PSJA ISD: Pre-Law Institute Pioneers

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PSJA ISD: Pre-Law Institute Pioneers

Attorney Jaime Pena conducts a mock law school class in a PSJA school gym.
Attorney Jaime Pena conducts a mock law school class in a PSJA school gym.

PSJA ISD has emerged as a visionary district, home to four specialized “schools” (much like “colleges” in a university system) offering certificates or associate’s degrees in specialties ranging from cybersecurity and graphic arts to biology and basic firefighter technology. Last year, PSJA’s college-readiness vision went though an expansion with the launching of the PSJA Pre-Law Institute.

“The vision is to make a legal education attainable to all students in PSJA ISD,” said Jesse Zambrano, president of the PSJA ISD School Board and owner of Zambrano Law Firm in McAllen.  “It gets students thinking about law school early as opposed to when they get to college, where the challenges may dissuade them.”

Each PSJA high school hosted an orientation at the start of last school year to inform students about the Pre-Law Institute. Applications came in from 248 students. Invitations went out to all 248 students to a kick-off event after acceptance into the Institute. Here, they received a sneak preview of the professionals they would meet in addition to the knowledge they would gain.

PSJA ISD Pre-Law Institute students have the opportunity to ask their law mentors questions about the practice of law. (photo PSJA ISD)
PSJA ISD Pre-Law Institute students have the opportunity to ask their law mentors questions about the practice of law. (photo PSJA ISD)

Real-world experiences

Zambrano leads the 12-member advisory board that created PSJA’s Pre-Law Institute, a board comprised primary of attorneys and judges. They developed plans for monthly Institute workshops, job shadowing, a “mentor bank” and summer internships. They also arranged for the students to witness Courts in Schools, actual sentencing hearings held in high schools, providing students with the opportunity to see how the court system works.

“Everything we’re doing is being taught by the experts,” said Linda Uribe, PSJA ISD administrator for college readiness. In addition to local attorneys, judges and paralegals, those experts include Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez, Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra, Valley legislators and other professionals in the court system.  

Ernesto Flores, an incoming senior at PSJA Southwest Early College High School, is a Pre-Law Institute founding member. Although the majority of students in the Institute have no personal connection to anyone in the field, both of Flores’ parents are attorneys.

“I have it in my blood,” Flores said. For him, being a part of the Institute has provided a number of benefits. This includes exposure to legal vocabulary — how to pronounce the words and what they mean.  

“And it has been a great opportunity for me to meet lawyers and judges. Without the Pre-Law Institute, I would not have had the opportunity to meet these people,” Flores said.

Flores was selected for a Pre-Law Institute Summer Internship with the law firm of O’Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo in Pharr. He worked with the firm, which helped establish the Institute, throughout the month of July.

“Ernesto was able to witness the legal firm first hand, especially when it comes to education law,” said Eden Ramirez, an attorney with the firm. During his time with the firm, Flores spent time learning organization of files, client billing and case research.

“It’s invaluable, and he did a fantastic job. He is smart, eager and hungry for life,” said Ramirez. “There are a lot of things I see in him that tell me he would make a great attorney.”

The future of the Pre-Law Institute

Ramirez said his firm not only represents the district but also takes its responsibility of serving the community to heart.  

“Mr. (Kevin) O’Hanlon really pushes us to do more for the community,” Ramirez said.

While there is much to celebrate about the Institute’s inaugural year, it was only the beginning.

“Year two will be even more impressive,” said Zambrano. “It will grow to be the premier pre-law preparation program in our area.”

Zambrano hopes other districts will follow PSJA’s lead. He is confident that this could play a significant role in bringing a law school to the Rio Grande Valley.

Flores is anxious for this year’s Institute, too. “It gave me a lot of information, so I’m going back for more.”

Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez talks to PSJA Pre-Law Institute students about the practice of law.
Hidalgo County District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez talks to PSJA Pre-Law Institute students about the practice of law.

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