The Long Arc of Legal Justice

The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law is writing a new chapter in legal history that has been millennia in the making.

If you’re wondering who will contribute to the next chapter for legal justice, The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law graduates are a good bet.

Take U.S. Navy veteran Donna Munyon, for instance. Although she fell in love with law as an undergraduate, she didn’t pursue a legal career until she discovered the Colleges of Law later in life.

“I was interested in the law, but at the time I had two small kids and my husband was still active-duty military. It just wasn’t in the cards to go to law school,” says Munyon, 55, who graduated from the Colleges of Law in 2017 after working for 30 years in civil service. “The traditional law schools aren’t flexible and didn’t fit into my lifestyle at the time.”

Now Munyon is a family law attorney whose passion is to serve low-income clients.

“Lawyers are expensive,” she says. “I want to do more pro-bono work. That’s where I see myself long-term—helping people access justice who don’t currently have it.”

Munyon’s story doesn’t exactly fit with what we think of as a typical lawyer. Yet those who practice law are those who can attend law school—and as law school is expensive, the law field has traditionally been one of affluence and privilege. Bias in the courtroom affects everyone—from the jury, to the judge, to the appointed lawyers—yet hurts those without affluence and privilege the most. Equal access and fair representation are huge problems plaguing the legal system.

It’s stories like Munyon’s, of lawyers with untraditional backgrounds and serving clients who otherwise wouldn’t get help, that make Colleges of Law unique: it has been redefining who law grads are and what the future of law looks like. In 2019, the Colleges of Law is celebrating 50 years. As we celebrate this milestone, we examine how much legal justice has evolved, and how much further we have to go.


Looking back

In some ways, the legal system operated in such a way that only a very specific type of person could gain entry into the profession. In ancient Rome, for example, the fact that advocates (those who represented others in trials) were initially not allowed to collect fees for their counsel meant only aristocrats were in a position to practice law. Likewise, the time and expense required to attend schools meant medieval law schools like the University of Bologna’s in Italy typically were reserved for the children of noblemen.

Of course, the law didn’t just exclude people because of class. It also excluded them because of race and gender. American law schools, for instance, didn’t have a black or female graduate until 1869 and 1870, respectively. The American Bar Association (ABA), meanwhile, didn’t have female or black members until 1918 and 1950, respectively—decades after its 1878 founding.

It’s against this historical backdrop that attorneys established The Santa Barbara & Ventura Colleges of Law (COL) in Southern California. The latter was the brainchild of Ventura attorney Fred J. Olson, who opened The Ventura College of Law with 36 students in 1969. The former, The Santa Barbara College of Law, opened in 1974 under the tutelage of Santa Barbara attorney Thomas Williams. The schools merged in 1978 in order to pursue their shared mission: democratizing legal education by providing flexible and affordable J.D. programs.

“The schools were started to provide access to a legal education to individuals unable to obtain a traditional legal education,” says COL Dean Jackie Gardina. “Working adults who couldn’t leave work or their families to live in Los Angeles or San Francisco for three years while they pursued a degree in a traditional law school. The school has served and continues to serve as a launching pad for underrepresented groups to enter the profession—women, people of color, those from more challenging socioeconomic statuses.”


The Colleges of Law’s 2018-19 statistics show that 62 percent of students are women, 37.5 percent identify as Latino, and more than 50 percent identify as persons of color. In that way, COL represents the future of law—even if it doesn’t always reflect the history of it.

“It’s meaningful when people see African-American, Hispanic, and female lawyers and judges,” Gardina continues. “It adds legitimacy to the system and gives people faith that it isn’t a system controlled by the dominant members of society, but rather a system in which all members of society play a role and have a voice. It means that the lawyers in our community will reflect the diversity and experience of the people they serve. That’s critical to justice.”

This drive to represent members of her community is what called Colleges of Law graduate Erika Martin Del Campo to law in the first place. The daughter of a single mother, she grew up watching Latinos in her community get lost in the legal system—including her mom, a Mexican immigrant who worked as a teacher during the week and a waitress on the weekends.

“When she was a waitress, my mother had a couple of workers’ comp cases and didn’t know how to navigate the system … She still has aches and pains from those injuries that were never addressed,” says Del Campo, 29, who graduated in 2017 and now represents injured workers like her mother in workers’ compensation cases. “I always wanted to help other Latinos in the community who didn’t know the system, didn’t understand it, or simply didn’t speak the language. Now that’s exactly what I’m doing, because most of the people who are injured at work are Latinos who don’t know the system and need a voice.”

The legal profession will be more affordable, accessible, and diverse than ever thanks to schools like COL, which in fall 2018 launched California’s first hybrid J.D. program, ushering in yet another evolution in legal education with increased flexibility and access through online programming.

Education is the first step to cultivate the next generation of lawyers, a generation that will lead the way for better and more just legal representation for all. As law schools become more and more diverse and lawyers increasingly reflect their clients, justice will be served to those who need it the most.  

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