Students start exploring legal careers at a young age



by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Seven high school students arrived bright and early at 63rd District Court  last Monday, but not because they were in any trouble — far from it.

These fresh-faced, high-spirited but respectful teens are currently thinking they would like to be part of the legal system someday, and they were there to get a better look at how it all works.
The six girls and one boy are all part of the legal internship program offered by University Prep Academy, a Grand Rapids Public Schools “Center of Innovation.”

The students’ visit was arranged by Elizabeth “Joy” Fossel of Varnum, whose office they had visited April 12.

Fossel got involved for a number of reasons. The first was that she was asked to; but she also saw in this a way to reflect the recommendations of the Grand Rapids Bar Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative Diversity Action Plan. The collaborative’s pipeline committee saw a need to expand the numbers of diverse young people who view the law as a profession they want to, and are able to, enter.

This year the school, working with Fossel and others, modified the internship program to give the students a broad overview of the legal world. The first half of the two-day-a-week, six-week programming was left up to Cooley Law School; Fossel coordinated the second half, along with Aggie Kempker Cloyd of the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Both had started their participation last year.

The students’ schedule included a visit to Warner Norcross and Judd, and one to Miller Johnson. These law firms had partners who also played facilitation roles in the Diversity Action Plan committees, Rodney Martin and Mary Bauman respectively (Bauman for the pipeline committee).

Though there is no official connection with the Managing Partners Collaborative, Fossel felt that this type of program moves the Kent County legal community closer to its goal of achieving greater diversity.

Four of the seven participating students are ninth graders — the school currently goes only through tenth grade, extending by one grade each year. Tyler Pickard, Alaysha Jones, and Chickoyle Shumpert (not pictured) are sophomores; the freshmen girls are Afrika Earvin, Emoni Lee, Ayanna Luckett, and Dominque Burt.

On Tuesday, the group expected to go directly into Judge Sara Smolenski’s courtroom, but her 10:00 bench trial was canceled so Deputy Kevin Weaver took them on a tour of the courthouse. Friendly faces popped out of cubicles all along the way as Weaver explained that the 63rd District is among the busiest in the state, covering all of Kent County except the larger cities such as Grand Rapids and Kentwood.

Fascination with the way those in custody moved through the courthouse was evident in all members of the party, including Fossel. “It’s like the movies,” she commented. Weaver showed them holding cells and explained how police officers handle prisoners who might be threatening.

Perhaps most fascinating was an elevator running from the holding cells to the courtrooms, which had gate-like bars that could be extended diagonally to separate a dangerous prisoner from the officer accompanying him or her.

The kids also had a lot of questions as Weaver described such control devices as windows into the cell through which prisoners can be pepper-sprayed and belts the prisoners use with remote-release tasers the officers can activate. “But we don’t have to use these things very often. Most of the time, they act very appropriately,” Weaver added.

The 10:30 trial the students observed  was also a little like television. As Judge Smolenski questioned both parties, it became clear that the dispute, at least in the defendant’s eyes, was more about long-standing neighborhood conflicts than about whether her dog bit one of the plaintiff’s dogs.

The judge ultimately ruled for the plaintiff. According to Fossel, the students unanimously agreed that that was the right decision.

University Prep Project Coordinator Deb Kalinka Manning gives an “extra special shout out” to Fossel, whose work this year, Manning claims, allowed the
students to have a really enlightening experience.

For her part, Fossel states, “The best part was Cooley’s effort to give the kids a mini-law school experience over six days.”

Cooley’s Center for Ethics, Service, and Professionalism Assistant Director Karen Rowlader, who along with professor Tonya Krause-Phelan coordinated the curriculum for the students, said she was thrilled to see how the students progressed.

The students chose a marijuana possession scenario as the subject of a mock trial Cooley helped them conduct. Rowlader explained that one of the goals of the internship was to teach the young participants how to present themselves in the real world, so she and Krause-Phelan asked them to “dress up” for the trial. She said she was surprised and delighted at how well they complied, including the teen who acted the part of a witness who was supposed to be a schoolteacher.

Rowlader also said that the high-schoolers blossomed when they worked with the Cooley students.

University Prep Academy’s Manning emphasizes that the rationale behind the CEO (Career Exploration Opportunity) program, of which the internship is only part, is to expose students to the spectrum of possibilities within a field. The small group interested in the law also found out about being legal assistants and paralegals, and Cooley gave them a list of other opportunities open to people with law degrees.

When asked whether they wanted to be lawyers, most of the students replied with a firm yes, while only a couple said they were still considering.

Manning said that the school, which is designed to leverage what students are passionate about to keep them interested in academics, would not be where it is without the collaboration of partners like Cooley and Varnum. “West Michigan is very collaborative, and we’ve just been so grateful at all the people who have come forward to take a piece in the plan to help these students.”