Armin Salek, a Texas-based social entrepreneur, attorney, and teacher, is giving first-generation high schoolers hands-on experience using the law to address needs in their communities. By establishing pathways from high school legal clinics to higher education and employment, Salek is ensuring the spread of legal literacy in immigrant communities and giving students a new sense of purpose. Ashoka’s Simon Stumpf caught up with Salek to learn more.
Simon Stumpf: Armin, you’ve spent this month meeting with aspiring first-generation lawyers and coaching students in Mock Trial finals. There’s a connection between where you’re from and the work you’re doing today, isn’t there?
Armin Salek: Definitely. When I was five, I moved with my family to the U.S. from Iran — we qualified to immigrate because of my parents’ engineering degrees. I always wonder, where would I be if my parents hadn’t been able to give me that opportunity? That’s why I think so much about generational wealth and generational access to certain careers, like the legal field — one of the least diverse fields in America, as it turns out.
Stumpf: Why did you become a lawyer?
Salek: I originally wanted to be a criminal defense attorney. But given my family background and some of the immigration struggles I saw relatives deal with, I ended up studying immigration law. Then, a street law program at the University of Houston Law Center allowed me to teach criminal and constitutional law in an area high school. I fell in love with teaching — and I ended up learning a lot from my students and their families about the challenge of legal access many face.
Stumpf: Why is it important to build a bridge between first-gen students and the legal profession?
Salek: Being a lawyer is one of the most powerful roles in our society, not just when it comes to the courtroom, but also politics and advocating for your community. But from the LSATs to internships, there are so many financial and institutional barriers to access. So what we’re doing at Youth Justice Alliance, the organization I started in 2021, is to invest in the young people who have incredible brilliance and passion for the law, yet are being filtered out.
Stumpf: You launched the country’s first legal clinic staffed by young people at Akins High School in Austin. How did that unfold?
Salek: I had applied to teach there, and during my interview, I told the school, “I’m hoping to start a legal aid clinic here. I want to help the community with a range of legal needs.” Surprisingly, the school’s leaders were in full support, so we got started. We worked with students to file the registration for our new non-profit with the Texas Secretary of State. Young people led or were involved in all aspects from the beginning — they understood that they were trusted partners.
Stumpf: Who were your first clients?
Salek: Our clients were our school custodians, school security officers, teachers, and the parents and families of students. We provided services pro bono, with students working in close partnership with, and under the supervision of, a licensed attorney like me. Now, every time I go back, I see the folks we have been able to help — people who have a green card, a will, or another legal protection because of the work of students. I remember the students who translated documents and were able to sit down with folks 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.
Stumpf: How have you expanded this idea of the high school legal aid clinic?
Salek: Our original goal was to connect students who dreamed of becoming attorneys with the resources that they needed to accomplish that goal. But our earliest model would end with the clinic that senior year of high school. And then it was just, “Goodbye and good luck.”
So that’s how the idea for our fellowship program arose. Now we work not only with Akins High School, but with school districts across Texas. And we find students who are in the process of gaining sophisticated legal skills, of giving back to their communities, and we get to say, “Hey, if you’re serious about becoming a first-gen lawyer, apply to our program. Tell us why you’re passionate about the law. You don’t have to be admitted to a four year college or university. You don’t have to have a special GPA or certain SAT score, but you do need to tell us why your voice is needed. And if you do that, we’ll support you with four years of training.”
So basically we pay them to learn how to work in a legal setting. We pay them to get 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.
Stumpf: You’ve surely passed up bigger salaries to pursue a public interest law career. How do you inspire students to make the same choice, to disrupt the status quo?
Salek: One of the pieces of the process that we help unpack is the financial aspect of law school. We talk about what it means to take on those loans and the range of potential income. Students tend to picture all attorneys as these millionaires in glamorous suits. I have to tell them, no, there are a lot of people working hard for their community. Realistically, if you’re a public interest attorney in the United States, you could be making somewhere around $70,000 per year, depending on where you live — still great money, but there are definitely higher paying opportunities.
Stumpf: You’ve shared that if a high school is lucky enough to offer a legal course, a lot of the content will be criminal law. And that fails to address tenancy, immigration, wage theft: many things that affect working families.
Salek: Right. What do you do if somebody withholds your wages because they say you’re undocumented? Where do you go if a landlord is trying to put their renovation costs on you as a tenant? What do you do if you are experiencing domestic violence? These are the kinds of practical questions we want to address. Our goal isn’t to turn every single one of our students into an attorney. That would be a pretty shocking statistic. The bigger picture is that there’s an unfortunate separation between those who have a lot of legal knowledge and those who have no legal knowledge in our country. So we’re trying to close that gap as well.
Stumpf: Looking ahead, do you see your approach shifting other aspects of how schools work, and how we see and include and tap the expertise of young people?
Salek: I do. We need to increase student agency across the board, for a few reasons. One is just that it gives young people a reason to show up, to engage. Our students at the clinic showed up because they know they are needed — to run a client meeting, prepare intake questions, draft briefs, translate. Real people with real dreams are counting on them and trusting 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.