Summer Sophs State's chief justice implores students to 'invest in yourself'

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

Success was in the air and everywhere, from Michigan Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly and others who inspired through their words and experience to the promises they made of reaching "great goals" as the result of hard work.

It was the very essence of the carrot-and-the-stick philosophy, except in this case, the reward is possible, according to the chief justice. It all depends on how hard they want to work, and how bad they want to achieve it.

In this case, they were 20 undergraduate college students brought together for a month for the first-ever American Bar Association's Sophomore Summer Institute at the Thomas M. Cooley Law School's Auburn campus. The program is presented by ABA's Council of Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO), Oakland University, and Cooley for students of color, low income or otherwise disadvantaged to help diversify the next generation of lawyers.

Chief Justice Kelly was the keynote speaker selected to jump-start the academic pre-law program, and she delivered a speech strong on inspiration and determination.

"Many of us came to the legal profession from diverse backgrounds," Kelly said in a short interview before her address. "We're trying to teach them how the game is played, what's attainable, and what you need to know."

During her short talk, Kelly told the students to avoid "the tragedy of undiscovered potential" by listening to others who say some things are not possible or toss up "barriers to achievement."

Kelly said she was 27 when she entered law school, and one of only six females, but despite those obstacles, she was able to achieve success. She urged the students to "crack through all those barriers" and not let others dictate what you can or cannot accomplish.

Before attending law school, Kelly taught at Grosse Pointe Public Schools, Albion College, and Eastern Michigan University. She practiced law for 17 years before being elected to the Michigan Court of Appeals, and then to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1996.

Her keynote address to CLEO students is well deserved, and appropriate. From 1999 through 2003, Kelly was co-chair of the Open Justice Commission, an organization the Michigan Bar Association devoted to making justice available to all. And she has been an active proponent of diversity in the legal profession.

But Kelly also warned the students involved in the program that they will "be challenged and tested like never before," describing the pre-law program as an "intellectual boot camp."

And Kelly said whether the students enter law school or choose another career path, completing the program would make them better equipped in any endeavor they follow. But she told the students it was not a one-way street, and the professors and legal experts instructing them over the next four weeks need the students to do their part.

Kelly ended by saying that it's never too late to "invest in yourself."

"Your future will only be as good as you make it."

After Kelly's talk, it was time for E. Christopher Johnson Jr. to explain the program to the students, and also offer a few tips for them to follow. And as co-director of the program, Johnson knows about following a dream, despite others telling you to find another path.

Johnson told the students that his goal was to attend West Point. But being young and black, he was told that he would not be able to attend. Long story short, he not only attended the service academy, graduating in 1973, but earned the rank of captain and was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service.

Johnson attended a small law school, and was told he would not be able to land a job with a prestigious law firm because of that. After graduating cum laude from New York Law School in 1981, Johnson worked his way up to become vice president and general counsel of General Motors.

He joined Cooley last year, serving as a visiting professor and launched the law school's corporate law and finance program. So Johnson knows of what he speaks.

He told the students there will be people, now and later, "who will try to define you." He urged the undergrads to search deep inside themselves to achieve their goals. And he said hard work continues, even after some goals have been reached.

"You can never say, 'I have it made,' " Johnson said. "You never stop reaching," he said.

And he told them to give their all for the next four weeks in the pre-law program.

"This is a month that can change your lives."

The students -- 13 women and seven men -- are from Adrian College, Alabama A&M, Bowling Green, Delta, Eastern Michigan, the University of Michigan, Michigan State, North Carolina A&T, Oakland University, Purdue, Saginaw Valley, Wayne State and Yale, and are about halfway through their undergraduate programs.

To get into the CLEO program, the students had to present an essay, obtain recommendations, and have a high grade point average.

According to a news release from Cooley, the CLEO program has assisted more than 8,000 low-income and minority students become successful members of the legal profession since 1968.

The students will take a variety of courses during the program, as well as attend 10 luncheons throughout the month sponsored by bar associations from Oakland, Macomb counties and Detroit Metropolitan, ethnic groups including Hispanic and Arab American bar associations, the Federal and Women Lawyers associations, and bar groups comprised of Black Judges, Straker and Wolverine bar associations.

The program will conclude June 30 as former Detroit Mayor and ABA past-President Dennis Archer addresses the students who successfully complete the program.

That will also include a Michigan Court of Appeals case, selected by Judge Cynthia Stephens, in which the students will use for legal writing and appellate advocacy exercises. Afterwards, Stephens will hear oral arguments from attorneys arguing the real case.

During a short meet-and-greet after Johnson's speech, the students stood up and gave a little background about themselves. Some expressed a desire to become lawyers, and some said law is not their chosen field, but they all believed that the program could help in some way down the road.

A few who want to become attorneys said they wanted to help others, or inspire people, or make a social impact, or help other underrepresented people, like themselves.

Johnson, who was president of the CLEO Council in 2004, said those reasons are all why the program exists. Cooley's Associate Dean John Nussbaumer said the program has goals of identifying students who may want to attend law school, especially among minorities, but also to educate those students in ways that will help them no matter what field the pursue.

Nussbaumer said the students will take classes in logic, social justice, critical reasoning, contract law, civil procedures, professional responsibility, appellate advocacy, and legal writing.

Students took the law school admission test, and will take it at the end of the program to show progression, Nussbaumer said.

"We hope to inspire and prepare these students for the rigors of securing admission to law school, graduating, and passing the bar examination," he said.

Published: Mon, Jun 7, 2010


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