Any law school applicant knows it's challenging to stand out from the crowd. A group of UC Merced students are preparing for future careers and building experience that sets them apart. With their advisor, visiting professor Mark Harris, they've founded the UC Merced Pre-law Society, a student organization where they've created opportunities to meet professionals in the field, participate in moot court competitions and even provide legal services for fellow students.
"Professor Harris has played a foundational and advisory role," said senior Jason Knight. "He helped guide and organize the first leaders of the society and strategically placed student leaders from his business law courses into leadership roles in the society. I firmly believe that Professor Harris has almost single-handed developed the UC Merced pre-law culture."
Knight, a management  major, met Harris in a junior-level business law course. "He taught me basic tools to navigate the legal world — briefing a case, preparing an oral argument and sculpting language into a living tool, much like a doctor would use an antibiotic," Knight said.
Knight set up his first moot court as a project for Harris' class, then progressed to organizing the experience as an intramural competition starting in Spring 2010, drawing participation from judges and attorneys from the Merced community. He and fellow Pre-law Society members have been laying the groundwork for future moot court competitions with other universities.
"Since each campus has its own personality, each committee studies one counterpart's structure and function," Knight explained. "Just like a law firm, we have sent out focus groups to identify and address each campus."
The pre-law students had a landmark meeting with justices from the California State Court of Appeals, 5th Appellate District in Fresno last spring.
"After introductions of the justices and some student leaders, the rapport that ensued was natural," Knight said. "Students asked important questions about our legal system and how each justice felt on key California issues."
After the initial question and answer session, students spoke with the justices one-on-one. "I jumped at the chance to engage in my own personal discourse with a few of the Justices," Knight remembered.
The society has also gained attention for its student-run campus law clinic, operating since Spring 2010. Starting four years ago, Medya Aghaansari served in different positions in the society before becoming the clinic's director a year ago.
"We have assisted with traffic matters, landlord-tenant issues, car insurance, car accidents and many others," she said.
Students don't give legal advice; they just make sure paperwork is complete and help schedule meetings with attorneys. Local attorneys volunteer to give students legal advice free of charge.
"We are continuously working on getting the word out about the clinic," Aghaansari said. Those efforts have paid off; the clinic has already gained attention from local newspaper and radio outlets.
Most importantly, the clinic is there to help students who need a hand and to provide important experience for pre-law students.