The Hardest Test of Their Lives
03/07/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
The Formica kitchen table in Al Jenkins's Los Angeles home doesn't look like much, but for thousands of law students it has served as the launching pad for passing California's notoriously tough bar exam. Recently China Robinson, a 30ish mother of two who won't say how many times she has taken the bar, sat in silence at the table as the retired prosecutor delivered his usual tough critique of her legal acumen. "Do you know the law?" he asks sternly at one point. When a ringing phone ended the cross examination, Robinson could barely contain her relief—or her gratitude. "This man is wonderful," she says. "I've learned more here than I ever did in law school."
Call it boot camp for would-be lawyers. Over the past 28 years Jenkins has provided tutoring—free of charge—to more than 2,000 students, all of them African-American. Jenkins's goal: to increase the number of black lawyers—now about 4 percent—practicing in the state. "I'm putting in my effort to change the numbers around," says Jenkins, 68. "I believe the more African-American attorneys we have, the more they will have an impact on how the law is applied to our community." His tough-love method works. "He has an amazing success rate," says Karen Nobumoto, an L.A. deputy district attorney who studied with Jenkins in 1990—and who is also the only minority attorney to serve as president of the state bar. "He scared me so badly that I never studied less than 12 hours a day."
Twice a year, for two-month periods leading up to the bar exam, Jenkins opens his kitchen and his life to anyone who comes knocking. For his current tutoring session, which started in January, he had 62 students sign up, most of whom found him by word of mouth. Each day, five days a week, he sets aside three periods of 2½ hours for one-on-one instruction. Students can depend on him as much or as little as they like. They can call whenever they want. "Some will call every single day and all through the night," he says. "I tell them, 'Calm down, you can do this.' "
Jenkins believes his biggest initial task is to convince his students—many of whom have flunked the bar a couple of times or more—that they are capable of passing. "Law is not rocket science," he says. "You deal with a lot of esoteric terms that make people think it's mysterious. But law is just common sense." As for the hands-on instruction, Jenkins spends most of the sessions going over practice essays, teaching the students a formula for organizing their thoughts with a brutal honesty that sometimes brings them to tears. "I didn't see him smile until I passed," says Sherri Cunningham, 31, who took the test in 2003 and is now a lawyer who represents insurance companies. "I'd go home and cry. You fear him, but you know you have to go through him in order to pass."
Above all, Jenkins preaches the need to study hard in the months before the exam. "You have to put aside everything else," he says. "It must become the most important thing in your life." By and large, the message gets through. While over the years blacks have lagged behind whites in passing the bar exam—nearly 69 percent of whites pass on the first try, compared with only 37 percent of blacks—Jenkins says his students pass at roughly the same rate as whites.
Jenkins's no-nonsense approach is the result of his own experience. Born to a working poor family in Harlem, he showed an early aptitude for science and wound up as a electromechanical engineer for Hughes Aircraft in Los Angeles. In 1972, though, while on jury duty, Jenkins, then 40, was suddenly inspired by the idea of being a lawyer. Even though he was only a few classes shy of getting his master's degree in mathematics from USC, he chucked his career and enrolled at L.A.'s Loyola Law School. Once out he passed the bar on the first try and took a job with the L.A. district attorney, where he worked for 15 years, prosecuting everything from petty theft cases to murder. "I loved it," says Jenkins, who is divorced with two stepchildren. Along the way, he also discovered he was a born teacher. "I started helping people study in law school," he says. "I quickly found out that I have a facility for it."
Which is why China Robinson climbs into her beat-up Volvo each week to make the pilgrimage to Jenkins's kitchen table, staying and studying there until 10 p.m. "The bill I have for my student loan doesn't care what kind of law I practice," says Robinson. "I just want to get in a courtroom."
By Bill Hewitt. Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles