Members Who Inspire

Armin Salek builds new pathway to profession for aspiring first-generation lawyers

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Armin wearing a t-shirt with the Youth Justice Alliance logo

“I realized there was an incredible opportunity for our students to become changemakers in their own community,” Armin Salek says. Photos provided by Armin Salek.

At age 33, Armin Salek has his dream job. He is the founder and the executive director of the Youth Justice Alliance, a nonprofit organization in Austin, Texas, that provides aspiring first-generation lawyers with financial and institutional support starting in high school. Salek began his career with interests in education and law and has been amazed by the opportunity to seamlessly blend the two in his work.

“I thought I would have to force it by being maybe part-time lawyer and part-time teacher, but this idea that I could do both at the same time in a position like this, where I can help other aspiring first-gen lawyers achieve their goals, has been the most amazing surprise,” says Salek, who moved with his parents and older brother to the United States from Iran in 1995.

Through the Youth Justice Alliance, Salek identifies high school seniors who are interested in legal careers but come mostly from underrepresented communities. Selected students are awarded four-year fellowships that include ongoing mentorship and educational programming. They are invited to a weeklong training institute the first summer and complete paid judicial and nonprofit internships the next two summers. They receive a stipend to help prepare for and take the LSAT the final summer.

The goal, Salek says, who established the Youth Justice Alliance in 2021, is to invest early in these students and help them overcome potential barriers to the legal profession. The organization welcomed eight fellows from the Austin, Texas, area in 2022, and 18 fellows from across Texas in 2023.

Students in a classroomThe 2023 cohort of Youth Justice Alliance Fellows met in June for classes at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

“As everybody in the legal profession knows, our idea of investing in access and opportunity has been to wait until law school, see which students from underrepresented communities are succeeding and then start providing diversity scholarships and other support,” says Salek, who is the director of the ABA Young Lawyers Division’s legal pathway and law student outreach team and as its liaison to the ABA Council for Diversity in the Educational Pipeline.

“Through that process, we have been leaving behind so much talent, so much passion and so many members of underrepresented communities that our profession desperately needs,” Salek says.

Mario Perez, a graduate of the Del Rio High School in southwest Texas, is a 2023 fellow of the Youth Justice Alliance. Growing up in a small town, he didn’t know any lawyers. So when Salek visited his law class to talk about the fellowship, he thought that the opportunity to connect with professionals and peers who shared his interests was priceless.

“I always wanted to be a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean I knew much about what being a lawyer meant,” says Perez, whose grandparents came to Texas from Mexico. “I would have small chances to get a bit closer to that, but when you’re a first-generation student and the first one aiming that high, I was figuring out everything as I go.”

Perez is working on his associate degree and will start at the University of Texas at Austin in the spring. He credits Salek, who wrote one of his recommendation letters, for helping make it happen.

“You don’t meet someone like Armin every day,” Perez says. “Normally, when people get to that level of success, they keep going. But he wants to give pieces of it to people he sees potential in. I think that’s brilliant.”

Students in a courthouseThe 2023 YJA fellows presented their arguments in a mock family trial in front of Judge Karin Crump of the 250th Civil District Court at the Travis County Civil and Family Courts Facility.

Dream combination

Salek began considering his path to the law when he was in college.

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He studied government and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and after graduating in 2013, he thought that he might be a public defender. Then he got involved in the University of Houston Law Center’s Immigration Clinic and discovered that he also enjoyed working with asylum-seekers and other immigrants.

“I come from a family of immigrants, and we’ve all navigated the immigration system,” Salek says. “I just began thinking about all the opportunities that opened up for me, compared to where I would be if I was still living in Iran. It became a passion project.”

Coincidentally, Salek also discovered his passion for education. He became a student instructor for the Introduction to American Law course, which was offered to foreign attorneys in the University of Houston Law Center’s LLM in U.S. Law program. He also joined the Street Law initiative and taught local high school students about immigration, family and criminal law.

Salek graduated in 2016, and became a licensed attorney. Since he also wanted to stay in the classroom, he became certified to teach social studies later that year.

He was teaching world history and sociology at the Eastside Early College High School in Austin, Texas, when an administrator told him about an open position in the law program at the Akins Early College High School, another school in the district. He says it never crossed his mind that he’d get the chance to teach law at the high school level.

“For somebody who was dreaming of becoming an attorney and teacher, I mean, what better way to do that than this?” Salek says.

‘Incredible opportunity’

Salek brought a proposition with him to Akins—he wanted to start a legal aid clinic in which students could work on real cases under his supervision.

As far as Salek knows, this had never been done before, but he knew how beneficial it could be after talking with other teachers about issues related to wills and divorce. He also answered questions from students and their families about immigration and sexual violence.

While Salek took some of these cases pro bono, he referred others to legal service providers or private attorneys. He often heard later that many people didn’t receive the legal support that they needed because of financial or other limitations.

“I realized there was an incredible opportunity for our students to become changemakers in their own community,” Salek says. “They could take on less challenging cases; take on some of those cases that aren’t supported by legal service providers in the area; and that our students, their families, our teachers can’t afford to go to a private attorney for.”

After creating the legal clinic in 2017, Salek and his students provided hundreds of hours of free legal services. They handled a green card application and a citizenship application for custodians at the school. They also assisted teachers with wills and a security guard with a divorce.

“It was such an incredible experience, and this goes beyond law internships—it gave the students a chance to realize they can do a lot of good in their own community,” says Salek, who was named the Austin Independent School District High School Teacher of the Year in 2020 for his work. “It taught them how much power they had, and that applied to all of them.”

Forging a new path

While Salek loved introducing high school students to the law, he began thinking about what would happen to them after graduation and whether they would receive support on their path to the legal profession.

After the COVID-19 pandemic effectively halted Akins’ legal clinic, Salek went to Harvard University to pursue a master’s degree in education policy and management. He graduated in 2021, and back in Texas, he started the Youth Justice Alliance. Now, as its executive director, he spends a lot of time on partnership development, grant writing and fundraising.

But he says working with the fellows remains his top responsibility. This includes planning their educational programs and events, as well as connecting them with internship, scholarship and employment opportunities and ensuring that they stay in touch throughout the school year.

For Salek, a recipient of the ABA Young Lawyers Division’s 2023 On the Rise Award, another rewarding aspect of his job is talking to high school students about the Youth Justice Alliance. He says it’s vital to continue finding aspiring first-generation lawyers who may not have the resources that they need to join the legal profession.

“There’s no profession where access is more important than the law,” Salek says. “And that’s at the core of what we are trying to do—we are trying to democratize access to legal knowledge, legal careers and legal power.

“These students that we are supporting, these aspiring first-gen lawyers, can then use their newfound legal knowledge, and possibly their newfound legal career, to protect themselves, their families and their communities,” he says.

The Youth Justice Alliance is now accepting 2024 fellowship applications. To learn more, visit its website.

Members Who Inspire is an ABA Journal series profiling exceptional ABA members. If you know members who do unique and important work, you can nominate them for this series by emailing [email protected].

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