Harrison Ndife and his peers gathered at the end of a long week to kick back, talk shop and do a little networking.
A rising sophomore at Terre Haute South High School, Ndife had just completed the Summer Legal Institute along with 39 other eighth-graders and high-schoolers. They learned what it will take for them to become lawyers and where their place in the profession might be.
“At first I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, but I wasn’t sure,” Ndife said at the institute’s closing ceremony June 20 at Eli Lilly in Indianapolis. Ndife is sure now, after a week’s worth of instruction that immersed him in numerous aspects of the profession.
“Even if I didn’t like one part of the law, there are others I would like,” Ndife learned. He thinks he might like to be a public defender.
Chicago-based Just the Beginning – A Pipeline Organization presented the program as part of its mission to increase racial and economic diversity in the legal profession. Students visited law firms and federal court; heard from numerous lawyers, judges and law students; and honed their writing and speaking skills during sessions at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
The program is part of a growing effort to provide a glimpse into the profession to students who are just beginning to explore career options. In June, the Indianapolis Bar Association Paralegal Committee sponsored its third annual “Careers in Law” fair at the Gambold Preparatory Magnet High School on Indianapolis’ west side. That program looked at careers in the justice system that don’t require law school, as well as some that do.
Organizers of both events acknowledge most students will pursue careers other than law, but they say the skills students gain from such programs are valuable.
“It’s important to be a good writer, to think logically,” said attorney Douglas Hill, director of Hill Fulwider P.C., who presented a session on mediation to the Gambold students. “At this stage, maybe writing well is the most important thing – other than that, getting a broad education and trying to work hard and do well.”
Rising Park Tudor High School freshman Kathryn Ito’s takeaway from the Summer Legal Institute was that a career in law is possible. She said she wants to be a lawyer but realizes how tough it will be.
“The main thing I learned was just how far you can go if you keep pushing yourself,” Ito said. “You can do lots of amazing things.”
Habsa Nayamma, who will be a freshman at Indianapolis’ North Central High School in the fall, presented an appellate oral argument in a mock case involving a student search. Playfully named State v. Ben Lyon, the facts of the case involved discovery of drugs during a strip search following a tip that a student had a knife in a backpack. No knife was found, and there were questions about the propriety of the strip search.
“I think I’m going to be a lawyer,” Nayamma said after her immersive week with the institute. “I like the cases, and I like how the judges explained to us how they proceed.”
Helping out during the institute were numerous law students and undergrads pursuing pre-law studies who had been through the program themselves. Just the Beginning operates Summer Legal Institutes in several cities around country, mostly in the Midwest.
The organization says that in 2013, its summer programs served 314 youths. That year, 65 former program participants who are now in law school received summer internships with judges, five received post-graduate federal clerkships, and 15 received other internships.
Just the Beginning marketing and development director Mark Dinglasan said the organization traces its founding to 1992, when judges saw a need for a program that would promote diversity in the profession.
“We’re building an ecosystem of collaboration between corporate law firms and community organizations,” he said. “Every step of the way, we look for judges and attorneys who want to give back and uplift these young people.”
Julian Harrell, a Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP associate who mentored students during the program, said he was impressed by their critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. He said the program’s commitment to helping students is apparent. “It’s a pipeline organization dedicated to changing the landscape of the legal community,” Harrell said.
“They can take these skills with them anywhere,” he said of what students learned during the institute.
Taft partner Thomas A. Barnard said law firms and corporations with a commitment to promoting diversity sponsor the institute because they see its promise. “Just the Beginning will help these kids at every step of their professional development,” Barnard said.
At the institute’s closing ceremony, Krystle McNeely, a rising 2L at Northern Illinois University School of Law, shared the lessons she learned years back going through the institute. She stressed that grades matter, and so do activities outside the classroom. That’s true for college as well as law school.
“Do something to let colleges see that you’re a serious student, you’re a balanced person,” McNeely advised students. “Show them that you are going to add to their school.”
Bose McKinney & Evans LLP paralegal Julia Kleinschmidt chairs the IndyBar committee that hosted the Careers in Law event June 11. She said the program aims to instruct students beyond what’s needed to become a lawyer and also “teach kids what is needed to run our justice system.”
This year, in addition to hearing from attorneys, the event looked at 12 careers that don’t require law degrees, such as court reporters, clerks, bailiffs and trial technology experts, Kleinschmidt said.
Professionals who presented talked about how much education was needed for their careers and the kinds of skills needed to succeed. “The value is in presenting the kids with an experience they can relate to,” she said.
But the programs also realize that students are a long way from law school, so part of the mission is to focus on what students can do now. Kleinschmidt said part of the advice is that if students don’t know whether they want a career related to law, that’s OK. There are still some things that apply.
“Don’t close your doors. All these different things are available, and if you work hard in school and don’t get in trouble, then you haven’t barred any careers when you figure it out,” she said.•