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A year as 'the only one' at Boalt

Staff Writer

A few weeks before Eric Brooks was to begin his studies at Boalt Hall School of Law in 1997, he received a telephone call from then-Dean Herma Hill Kay. He would, she said, be the only African-American in his class and should prepare himself for plenty of attention.

Eric Brooks

At that point, he recalled, it was too late to change his plans, too late to go to another school. 'I was in a position where I didn't consider any other option than coming to Berkeley and going to school,' Brooks said.

The 27-year-old was caught in the first results of the newly enacted race-neutral policy adopted by the regents of the University of California. Approved in 1995, the new policy took effect with the 1997 entering class and banned consideration of race and gender in admissions, hiring and contracting.

Although 13 other African-Americans had been admitted to Boalt's first-year class that year, all had opted to go elsewhere, some because they said they felt unwelcome at the elite school. Two Native Americans had been admitted and decided not to enroll, and of the 38 Latinos admitted, only seven decided to attend. Seven more had deferred for a year, as Brooks had.

The class of 270 included just 15 underrepresented minority students.

When UC changed its admissions policy, Brooks said, 'I originally didn't think it would have that much of an impact on the entering class, and I didn't realize what an impact it was until I got that phone call.'

Now a lawyer with Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco and a member of the State Bar's Ethnic Minority Relations Committee, Brooks is involved with planning next month's Midyear Meeting and California Minority Attorneys' Conference in Long Beach. He joined the committee “as an avenue to make sure that there's diversity in the bar.'

Besides putting together programs, he does outreach to high school and college students in an effort to attract minorities to the legal profession.

Brooks had graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington and was working in sports marketing when he decided to apply to law school, and Boalt was always his first choice. 'It has a very good reputation, but probably a bigger reason was it was such a diverse school,' he said, adding that he wanted to continue his education in a public school. His wife, Kristy, hails from the Bay Area and wanted to return.

Brooks was accepted at every school he applied to.

After arriving in Berkeley, Brooks met with Kay and other Boalt officials who promised to try to make his life as normal as possible.

The first day of classes, Brooks was uneasy as he arrived at school, where he had agreed to give a prepared statement to reporters. 'I did that to give them something and so they wouldn't hound me,' he said.

Beyond his public persona outside the law school, Brooks had to deal with being well-known in school. 'I felt like I was in a fishbowl with my classmates,' he said. 'It was just hard to get past the fact that everywhere, you're the only one. I think a lot of people tried to treat me as any other student, but the school didn't talk about the fact that there were these abysmal numbers.

My fear was I'd be the last' African-American at the school.

Never wanting to become the poster boy for the affirmative action movement, Brooks said he tried to balance his life, participating in a few marches but working hard to get a good education. He put pressure on himself “not to look stupid. The last thing I would want to do was fail. I didn't want to give any fodder to those who would say, 'He didn't belong there in the first place.' "

At the end of the first year, which also was marked by protests of both the admissions policy and Proposition 209, Brooks gave some thought to transferring, but his wife talked him out of it.

His dad, who had been the only African-American at a prep school when he was growing up, also told Brooks to stick it out. 'But he didn't have TV cameras following him around,' Brooks said wryly.

The following year, 34 underrepresented minority students enrolled at Boalt. By Brooks' final year, he had become chairman of the Law Students of African Descent, was the editor of the African American Law and Policy Report, had been a summer associate at Morrison & Foerster and a volunteer at the East Bay Community Law Center, where he currently sits on the board.

Now a securities litigator, Brooks thinks the end of affirmative action at various public institutions has led to more homogenized schools where different points of view have been eliminated. He believes race and gender should be considered in law school admissions, in addition to grades, LSAT scores and various other factors in an applicant's background. 'Income and life experience are not a perfect substitute for racial experience,' he said. 'They can't be used as a complete proxy for race.'

Details about the midyear meeting and minority attorneys' conference can be found on page 8.

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