Legal Eagles

October 01, 1993 5 min read

The eager young people in the class scribble furiously as Zoole suggests other tips for their upcoming mock trial. “Diction is very important,’' he says. “Concentrate on speaking slowly. I guarantee you will not sound like a dweeb.’'

Zoole is addressing not a lawschool or even a college-age audience but a group of high school students from inner-city St. Louis. The students are participants in a novel summer internship program in which they are paid to work at local law firms, government agencies, and publicinterest law organizations. Many of this year’s 62 interns also participate in a mock-trial competition, for which they are preparing on this July morning.

The internship program, now in its second year, is sponsored by the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis and the city school district. It is open only to public high school students from the district, and most of the participants are African Americans from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The program has several goals: to provide summer employment to youths who might not otherwise get jobs; to expose the students to the legal profession and to the work routine of the business world; and to help keep them on a track toward college and professional careers. “The students are able to see themselves taking on these positions one day,’' says Gladys Smith, coordinator of the program, which is funded this year by 72 participating law firms. The firms pay the wages for one or two interns or sponsor an intern’s employment at a nonprofit or government agency.

Terrance Good, president of the local bar association, says the internships expose students to a profession they may know only through negative or distorted images from television or movies. “This demystifies lawyers and law firms for the students,’' he explains.

The program has been so successful that its organizers have already expanded it to the police department and accounting firms and are looking to recruit stockbrokerage, engineering, and architectural firms. Meanwhile, the American Bar Association has touted the St. Louis project as a nationwide model, and local bar associations in Atlanta, Pittsburgh, and Kansas City, Mo., have already replicated it. The St. Louis organizers have fielded so many inquiries from around the nation that they have published a 30-page guide for those interested in developing their own program.

In a modern office tower in downtown St. Louis, two interns, Danielle Berkley and Charles Tillman, have been spending the summer at the corporate law firm of Armstrong, Teasdale, Schlafly, and Davis. The firm’s boardroom offers a panoramic view of the Gateway Arch and the overflowing Mississippi River.

Danielle, a 17-year-old who just graduated from high school, participated in the internship program last summer at Armstrong, and the firm decided to keep her on in a part-time job throughout the school year. She spends much of her time doing clerical work, such as typing and photocopying, but she has also accompanied the firm’s lawyers to court sessions and depositions.

She has learned, however, that many of the lawyers spend relatively little time in court. “They do a lot of research,’' she says. “They are always busy.’' Danielle’s experience at Armstrong has hooked her on law. She wants to become a lawyer herself, perhaps specializing in the health-care field.

Charles, on the other hand, has decided he does not want to become a lawyer but an accountant. He has been able to work with accountants and other financial experts employed by Armstrong. The professional environment has made a big impression. “Most teens,’' he notes, “work at fastfood restaurants.’'

Both Danielle and Charles wear the free “uniforms’’ provided by the program--a blue blazer, khaki slacks, and a white buttondown shirt. The original benefactor of the program, a local lawyer named Thomas Hullverson, believed that the young participants should be provided with professional dress so they could blend in with the employees without having to worry about purchasing their own dress clothes.

The students are paid $5.50 an hour for a 40-hour work week, slightly more than the minimum wage. They are expected to report for work on time and to follow instructions from a supervisor in their firm or agency.

Steven Cousins, a partner with Armstrong and co-chairman of the bar association’s summerinternship committee, says the participating law firms have been “uniformly impressed’’ with the students. “We let these kids know that this is accessible to them,’' he says. “They can work hard, get the grades, and get into law school.’'

The St. Louis program was launched in the summer of 1992 with 52 interns. This past summer, 278 students applied, but there were jobs available for only 62. The students were selected on the basis of an application form, teacher recommendations, and an interview.

Some have found that by proving themselves to be responsible, they are given more serious work assignments. Elmer Jackson, a high school student assigned to the St. Louis mayor’s office, has split his time between the mayor’s policy staff and the city’s legal office. “You can tell how well a person is doing by the demand for his services,’' says Tim Person, a top aide to Mayor Freeman Bosley. “Elmer really helps us get some things done here. It’s a level above grunt work.’'

Elmer has helped city officials respond to the flooding of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, which has affected several residential neighborhoods in the city. He saw firsthand how a political decision can anger community members, when the mayor ordered some residents to evacuate their homes in anticipation of flood waters that did not come for several days. Nonetheless, Elmer has plans to attend Morehouse College and then law school, and he is contemplating a career in politics. “I really don’t understand why more young people don’t get involved [in civic affairs],’' he says. “What they want in life they want now, and it is leading them down the wrong path.’'

Virtually everyone connected with the internship program stresses the importance of the interns’ interaction with the positive role models they encounter. “Most urban youth from impoverished backgrounds don’t have role models in their families who are attorneys or engineers or other professionals,’' says David Mahan, superintendent of the St. Louis school district.

The program also broadens the perspectives of members of the city’s legal profession, who tend to live in comfortable suburbs. “For the people in the firms,’' Mahan says, “it has reshaped their view of young people, especially urban young people.’'--Mark Walsh

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Legal Eagles