For the first time, a St. Paul law school is using online courses as a way to recruit a more diverse group of future lawyers.

The Mitchell Hamline School of Law says it will debut a series of classes for undergraduate students next year, as part of a new program called the Gateway to Legal Education.

School officials hope that the courses, which are designed to showcase what lawyers (and law students) really do, will inspire more students of color to consider the profession.

"There have been so many efforts, well intentioned, to expand diversity in law schools and the legal profession," said Mark Gordon, dean of the law school. "We have to be honest among ourselves in terms of saying, so far, many of those efforts haven't really moved the needle much."

At this point, few other law schools have ventured into the business of teaching undergraduates. But Gordon said he and his colleagues at Mitchell Hamline decided to give it a try as a way of reaching a new audience.

Last fall, the law school asked faculty members to create a few "law-related" courses — on health law, legal practice, and Indian law — to provide a taste of law school to students who were still in college.

Then it reached out to a list of historically black colleges and schools with large minority populations, and offered to provide the courses online — at no charge. Under the program, the law school's professors will do the teaching, while students pay tuition to their home schools and earn credits toward their bachelor degrees.

To cover its costs, Mitchell Hamline has raised some $160,000 from donors, says Gordon. In part, he acknowledges, it is a recruiting tool for his own campus. But he says the law school is trying to do its part to increase diversity in an overwhelmingly white profession by reaching out to groups that have struggled to get a foothold.

In 2017, only 11 percent of American lawyers were black, Hispanic or Asian, less than a third of their share of the U.S. population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The online courses, Gordon believes, will help draw students who might never have considered law school, or never thought it was a realistic expectation.

The first courses won't be ready to launch until next year, according to Gordon. But this week, the law school will sign up its first partner, Delaware State University, a historically black college with a popular pre-law program. And Gordon says there are more to come. "I do think there will be many, many [schools] that will want to take advantage of it," he said.

Barbara Colombo, an assistant professor of health law, has been creating a course from scratch with an eye toward what might appeal to a college-aged audience. She's not trying to mimic a real law school class, she said, but to give students a glimpse into the world of lawyers.

In her course, she borrows freely from pop culture (including a clip from the Paul Newman film, "The Verdict") to show the range of issues they might encounter in a courtroom — Medicare fraud, food poisoning, gun violence. Ideally, she says, "that may spark an interest in them that they otherwise would not have had."

In addition to the courses, the law school plans to provide mentors and other perks for the college students, including a summer workshop on the St. Paul campus, and free or low-cost prep classes for the law school entrance exam.

Jose David Gallardo, a 28-year-old law student at Mitchell Hamline, says that kind of support can make all the difference. "I'm somebody who understands the barriers, how scary it is to apply to law school," said Gallardo, the son of Mexican immigrants and the first in his family to go to college.

A program like this, he said, can help allay fears while giving students a preview of what's to come. "It's confidence building, too," said Gallardo, who has volunteered to mentor the younger students. "If you take the class and you do well, it's only going to make you a more successful student."

Kimberly Haynes, a first-year law student at Mitchell Hamline and the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, agrees. "I went into law school knowing a little bit what to expect," she said. But "I don't think you can ever really prepare yourself too much to start law school." With this program, she said, "they have the opportunity to see if they like it without the financial commitment, and they can go from there."

Samuel Hoff, who heads the pre-law program at Delaware State University, calls the partnership with Mitchell Hamline a "win-win" for everyone.

"If things work out, it will be a real benefit to Mitchell Hamline and hopefully to our students as well," said Hoff. One advantage, he said, is that his students will get a preview of what it's like to work with law school professors. And Mitchell Hamline, in turn, will get some added visibility. "Will that result in more applications and more students going there? Yes."

At the law school, though, officials say they have a larger goal in mind. "We're not doing these courses for profit," said Kathryn Russell, one of the program directors. "If they want to come here, fantastic. But we absolutely hope they'll choose the legal profession."