Do we really need more lawyers? The National Youth Leadership Forum (NYLF) seems to think so. Subsequently, they are dedicated to priming the pipeline of future legal talent and providing students a framework from which to decide if law is for them. Since 1992, thousands of high school students from across the country have flocked to the nation's capital to participate in the nonprofit educational organization's six day forum on law. According to the program's director, Vicki M. Richardson, an attorney herself, "Our typical participating scholar is a high achiever who has expressed an interest in law and has usually been nominated by his or her teacher. This program is no vacation for slackers." Indeed, every day of the program (there are six forums spread throughout the calendar year) is jam-packed with law-intensive activities. Housed at a comfortable hotel just outside of Washington, DC, the nearly four hundred high school juniors and seniors are divided into groups of 23 and are overseen by faculty advisors. Each group begins the week with its own mock trial and later a Supreme Court argument simulation. Interspersed throughout the program are site explorations at various high profile law firms, corporate legal departments, and Capitol Hill offices. Every day features diverse guests who speak on different aspects of the law.
During the week, scholars are exposed to issues relevant to teens. The mock trial deals with social host liability—a kid gets drunk at his friend's house party, and then drives and crashes into another driver, and the host's parent is sued. The Supreme Court simulation is based on a real case (Roper v. Simmons) involving minors and imposition of the death penalty.
National Youth Leadership Forum attendees on the rooftop terrace at Morgan Lewis & Bockius' offices in Washington, DC, after attending a panel discussion on lawyers' roles at the firm.
"After completing the program, we want the scholars to know the skills necessary to practice law, and the financial, ethical, and personal commitment involved," explains Richardson. "A lot of students come in with a 'Boston Legal' version of what it means to be a lawyer, and when they see what it's really like, they sometimes lose interest. Whether the program dampens or heats up the desire to pursue a legal career doesn't matter, so long as the student leaves with a realistic picture of the profession."
"Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, public schools are still segregated, education is disparate, and the high school dropout rate for kids, especially from minority groups, is very high."
—Carl G. Cooper
The forum requires a financial investment in each participating student, and tuition for the forum is about $1,200, with assistance available for those who qualify. In return, scholars get an insider's peek into the profession. Not only do they get to pepper well-paid partners with wide-ranging questions, but the kids are also introduced to basics like the law school admission test (LSAT), online research tools, legal writing, and a breakdown of the judicial system. And they appear to be thrilled with their newly acquired knowledge.
"This program is the first brick in my yellow brick road to getting where I want to be," says Neel Shah, a high school junior from New York City. Clearly energized with the enthusiasm of youth, Shah's attitude is nonetheless not unusual in this group. His buddy, Sam Zhang, a student from Carmel, Ind., agrees. He foresees a career in which he will pursue justice, and it will "heal the soul just as medicine heals the body."
Sporting youthful interpretations of business attire, several hundred teenagers filed into the hotel's Lord Fairfax ballroom and took seats in a field of folding chairs arranged row after row. In uncertain expectation, they quietly waited for Carl G. Cooper, the attorney scheduled to speak at the forum's opening night plenary session.
Cooper, the distinguished chief diversity officer for Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP (the first firm ever to create such a position), took the dais with experienced ease. As he launched into a description of his varied career, the scholars took keen notice, paying special attention when Cooper mentioned a teaching stint at Harvard and involvement in developing a ballpark in Pittsburgh.
According to Cooper, now more than ever, aspiring attorneys claim that they want to go to law school to make the world a better place. Their vocal commitment to public service is inspiring.
"And it's a good thing too," he continues. "Because, these young people have an awesome task ahead of them; they're entering a very complicated world. Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, public schools are still segregated, education is disparate, and the high school dropout rate for kids, especially from minority groups, is very high. Future lawyers will be dealing with a society in which many adults will have little or no literacy skills." As a diversity officer at his firm, Cooper works as an agent for change in the profession, and monitors his own firm's culture. He shares with the scholars, "I grew up poor in Philadelphia. All around me people lacked the necessities of life. Consequently, I wanted to save the world and I surmised that law school would be the best route."
Admittedly, in the interim years his righteous zeal has cooled, but Cooper still attests that a lawyer can do well and work for social good at the same time.
The elderly and the very young are the most frequent victims of society's injustices," explains Cooper, who contributes his time to child advocacy groups including Kids Voice, Inc. "If you make a habit of public service early on in your law career, it will become second nature to you as the years go by, a part of your professional and personal composition."
After Cooper's talk, the scholars adjourned to another room. Many changed into oversized jerseys, jeans, and flip-flops. Yelling and jostling for space in the crowd, the students traded their businesslike air in exchange for a more kidlike demeanor while they had the chance. Free time was scarce, and soon they were ordered off to bed.
Twenty-three-year-old, first-year law student George Lattas has experienced the Law Forum from both sides, as scholar and faculty advisor.
Speaking via cell phone while driving to class at De Paul University School of Law in Chicago, Lattas says, "The program definitely has a reputation evidenced by the quality of speakers it attracts, and the breadth of law firms that participate."
In fact, this fall Justice Antonin Scalia addressed scholars at the Supreme Court, and they also spent time at firms like Patton Boggs and Morgan Lewis & Bockius.
"The legal community has responded very positively to this program and the students," adds Lattas. "Compared to other experientially based programs, the Law Forum offers more in terms of access. You don't get that with other programs."
As a student attending a small private high school in Chicago's southern suburbs, Lattas was elated when he received a nomination letter from NYLF inviting him to apply to the law forum.
"Like me, most of the other high school students who are attracted to the forum have already identified law as a potential career. Those participating aren't too young to benefit from the awesome exposure that the program offers," says Lattas. "There are a few kids who come to get out of school for a week, but they are definitely the minority."
While participating in the forum, Lattas says he was "awe struck" by what he encountered. Seeing the Supreme Court and meeting briefly with Justice Scalia's clerk was a kick, but visits to American University School of Law and Kirkland & Ellis LLP, the prestigious international law firm, impressed the high school senior in a different way.
"Talking to real live law students about commitment and expense was eye-opening," recalls Lattas. "It made me think, 'This is something I can do.' And to go to a big law firm and hear senior partners explain in a totally unbiased way exactly what their day-to-day duties entail was equally illuminating. I guess from that point on I knew that I would be a lawyer." Last year, when Lattas returned to the forum as a faculty advisor, he became aware of some of the program's potential shortcomings.
"The program seems overly concerned with security and safety. There isn't much self-guided exploration when it comes to the city, but this probably allows parents to sleep better at night," he says. "Also, the curriculum is hectic. You want to spend more time on the mock trial and [Supreme Court] simulation, but I suppose being pressed for time is very real in the law profession."
Like other forum participants, Lattas has long been tracked to succeed. He credits much of that drive to his Greek immigrant parents' emphasis on education and achievement. In his home, going to college was always a given. Similarly, since childhood, he has been drawn to law. Even as a kid, teachers labeled him a fiery debater who made cogent arguments. They often suggested to young Lattas that he make the law a part of his future plans. "As both a scholar and later a faculty advisor, I forged important friendships at the forum. I think this is the highlight of the program," says Lattas. "Initially coming here, my perspective was very insular, yet I was able to bond with people from different backgrounds and points of view. Ultimately, what we shared was an interest in the law and a desire to do something meaningful with our lives."
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the January/February 2006 issue of Diversity & The Bar®