“In the end,” Holmes said, “I just decided I was going to mentor a couple of students.”
A decision Conrad Lynn would certainly appreciate.