The Boost They Need in Hurdle Over Bar Exam

A retired prosecutor provides free tutoring to blacks preparing to take the state test.

By Joy Buchanan
LA Times Staff Writer

August 2, 2004

Would-be lawyer Arletta Brimsey spent years of her life learning the law, only to discover that, no matter how many times she tried, she could not pass California's bar exam. Then she met Alfred Jenkins.

A retired Los Angeles prosecutor who became Brimsey's mentor, intellectual drill instructor and uncompromising taskmaster, Jenkins tutored her until she passed in 1994, 10 years after graduating from law school. She is now a Los Angeles deputy city attorney.

"I would not have passed the bar had it not been for Al Jenkins," Brimsey said. "I love him to death. I'm probably as close to him as I am to my dad."

Jenkins, who passed his bar exam on the first try in 1976, has been tutoring black students like Brimsey for nearly 30 years. He puts people through paces about nine hours a day, five days a week, at his Los Angeles home for free.

"I'll tutor any black folks that walk through the door," said Jenkins, 68. "No one else is doing it."

Blacks traditionally have had a harder time passing the bar, which is required to practice law, than whites, experts say. Nearly 8,000 people take the exam each July in California. According to figures compiled by the State Bar of California, about 70% of people trained in state-approved schools who took the test for the first time last July passed, but the rate for black first-time test takers was 45%. Latinos and Asians also have a lower-than-average success rate.

Stephen Klein, a consultant for the state bar and a researcher with the Rand Corp., said the gap between black students and others has been apparent for more than 25 years. He said most students eventually pass the bar if they take it repeatedly, and their chances can be improved with more studying, mentoring and intensive review courses.

Jenkins is "a godsend," said David Burcham, dean of Loyola Law School. "Educational research shows that when a person learns one-on-one or in a small group, the educational outcome is superior to mass instruction."

A native of Harlem who came to Los Angeles as a draftsman for Hughes Aircraft in 1962, Jenkins started tutoring while he was a student at Loyola Law School and continued during his 15-year career as a deputy district attorney.

"I'm building professionals," Jenkins said. "I'm building lives, really." Law school grads, he said, "cannot get on with their lives until they get that bar exam out of their way."

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John T. Doyle, a Loyola classmate, commended Jenkins' goal: to increase the number of black law professionals.

"It's very important to have diversity in the legal community," Doyle said. "It's a laudable goal for the community to feel that individuals like themselves can reach these positions.

"People need to be aware that there are still some individuals who are willing to give more than their fair share of time to help other people," Doyle said. Superior Court Judge Rodney G. Forneret another Loyola classmate had tutored Jenkins there. Jenkins credits Forneret with sparking his own interest in tutoring.

Bruce Brodie, a former student of Jenkins who is now an alternate public defender, said he, in turn, was inspired by Jenkins' example and has tutored black students for about 13 years, also for free. "We need the African American perspective represented on both sides of the courtroom and on the bench," Brodie said. It's hard to tell if those numbers are changing; the state bar does not keep racial and ethnic statistics on its 196,869 members.

Jenkins came to the law after being summoned to jury duty while studying for a graduate degree in math at USC. Fascinated by the legal proceedings, Jenkins dropped out of USC and applied to law school. As a deputy district attorney, he tried nearly 100 felony cases before retiring early in 1992. He wanted to spend more time tutoring students, he said.

He's tough, his students say, but his methods work.

New students attend a three-hour session, sometimes at the Formica table in Jenkins' tiny dining room, a single light bulb hanging over them. Jenkins sits across the table, his long, thin arms and legs crossed, dictating the notes he compiled in law school. Students take them by hand; Jenkins said they learn and remember more that way.

"For at least 60 days, bar review must come before everything else in your life," Jenkins tells his students. "Take your phone off the receiver. Pay your bills in advance. Let your friends work out their own problems."

If students move on to attend one-on-one sessions, they find Jenkins a stern teacher. If they say they are too tired, he asks: Suppose I was sitting across the table from you with a gun aimed at your head. Would you still be too tired to study?

He doesn't laugh. He's not kidding.

"I think he borderline mentally abused me, but, hey, I passed the bar," said Daniel Alexander II , who works for a law firm in Irvine. Alexander graduated from UCLA School of Law in 1994, and under Jenkins, he studied daily from 7 a.m. to midnight. He saw his fiancee only three times that summer.

Alois Phillips, now a deputy city attorney, sent her two young children to her mother in Texas and devoted her summer in 1993 to studying with Jenkins. She wrote notes on pieces of paper and taped them all over the walls of her home, forcing herself to memorize them. And she passed.

Jenkins "was a great supporter and motivator, but he was very blunt," Phillips recalled.

Beverly Hills attorney John V. Meigs Jr. graduated from Harvard University School of Law and is the son of a Superior Court judge, but he credits Jenkins' methods with helping him pass the bar in 1995.

"I owe him a debt of gratitude," Meigs said. "There are probably a lot of African American lawyers in Los Angeles that really owe the fact that they're lawyers to Al."