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Introducing kids to the law

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

The mock trial in Judge Joseph Di Loreto’s Long Beach courtroom was to start in 20 minutes and high school junior Jaleesa Mendez, a “plaintiff’s attorney,” looked bored. Her mother had pushed her and her two teenaged sisters to join Littles in Law, a nascent lawyer mentoring program, and Jaleesa was decidedly unenthusiastic about the task ahead of her.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Joseph Di Loreto stands with members of the Littles in Law program after they argued a slip-and-fall case in a mock trial. 

But something happened once she faced Judge Di Loreto and the “witnesses.” She stood up straighter, spoke more clearly and looked each “witness” in the eye. She listened carefully, and when a “witness” on cross-examination faltered or made a misstatement, she followed up. When she was done, Jaleesa had coaxed out of the defense side an admission of culpability.

“I think I have to be more open to things,” a smiling Jaleesa said after her triumph. “I got into it. Yes, I will consider being a lawyer.”

Score one for Jeffrrey Lenkov, an attorney at the Los Angeles firm of Manning & Marder, Kass, Ellrod, Ramirez LLP, and the attorneys he recruited to start what is called Littles in Law. On his own, Lenkov this year enlisted the help of the Los Angeles Big Brothers and Sisters, which has a waiting list of 200 youngsters — mostly boys — to find students interested in learning about the law.

Eighteen of the wait-listed students signed up, and Lenkov and the other attorneys who agreed to be mentors took the young people to depositions, introduced them to judges, and trained them to participate in the slip-and-fall case mock trial over an eight-week period. The students learned about fact patterns and the history of law. They learned that dressing for a courtroom is different from dressing for school.

Dejon Williams, a high school freshman from Compton, says he’s now put law on his list of careers, along with engineering and basketball. “I think being a lawyer would be a perfect job for me because I like to argue and plead my case,” said Dejon. “I thought it would be boring to stand in front of a judge. It’s interesting.”

“You have to be well-prepared,” said Cayla Presley, a freshman at Hamilton High School in Los Angeles. “You have to be patient with your clients because some are a little bit slower than others. You have to have a good memory.”

Lenkov decided to start Littles in Law because he wanted others to have the kind of push he had from his father, who “forced me to go to law school.”

“What about kids at risk who don’t have a parent to force them?” Lenkov wondered. “If you can give one kid a spark, you create a generation of success. . . . Ultimately, my long-term goal is to do this with all professions” so that kids actually have direct contact with a wide range of professions “rather than just hearing about them in social studies class.”

Lenkov started his own project aimed at encouraging students to reach their potential. Other attorneys may work solo or go through bar associations or their firms or other organizations to help students. Here are a few examples:

School-business partnership

“We’re here to help. Tell us what you want us to do.” So said Fresno attorney Michael Wilhelm to the principal of one of Fresno’s poorest and lowest-achieving schools, McLane High School. The principal did, and now Wilhelm’s firm, McCormick Barstow, is involved in 13 different projects at the school. The include novel-reading groups with English-As-a-Second-Language learners, job shadowing, academic decathlon training and lecturing on everything from Brown v. Board of Education to the Constitution. McCormick mentors also work with seniors on writing competitive papers on a character education trait and presenting those papers to middle school students.

 McCormick staffers collect clothes for the students, especially suits and dressier clothes that can be used for job interviews. They raise money for scholarships to McLane students who have a strong community service record and good grades. The lawyers take the students on an annual “Art Hop” to Fresno-area galleries and stage a student art show in their offices. If students want to call the firm to get advice or just talk, someone is there for them. In the past five years, McLane has shown steady improvement, taking itself off California’s list of underperforming schools and sending more students to college.

“What we want them to understand is that education is related to their success and they can achieve,” says Wilhelm, who has this advice for other lawyers who want to make a difference: “Your best investment is getting involved with kids and schools.”

