For decades, a UB law professor has fought to help minority students succeed in law schools and at law firms across the country.
Michael I. Meyerson has devoted his entire life to fighting for the underdog and the disenfranchised. Since the mid-1990s, Meyerson, a University of Baltimore School of Law professor, has worked tirelessly to level the playing field for minority law school students.
“It’s more than half a century after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and it’s horrifying how far behind the legal profession is at placing talented minority members in roles in which they belong,” says Meyerson, who before coming to UB worked for three years as an instructor at Brooklyn Law School.
According to the 2017 National Association for Law Placement’s “Report on Diversity in U.S. Law Firms,” only about 4 percent of legal associates and fewer than 2 percent of partners at law firms across the country are African-American.
In 1995, a decade after joining the UB law school faculty, Meyerson and his colleague and fellow professor, F. Michael Higginbotham, determined that like most schools’ affirmative action programs, UB’s was not particularly effective. It admitted African-Americans and other minority students, but offered virtually nothing specifically to help acculturate them and provide opportunities for guidance and success in law school.
Meyerson says the highest-achieving students tended to be those “whose daddies were law firm partners, students who by virtue of their upbringing were deemed more talented.”
Says Higginbotham: “When African-American and other first-generation students decide to apply to law school, they often don’t do particularly well, not because they’re not smart but because no one is helping them play the game.”
To rectify that problem, Meyerson and Higginbotham, along with then-UB School of Law Dean John A. Sebert, founded the Baltimore Scholars Program. Describing the program that he continues to direct, Meyerson says, “The Scholars Program isn’t a charity program helping poor people. We went to places where talented students were not being recognized. What we believe and what’s been proven is that if you find talent and level the playing field, diversity inevitably happens. We’re not a diversity program. We’re a talent search.”
In 2013, local personal injury attorney Peter Angelos donated $1 million to the university to rename the program after his late sister, Fannie, a 1951 UB law school graduate and a Baltimore Scholars Program mentor. The Fannie Angelos Program for Academic Excellence provides Law School Admission Test training for students from Maryland’s historically black colleges and universities, as well as scholarships, mentoring and financial assistance to students admitted to UB and other law schools.
It also sponsors a gala every November that provides networking opportunities for current students, alumni and more than 150 local attorneys, as well as raises money to help pay for internships and other costs related to the program.
According to Meyerson, nearly 100 students who began the program have been admitted to myriad law schools — including Columbia University, the University of Southern California and the University of Maryland — in addition to UB.
“We’re looking for smart people and people who have grit, who can get knocked down, get back up, ask for help and move toward success,” he says, pointing out that the highest first-semester grade point averages at UB law school for the past two years have gone to Angelos scholars. Graduates of the program have gone on to judicial clerkships and careers as public defenders, prosecutors, attorneys in various government agencies, and positions at major corporate law firms.
“We’ve reached a point in the program where some of the area’s most prestigious law firms are asking for Angelos scholars,” says Meyerson. “But it’s not just a story about successful lawyers, it’s how talent opens doors and gets attention.”
Meyerson’s passion and commitment to diversity and fairness, according to Higginbotham, are a major factor in the success of the Angelos program, which last year won the American Bar Association’s prestigious Diversity Leadership Award for “promoting full and equal participation in the legal profession.”
“He has a deep commitment to fairness, to those equal protection provisions that have been in the [U.S.] Constitution since Reconstruction,” Higginbotham says. “[Meyerson] looks at each Angelos scholar as one of his own children and treats them as he treated his own very successful sons.”
A graduate of Hampshire College in Massachusetts and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Meyerson has worked for such outfits as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Appeals Bureau and the New York State Consumer Protection Board.
Author of the 2012 book “Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America” (Yale University Press), Meyerson traces his passion for fairness and equality issues to his family and his Jewish upbringing.
“I grew up in The Bronx,” he says, “in a culture that was about fighting for the underdog.” Meyerson proudly notes that his grandfather was a labor organizer in the 1920s and his parents participated in civil rights and anti-war rallies in the 1960s.
Meyerson also says the Bible greatly influenced him. “Those stories were about being strangers in a strange land,” he says. “That always stuck, that obligation to help everyone succeed in life.”
In addition, Meyerson credits his law school professors for teaching “that legal decisions can affect the lives of ordinary people, and that Constitutional rights can only be protected if we understand their history — why they were created and why they were so valued.”
Today, Meyerson and his wife, Dr. Lesly Berger, a pediatrician, live in Ellicott City, with their adult children residing in Virginia and California. Meyerson is an active member of Columbia’s Beth Shalom Congregation and serves as his synagogue’s representative to the Jewish Federation of Howard County.
Meyerson takes great pride in the Angelos program and brushes off all questions of slowing down or retiring.
“It’s a happy story,” he says. “At 62, I’m teaching, and more importantly I’m helping people. Why would I retire?!”
Jonathan Shorr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.