Varnum invites students from Hispanic Center program to learn about the law



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Five students raised their hands last Friday when Varnum attorney Joy Fossel asked at the firm’s Latino Law Day if anyone was considering a legal career.

That was approximately ten percent of the 52 students who attended as part of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan Supporting Our Leaders summer program. One young woman also indicated she had an aunt who is an attorney, but she was the only one in the room who had a relative practicing law.

Nonetheless, the attention paid, the confidence exhibited, and the thoughtful questions asked showed a high level of comfort with the legal profession among these likely future leaders.

Supporting Our Leaders, under the direction of the Hispanic Center’s Youth Advocate Ricardo Martinez, is an eight-week program which students attend every day. The group had visited Varnum five years ago. Most of the week is spent at the Hispanic Center, but each Friday the students go on a variety of field trips. They also participate in brief internships.

Martinez said the field trips so far have included Western Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.

Wyoming High School junior Andrea Pantoja added they had just met up with participants in the 3 Mile Project, which helps youth with “physical, emotional, and spiritual development.” The project’s complex includes basketball courts and a pool.

“It was really fun,” Pantoja says. “I’ve had a lot of fun in almost everything we’ve done. I really like experiencing meeting new people.”

She said that she is thinking of going into dentistry. Rafael Paz, who attends City High School, said he would consider a legal career, though because he too is just a junior, he is still leaving his options open.

Paz, who played the judge in the mock trial, said he heard of the program when he participated in a cleanup/art mural project in the Grandville area last year.

The leadership group, who were treated to lunch after the session, spent the first half of the morning listening to various Varnum attorneys talk about their careers.

Luis Avila spoke briefly, then fielded questions. Students wanted to know what to take in college to prepare for law school, and he laughed as he said, “Don’t take business.” He urged them to find classes that required a lot of reading and writing.

Avila also talked about immigration law, saying that he had tried to start out in that practice area, but found it frustrating. He urged them to work on national policy. Avila said that he still does some pro bono immigration work; later, after the term had been used several times, one young man asked, “What does pro bono mean?”

Melissa Papke, who said that her mother spoke Spanish but did not teach it to her, told about coming out of law school with a great deal of debt so had “entered slave labor” as a litigator in New York City. She was not happy doing that, so moved into transactional law, focusing on real estate, which she loves. “I realize it’s not as glamorous,” she said. “You don’t see lawyers working up contracts on TV.”

The last speaker was summer associate Paul Albarran, who will start his third year of law school in the fall. Albarran told a cautionary tale about a young man who did poorly in school, woke up and applied himself resulting in excellent grades, became overconfident, and almost failed out of law school. At the end he confessed he was talking about himself.

After a break, students returned for a loosely-scripted mock trial. It concerned whether or not someone had shoplifted when he ran out of a store with two candy bars in his hand because there was a car accident just outside.

The students had a good time playing the roles of shopkeeper, accused, judge, attorneys for both sides, and witnesses. Four juries were appointed, and all but one, which was hung, found him not guilty.

Even the jury that Fossel pulled out into the hallway and told that the possible shoplifter had previously been accused four times issued a not guilty verdict.

Fossel, who clearly loves working with young people and had coordinated the same trial with other students, said that was the first time that had happened.

“This went very well, and I hope they come every year,” Fossel said.