The Work

July 27, 2009 5:58 PM

For 25 Years, Legal Outreach Has Worked to Introduce At-Risk Students to Careers in Law

Posted by Vivian Yee

Twenty-five years ago, Harvard Law graduate James O'Neal decided to help young, underprivileged students grow up to be lawyers. As the recipient of a Harvard Public Interest Law Fellowship, O'Neal had taught law to at-risk students in Harlem, the South Bronx, and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Through the teaching he realized he could spark enthusiasm among the students by applying legal ideas to many of the problems in their communities.

The result: Legal Outreach, a nonprofit founded in New York whose goal at the time of its founding was to increase the number of African-American and Hispanic males in the legal profession.

Today Legal Outreach operates multiple programs throughout the New York City metro area to introduce middle school and high school students in underserved areas to careers in the law. "They are introduced to a whole new world that, for the most part, they never thought they could be a part of," O'Neal says of the students served.

The nonprofit's newest initiative, Pathways to Achievement and Community Transformation (PACT), aims to recruit more African American and Hispanic boys to the organization's Summer Law Institute. For five weeks, 100 students learn about the legal profession from participants (mostly volunteer lawyers) working with partner institutions, including Columbia Law School and New York University School of Law. Those who do well in SLI can go on to complete short internships at law firms and courthouses the following summer. They eventually might take part in Legal Outreach's College Bound initiative, which helps these students work towards and prepare for enrollment at a selective college.

One of Legal Outreach's goals, O'Neal says, is to provide students with real-world experience. The organization works with 40 law firms--including Cadwalader, Wilmer Cutler, DLA Piper, Shearman & Sterling, and dozens more Am Law 100 firms. The firms host mentoring sessions and internships for 13- and 14-year-old students. About a dozen of Legal Outreach's interns join the participating firms for a week. (Several partners from the participating law firms serve on Legal Outreach's board.)

The students don't simply shadow the big-firm lawyers. They're assigned hypothetical contract disputes to research and negotiate, and in other cases, they hold mock trials with kid-friendly themes. (Shearman & Sterling's Denise Grant, a partner and cochair of the firm's diversity committee, says there's usually a waiting list for partners vying to take the students out to lunch: "It's like a breath of fresh air," she notes, "because law firms can be stuffy places.")

Those students who graduate to Legal Outreach's College Bound program often receive guidance and mentoring from lawyers at the firms throughout high school and on the college application process. Partners and associates also give talks to the summer interns about the legal profession.

For the firm, O'Neal says, participation in the program is a way to try and improve diversity very early on. "The firms are starting to notice that for the recruiting pipeline, you really have to start early, introducing young people to the profession," he says. "They'll develop the skills they'll need to stay on the right track."

"People feel they're contributing to the pipeline," agrees Grant. "It's heartening to me to see that it's being replenished."

Have any Legal Outreach alumni gone on to become Am Law 100 attorneys? Apparently so: Current deputy director and general counsel Sandy Santana, a member of the nonprofit's very first class, had stints at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton and Goodwin Procter.

Next up for O'Neal and Legal Outreach is a hoped for expansion beyond New York. "We're now starting to talk with people in other states or cities interested in replicating this program."

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