Project Lead

Half the fifth graders Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Snyder meets each year have had encounters with law enforcement or court officials, but not the kind of encounters she would like. “Fifty percent of the students have seen somebody they know placed under arrest,” says Snyder, a veteran of Project Lead (Legal Enrichment and Decision-Making), a volunteer program in which members of the district attorney’s office teach fifth graders (“They haven’t reached that level where they’ll immediately blow you off,” says Snyder) one day a week for 20 weeks during the lawyers’ lunch hour. The goal is to teach the students about the law and the fact that the choices they make determine the course of their lives.

With input from the Constitutional Rights Foundation, the D.A.’s office created a curriculum that Snyder, her classroom partner Carol Baker of the D.A.’s office and others use to show the consequences of such crimes as drug use, gang involvement, theft, hate crimes, driving under the influence and defacing property with graffiti. The students also take field trips to juvenile hall, a courtroom and the Museum of Tolerance. They do role-playing and get tips on how to say “no” without losing face. They get a chance to know the attorneys and what their professional life is like.

“I’m not getting this out of a book,” says Snyder. At the end of the 20-week course, it’s hugs all around and the kids enthusiastically spouting back what they learned.

A study of the program found that students in Project Lead classes had more positive attitudes than their peers who were not in the class about school and getting an education, as well as about law and lawyers. They also had a better understanding of the consequences of their decisions. “I know that most of our kids have not gotten into trouble,” says Snyder. “There’s a lower rate of arrests and contacts with law enforcement.”

Legal Heritage Institute

The Foundation of the State Bar of California sponsors an annual Legal Heritage Institute for students between their junior and senior high school years that is designed to supplement their civics education. “We decided to target students at the high school level because of what looked like a lack of curriculum in high schools that relates to government and separation of powers and how our rule of law really works,” says State Deputy Attorney General Pauline Gee, who helped form the institute in 2001 as a way to combat widespread misconceptions. “There are a lot of stereotypes on what lawyers do and what lawyers are all about,” says Gee. “They’re perceived as hired guns rather than service providers, as people who try to resolve disputes.”

Misconceptions also apply to the judiciary, she says, when people believe judges make law. “They don’t make law; they’re there to apply the rule of law.”

Forty students are selected each year based on essays about rights and responsibilities under the law. In Sacramento this year (another institute is held in Los Angeles), students met state and federal jurists, legislative staffers and state and local government officials. They listened to talks on the rule of law, jury duty, the judge’s role in ensuring a fair trial, how laws are made and how they affect the court, the importance of judicial independence, the judicial selection process and the impact of terrorism on the rule of law and military tribunals.

They also had fun — going on a legal scavenger hunt, panning for gold, watching live theater and attending an ice cream social. At the end of the session, they made presentations on what they learned and the importance of an independent judiciary. “One of the things we’re trying to teach them is to be an educated voter, especially when it comes to the selection of judges.”

Blue Car Project

A weathered blue Chevy is the takeoff point for a program started by the late University of Southern California law professor Louis M. Brown, nationally recognized as the father of preventive law. Originally used by the Beverly Hills Bar Association, the program has expanded to other Southern California bar associations.

The idea, says Beverly Hills attorney Linda Spiegel, is to teach high school students about consumer law through the hypothetical purchase of a used blue Chevrolet. In that purchase, subjects as wide-ranging as signing a contract to knowing blood alcohol limits for driving are discussed.

“Louis always believed that the average citizen should understand his or her legal rights and that you don’t necessarily need to rely on lawyers to conduct ordinary transactions,” says Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Kwan, who brought the Blue Car Project to members of the Southern California Chinese Lawyers Association. Kwan says the students he met in high schools enjoyed the time spent on practical law.

“You aren’t telling them something abstract. It was something about their everyday needs,” he says. They would learn how to buy or lease a car, what to do if they got a lemon, how to get a loan and car insurance. They learned drunken driving laws and the rights and responsibilities of car owners in an accident and when they get a ticket. Kwan noted that students got to meet lawyers and some even became interested in the law, even though that was not the intent of the project.

“The intent was to have the average high school student aware of his or her legal rights.”

PHOTO BY JAMIE RECTOR

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