Armin Salek, a Texas social entrepreneur, lawyer, and teacher, gives first-generation high school students hands-on experience using the law to serve the needs of their communities. By building pathways from high school law clinics to higher education and employment, Salek is spreading legal literacy in immigrant communities and giving students a new sense of purpose. Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf caught up with Salek for more information.
Simon Stumpf: Armin, you’ve met with aspiring first-generation lawyers and coached students in Mock Trial finals this month. There is a connection between where you come from and the work you do today, isn’t there?
Armin Salek: Surely. When I was five, I moved to the US from Iran with my family – we were eligible to immigrate because of my parents’ engineering degrees. I always wonder, where would I be if my parents couldn’t have given me that chance? That’s why I think so much about the wealth of generations and the access of generations to certain careers, such as the legal field — one of the least various fields in America, it turns out.
stub: Why did you become a lawyer?
Salek: Originally I wanted to become a criminal lawyer. But given my family background and some of the immigration struggles I saw family members dealing with, I eventually went on to study immigration law. Subsequently, a street law program at the University of Houston Law Center enabled me to teach criminal and state law at a high school nearby. I fell in love with teaching – and ended up teaching many of my students and their families about the challenge of legal access that many face.
stub: Why is it important to bridge the gap between first-generation students and the legal profession?
Salek: Being a lawyer is one of the most powerful roles in our society, not only when it comes to the courtroom, but also when it comes to politics and advocating for your community. But from the LSATs to internships, there are so many financial and institutional barriers to entry. So what are we doing Youth Justice Alliancethe organization I started in 2021 is to invest in the young people who have incredible genius and passion for the law, yet are filtered out.
stub: You launched the nation’s first legal clinic with young people at Akins High School in Austin. How did that go?
Salek: I had applied to teach there and during my interview I said to the school, ‘I hope to start a legal aid clinic here. I want to help the community with a range of legal needs.” Surprisingly, the leaders of the school were completely behind us, so we got to work. We worked with students to file the registration for our new nonprofit with the Texas Secretary of State. Young people led or were involved in all aspects from the start — they understood that they were trusted partners.
stub: Who were your first customers?
Salek: Our customers included our school administrators, school security officers, teachers, and the parents and families of students. We provided services pro bono, with students working closely with and supervised by a licensed attorney like me. Now, every time I go back, I see the people we’ve been able to help – people who have green cards, wills, or other legal protections because of student work. I remember the students who translated documents and were able to sit down with people and provide culturally competent support in the client’s language of choice. That’s powerful, because language is a huge barrier to accessing legal support in this country.
stub: How did you expand this idea of the high school legal aid clinic?
Salek: Our original goal was to connect students who dreamed of becoming lawyers with the resources they needed to achieve that goal. But our earliest model would end up with the clinic in that senior year of high school. And then it was just, “Goodbye and good luck.”
This is how the idea for our fellowship program was born. Now we work not only with Akins High School, but with school districts all over Texas. And we find students who are in the process of acquiring advanced legal skills, giving back to their communities, and we get to say, “Hey, if you’re serious about becoming a first-generation lawyer, apply to our program. Tell us.” why you have a passion for law. You don’t have to be admitted to a four-year college or university. You don’t need to have a special GPA or specific SAT score, but you do need to tell us why your vote is needed. And if you do, we support you with four years of training.’
So basically we pay them to learn how to work in a legal environment. We pay them to do an internship with a local judge. And finally, we help fund their LSAT course. So that kind of institutional knowledge that will be shared with them, that kind of training, will hopefully help them get admitted and give them access to scholarships.
stub: You’ve certainly passed up higher salaries to pursue a career in public interest law. How do you inspire students to make the same choice, to break through the status quo?
Salek: One of the parts of the process that we help unpack is the financial aspect of law school. We talk about what it means to take those loans and the range of potential income. Students tend to picture all lawyers as these millionaires in glamorous suits. I have to tell them, no, there are many people who work hard for their communities. Realistically, if you’re a public interest attorney in the United States, you could be making somewhere around $70,000 a year, depending on where you live – still a lot of money, but there are certainly higher payment options out there.
stub: You mentioned that if a high school is lucky enough to offer a law course, much of the content will be criminal law. And that doesn’t take into account rent, immigration, wage theft: many things that affect working families.
Salek: Right. What do you do if someone withholds your wages because they say you have no papers? Where do you go if a landlord tries to pass on renovation costs to you as a tenant? What do you do if you are dealing with domestic violence? These are the kind of practical questions we want to answer. Our goal is not to turn all our students into lawyers. That would be a pretty shocking statistic. The bigger picture is that there is an unfortunate divide in our country between those who have a lot of legal knowledge and those who have no legal knowledge. So we’re trying to close that gap as well.
stub: Looking ahead, do you see your approach shifting other aspects of how schools work, and how we see and integrate and use young people’s expertise?
Salek: I do. We need to increase student agency across the board for a number of reasons. One is just that it gives young people a reason to show up, to get involved. Our students at the clinic showed up because they know they are needed – to lead a client meeting, prepare intake questions, draft briefings, translate. Real people with real dreams count on and trust them – the best motivator for caring and learning.
Armin Salek was selected as an Ashoka Fellow in 2022. You can read more about him and his impact here.