La'Tika Howard decided at age six — shortly after her father was murdered — she would grow up to become a lawyer. As her college graduation neared, she still hadn't figured out how to get into law school or how to pay for it.
A flier posted in the student center of her historically black university revealed a solution: A program at the University of Baltimore School of Law recruits African American undergraduates to confront the disproportionately small number of black lawyers in the United States.
The number — as low as 2.3 percent of law partners in Baltimore and 7.5 percent of associates — affects the way black Americans interact with the justice system, corporations shape their products and young people envision their future.
Howard, a first generation college student from Prince George's County, was one of eight students selected three years ago for a full scholarship and the other perks of the program — introductions to judges and high-powered attorneys, coaching by mentors, leads on internships and law clerk positions, and intense preparation for the Law School Admission Test, a key factor in being accepted.
As an undergraduate, "I didn't have much opportunity to be around attorneys," said Howard, 23, now a second-year law student. "I wasn't networking. I didn't know about the LSAT or know you needed to take one."
The UB program, in its sixth year, is believed to be the only one of its kind in the country.
Recognized by the American Bar Association for promoting equal opportunity, the program is unique for the wraparound services it provides and its collaboration with Maryland's four Historically Black Colleges and Universities, including Howard's alma mater, the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore.
The program was named for the late Fannie Angelos, a 1951 University of Baltimore law school graduate, after a $1 million endowment by her brother Peter Angelos, majority owner of the Orioles.
Since 2011, about 90 students from the program have been accepted to law schools, including the Columbia Law School, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and the University of Southern California Gould School of Law.
About 25 students from the program are enrolled at the University of Baltimore's law school.
"We don't consider ourselves a diversity program," said Michael Meyerson, a law professor and the program's director. "We consider ourselves a talent search."
First, University of Baltimore officials scout HBCUs for eight undergraduate students in their junior or senior year to attend a two-week "boot camp." They are selected based on their grades, an application that includes essay questions, and interviews.
The selected scholars stay in a hotel near the UB campus in midtown Baltimore. They attend classes, read cases and complete writing assignments. They meet law students, visit firms and talk with lawyers, judges and elected officials to learn about career tracks and get tips for succeeding in law school.
Next, they enroll in a semesterlong LSAT preparation class and are assigned a mentor from the law school faculty. If they maintain a high enough grade-point average as an undergraduate and score high enough on the LSAT, they qualify for admission to the University of Baltimore law school and get free tuition — worth about $100,000.
Students not among the eight selected for scholarships have another option under the program: enrolling in an LSAT preparation course, open to up to 72 HBCU undergraduates and alumni.
LSAT preparation can cost upward of $2,000. The program covers all but $100.
Lower LSAT scores are among the primary reasons African Americans are underrepresented in the legal field, Meyerson said. The mean score for African Americans was 142 in 2013-2014 compared with 153 for whites that year, according to a report by the Law School Admission Council.
Meyerson said the lower average score among blacks is "not because they're not smart. No one is helping them play the game. We're finding people who are talented and teaching them how to play the game."
David B. Wilkins, faculty director for the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, said the gap is especially pronounced when looking at the most prestigious and highly paid positions, such as law firm partners.
What makes people think our legal system is fair, in part, is when they believe all views are represented, Wilkins said. "If an important demographic in our country feels less valued in the profession, this is going to make the system seem less legitimate, particularly to black Americans," he said.
About 40,000 lawyers practice in Maryland; it is unclear how many are African American. Several membership groups said they do not track that information.
A 2016 report by the National Association for Law Placement found the percentage of black associates at law firms nationally has declined nearly every year since 2009. The rate across the country was 4.11 percent, compared with 4.66 percent seven years earlier. The number is even lower for African American law firm partners, at 1.81 percent in 2016, slightly up from 1.71 percent in 2009.
A report by the Center on the Legal Profession about black graduates of Harvard's law school took a deeper look at African Americans working in the legal profession. Surveying virtually all of the law school's living African American graduates, the report looked at their current jobs, career trajectories, levels of satisfaction and attitudes on race relations.
It found the number of African American students enrolled in Harvard's law school in 2016 was lower than in the 1970s and 1980s. The law school reached a high of 73 black students in 1989. Just 33 of the law school's 563 students in 2016 were black — about 6 percent. The number was 53 out of 556 students in 2000, about 10 percent.
Judge Karen Wells Roby, a chief magistrate in a Louisiana district court, co-chaired the committee that selected the University of Baltimore program for this year's American Bar Association diversity leadership award.
She praised the university for helping African American students prepare for the LSAT.
"Many of them don't come from families of means, and prep courses are expensive, so they figure they can do it on their own. Or no one tells them, and they only hear about prep courses after they take it," Roby said. "And the better you do on LSAT, the better quality schools you get in and the more financial aid you can get."
Matthew Bradford, a 25-year-old East Baltimore native, started as a products liability and mass torts associate at the firm Miles and Stockbridge in September after graduating from UB's law school. He was recruited for the program while an undergraduate at Morgan State University studying political science.
None of his family members or family friends were lawyers, Bradford said. He got the idea to go into law about 13 years ago when his first cousin, Lamar Johnson, went to prison with a life sentence for a murder that prosecutors now say he didn't commit. Johnson was set free last month.
"I wanted to be a lawyer, but I never had any knowledge about how to go about it," Bradford said. "The program really took me in and really took care of me.
"I wouldn't have made it into law school without it."