United States: Looking To The Future: The Next Generation Of Lawyers

Who influenced your decision to become a lawyer? Was it a parent who encouraged you; a television show that motivated you; or a legal icon that inspired you? For high school students on the West Side of Chicago, the encouragement, motivation and inspiration comes, in part, from the Chicago legal community that provides mentoring and financial support to Legal Prep Charter Academy, Chicago's first public, legal-themed high school.

What is Legal Prep? Legal Prep, which opened in August 2012, is a public charter school located in the heart of Chicago's West Side. Students come primarily from the academically underserved neighborhoods of Garfield Park, Austin, Lawndale, and Humboldt Park, where historically only about 6 percent of Chicago students entering ninth grade will graduate college. Legal Prep intends to change that, with a legal-themed curriculum providing students with reading, writing, analytical and critical-thinking skills that will make them successful in college and life, whether they pursue a career in law or elsewhere. Lawyers Sam Finkelstein and Rather Stanton are the driving force behind Legal Prep. You can't help but feel inspired and moved into action after listening for even a few minutes about their vision for the school and its students.

The expectations for Legal Prep students are high— all students enter school with the mission of not simply graduating, but of being college-ready. In addition to studying math, science, and English, every freshman and sophomore must take Latin. Freshmen also take a course titled "Introduction to the Law through Literature" and sophomores take criminal law. Juniors will take constitutional law, and seniors will have a law project class. Every Legal Prep student also participates in a legal skills practicum, which pairs groups of students with law firms and corporate legal departments. Over the course of the school year, students meet with the attorney mentors in their offices, at Legal Prep and at local law schools to develop practical "on their feet" legal skills in fact analysis, advocacy and negotiations. This year's focus is on negotiations. The program runs throughout the school year and culminates in an intra-school competition.

With the support of a robust school community made up of parents, teachers, administrators and attorney mentors, Legal Prep students are meeting the goals set for them. After just its first year of operation, Legal Prep was recognized by Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for being in the 88th percentile for student growth among CPS schools, compared to a community average of the 11th percentile. The school also has implemented a robust conflict mediation program which has every teacher in mediation and every student familiar with the process. Many students have utilized the program, which has led to a strong school culture and created a safe learning environment.

When Lawyers Get Involved, It Makes a Difference

Presently, 24 law firms and 17 corporations are working with Legal Prep. Lawyers and others from these organizations serve as mentors to students. They also serve on operating and advisory boards raising awareness of the school, providing fundraising support, and offering oversight and guidance on the business operations of the school. With so many pro bono and civic organizations in need of legal assistance, why this organization? The need for diversity in the legal profession is evident, but reaching students and preparing them with the necessary skills is a daunting task, and one that law firms and corporations have had little ability to directly influence. With the help of the legal community, Legal Prep is uniquely positioned to strengthen the pipeline of diverse students into the legal profession. Its student body is over 95 percent diverse and 90 percent low income.

Through the mentoring program, the school creates opportunities for students to learn from business and legal professionals while building meaningful relationships. Those relationships benefit not just the students, but also the legal community as more students develop an understanding of what the principles of liberty and justice can mean for a community and of the skills to make those principles a reality. Through financial support, the law firms and corporations provide the school with the ability to offer students some of the "extras" many of us would take for granted in a high school curriculum, such as after- school learning and enrichment programs, as well as the legal skills practicum.

And, the legal community's example of helping others has not gone unnoticed by the students. The circle continues as Legal Prep students volunteer at the Greater Chicago Food Depository and pair up with the CBA Young Lawyers' Section to provide elementary school students with a holiday party at the "Off The Street Club."

How Can You Get Involved?

In proclaiming May 1 to be Law Day, President Eisenhower observed "it is fitting that the people of this Nation should remember with pride and vigilantly guard the great heritage of liberty, justice, and equality under law which our forefathers bequeathed to us; and ... that it is our moral and civic obligation, ... to preserve and strengthen that great heritage." (72 Stat., Feb. 3, 1958 No. 3221). In so noting, he urged the legal profession to promote and to participate in the observance of Law Day.

However, it takes much more than a single day of participation to ensure that the principles underlying Law Day become reality for everyone in our community. As a new high school, Legal Prep is continuing to expand, with plans to add a junior class in the fall of 2014 and a senior class in the fall of 2015. With the addition of each new grade level, the need for additional volunteers and student funding increases.

You can help by forming a mentoring team within your organization or by partnering with one of the founding law firms and corporations. You also can support the school by participating in other volunteer and fundraising events. For example, the school's annual fundraising event—The Barristers' Ball—will be held on May 9, 2014, at the Union League Club. Tickets are $120 at the door. More information about the school and the volunteer and sponsorship opportunities can be found on the school's website, www.legalprep.org.

Don't let the principles behind Law Day pass you by. Volunteer today. You'll be glad you did. Your time and effort will make the difference in the lives of Legal Prep students and the future of Chicago's legal community. It also just might remind you of why you wanted to be a lawyer.

Originally published in Leading Lawyers, April 26, 2014.

This article is intended to provide information of general interest to the public and is not intended to offer legal advice about specific situations or problems. Brinks Gilson & Lione does not intend to create an attorney-client relationship by offering this information and review of the information shall not be deemed to create such a relationship. You should consult a lawyer if you have a legal matter requiring attention. For further information, please contact a Brinks Gilson & Lione lawyer.

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