United States: Attorneys Help Students Learn About Law

Associates at many large law firms take for granted that their jobs require long hours of detail oriented work and that professional advancement requires increasing substantive mastery of a specialized practice area. However, immersed as they are in the daily maelstrom of legal practice, some associates may neglect to develop the dense web of relationships that is required to support a truly healthy career — relationships with clients, with the legal community and with the broader civic community of Chicago. One way associates can start building such relationships is by working together with in-house attorneys of a firm client on a community service project that advances the charitable objectives of both organizations while providing professionals on both sides of the firm-client relationship the opportunity to interact outside of the everyday professional relationship.

One exciting example of firm-client community service teamwork is the work by many of Chicago's leading firms and corporations in support of the Legal Prep Charter Academy. Legal Prep is a new charter high school that offers a legal-themed, college preparatory curriculum to an initial class of 200 freshmen. Situated in the West Garfield Park neighborhood, Legal Prep serves a student body made up almost entirely of low-income students. Yet despite the socioeconomic challenges faced by many of its students, Legal Prep is setting ambitious objectives for its students, all of whom are expected to attend college after graduation.

The curriculum is designed to prepare and inspire students to pursue post-secondary education and professional training in the fields of their choice, including law, and focuses intensively on written and oral communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and advocacy skills.

Legal Prep has received support in many forms from a number of institutions throughout the Chicago legal community, some of whom have established firm-client partnerships to increase the effectiveness of their outreach. For example, Foley & Lardner LLP and its longtime client Health Care Service Corp., the nation's largest customer-owned health insurer, a Mutual Legal Reserve Co., have teamed up to sponsor one classroom of Legal Prep students. Attorneys from both organizations are serving as instructors in Legal Prep's mock trial program, teaching the art of courtroom presentations and the mechanics of witness examination.

Between the firm and the in-house legal department, about a dozen attorneys have pitched in to teach 18 Legal Prep students, a ratio that has allowed a high level of personal interaction and small group instruction.

The mock trial exercise involves a civil rights action based on allegations of excessive force by an arresting police officer — a topic that has inspired strong feelings (and zealous advocacy) on the part of many of the students. Although Legal Prep's students are too young to remember the Rodney King trial, many of them have been able to draw astute connections between the hypothetical case presented in the exercise and real world events in the Trayvon Martin case. As a group, Legal Prep's students feel passionately that the justice system needs strong voices for the disadvantaged, a role some of them hope to play in their future careers.

Helping Legal Prep's students learn the basics of trial advocacy has been a challenging and rewarding task for the volunteer attorneys. There is a lot to be learned: Students who began the year not knowing the difference between a plaintiff and a defendant will participate in a complete mock trial this spring. This process has required the attorneys to step outside their everyday specializations and return to the fundamentals, teaching the basic rules of trial practice and encouraging these teens to find the self-confidence and poise to present their case. It has been a richly rewarding experience to see Legal Prep's students rise to the difficult tasks of mastering a complex fact pattern and organizing persuasive legal arguments.

Although giving back to the community is certainly its own reward, when law firm and in-house attorneys work as a team on a public service project like this, there is another set of rewards that can also be enjoyed.

Working together as instructors, firm attorneys and in-house attorneys have gotten to know each other in a different context from their normal interactions on legal matters. Attorneys from both organizations have gained insight into the lives and experiences of their counterparts as they have worked together with Legal Prep students to discuss topics such as the challenges of work-life balance for attorneys or the rewards of college and law school.

Attorneys have become better acquainted with each other, have learned about each others' organizations and have experienced a shared sense of purpose — experiences which could ultimately help to strengthen the business relationship.

Participating in community service projects alongside in-house counsel of firm clients can allow both organizations to join efforts to provide more effective outreach to worthy causes while simultaneously strengthening the client-firm relationship. Associates in particular may wish to seek out and embrace such opportunities, as they may pave the path toward building a better network of relationships with clients, the legal community and the civic community at large.

Originally published in Chicago Daily Law Bulletin

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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