How opportunity at Seton Hall Law led to watershed moment

In the summer of 2000, before her junior year at Rutgers University, Fabiana Pierre-Louis gave the legal field a chance — because the state of New Jersey was willing to take a chance on her.

Pierre-Louis attended the Summer Institute for Pre-Legal Studies at Seton Hall Law School through assistance from the Educational Opportunity Fund — a program established in 1968 to give educational opportunities to economically challenged students.

Twenty years later, Pierre-Louis was nominated to be the first black woman to sit on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

“I didn’t always know that I wanted to be a lawyer,” she said at her nomination announcement Friday. “I had thought about it, but I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to pursue that path until I attended the Summer Institute for Pre-Legal Studies at Seton Hall Law School during the summer before my junior year in college.

“The pre-legal program was designed to be a simulation of the first year in law school and was open to students in the Educational Opportunity Fund program. I was lucky enough to be one of those EOF students.

“During the program, I had the opportunity to take courses in property law, legal research and writing. I even had the opportunity as a college student to draft an appellate brief and present an oral argument before sitting judges. At the conclusion of that program, I was sold. I loved reading the law. I loved writing about the law. I loved talking about the law, so I will forever be grateful to the pre-legal program for setting me on the path that has led me to where I am today.”

Seton Hall describes the Pre-Legal program as a five-week, residential, skill-building program that requires a total commitment of time and energy. Courses are offered in legal writing, legal analysis, written communications, oral advocacy and two substantive areas of the law, such as contracts, criminal law, property or constitutional law.

Additional class sessions in time and stress management, as well as study skills programs, LSAT prep and career orientation workshops are scheduled in the evenings and on weekends. All substantive law classes are taught by law school faculty, judges or practicing attorneys. Class attendance is mandatory. Like law school, Seton Hall offiicals say, the program is a full-time commitment.

It is directed by a civil rights pioneer, professor Brenda Saunders, and funded through the Educational Opportunity Fund of New Jersey.

Pierre-Louis went on to attend law school at Rutgers-Camden, where she graduated magna cum laude in 2006, but she has not forgotten her time spent at Seton Hall.

Saunders said Pierre-Louis is a frequent guest of the program, saying she has returned as a judge in the Moot Court Program, as a speaker on Career Night and even teaching a course.

Seton Hall Law Dean Kathleen Boozang was pleased to see a graduate of the program reach such heights.

“Seton Hall Law is thrilled Gov. (Phil) Murphy has nominated a graduate of the institute to be a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court for this historic appointment,” she said.

Since her graduation from the Rutgers-Camden law school, Pierre-Louis has made a career out of giving back, serving many years in the U.S. attorney’s office.

“As a longtime resident of both North and South Jersey, I was driven to public service as a federal prosecutor because of my commitment to enforcing the law and ensuring the safety of the people of New Jersey,” she said. “As a federal prosecutor, whether I was handling drug trafficking cases, wire fraud matters or national security investigations, my goal was always to see that justice be done.

“And, although I was tasked with enforcing the law as a prosecutor, I also understood the importance of ensuring that individuals who have served time in prison should also have the opportunity and the ability to succeed in life after prison. That is why I was extremely proud to be part of the creation of the Trenton reentry court in the District of New Jersey.”

Pierre-Louis said the reentry courts, based in Trenton, Newark and Camden, consisted of judges, probation officers, federal public defenders and assistant U.S. attorneys dedicated to a common goal: Ensuring individuals who were recently released from federal prison had jobs, housing and, in some cases, coats to keep their children warm during the winter.

“The reentry court to me exemplifies the mission of the Department of Justice coming full circle,” she said. “And I’m extremely proud to say that I played a role in that program and training.”

It’s a means of giving back.

Saunders said Pierre-Louis not only is an inspiration, but serves as affirmation of the Seton Hall program, which started 40 years ago.

The pre-legal program was established to address longstanding disparities in access to the legal profession for racial and ethnic minorities and educationally disadvantaged students of all races and ethnicities, Saunders said.

It was an outgrowth of the EOP fund, which was initially sponsored by former governor, but then-Assemblyman Tom Kean.

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