by Joshua Levy
It is a fundamental tenet of the legal profession that lawyers should give back to the communities they serve. Generally embodied by the requirement that lawyers provide direct pro bono legal services to the community, many lawyers also find creative ways to serve through community engagement and service with a variety of non-profit organizations.
When the Moakley U.S. Courthouse opened in 1999, I was a young Assistant United States Attorney looking for the best way to directly connect with the community I served. When I learned about Discovering Justice, which was founded in conjunction with the opening of the Moakley Courthouse, I quickly volunteered for their Mock Trial Program.
I vividly recalled our first class with a dozen wide-eyed 8th graders from a Boston middle school in one of the Moakley’s august courtrooms. We started the session by asking the students to share what they knew about the law and our legal system. Some students shared stories about crime in their neighborhood or family members who had brushes with the law. None of them, as I recall, talked about knowing a lawyer or dreaming of being a lawyer. I will never forget how some of the kids were so overwhelmed in that initial meeting that they looked straight down when they talked, avoiding eye contact at all costs.
Fast forward ten weeks from that initial session to the culminating Mock Trial in front of a real federal judge. Every one of those students was on their feet examining witnesses and addressing the jury of community members that included their city councilors, state representatives, and school principals. Their beaming parents were in the gallery thunderstruck by the command and poise demonstrated by their children.
As a legal mentor, I led sessions where the students learned about how the justice system works, the different players in a trial, and the importance and complexity of wrestling to resolve conflicts. By examining and better understanding how the process works, the students built confidence and agency and evolved to believe there was a role for them in this beautiful federal courthouse. The young men and women left the mock trial program with knowledge, self-confidence and new ideas of where their education could take them. My work had laid the groundwork for a dozen students to believe they could be a part of the workings of our justice system and consider pursuing a career in the law.
My work with the young students made me a better and more empathetic lawyer. I was able to bridge the gap between the gleaming office towers where lawyers generally ply their trade and the children who are the future of this City. The returns on my investment of time have been significant. Teaching trial practice allowed me to sharpen my courtroom skills. Explaining the fundamentals of good cross-examination only enhanced my understanding of the strategy and the craft. Through our team of legal mentors, I developed even closer relationships with my fellow prosecutors/mentors going through this experience of getting to know these students, earning their trust, and sharing the collective joy when they soared. The program also allowed me to interact with judges and other legal professionals outside of the adversarial context, building a foundation of shared experience and trust that paid dividends in interactions in future cases.
To borrow Bryan Stevenson’s paradigm, working with programs out in the community helps volunteers to “get proximate” with kids in Boston and to give back in a direct and personal way. I had the opportunity to contribute to a positive experience for these students and to spread the word that being a lawyer was something interesting and attainable.
There is a huge need for legal professionals across the Commonwealth to engage in meaningful work in our communities. As an attorney in Boston for three decades, it is clear that civic education and engagement is foundational to building our capacity to protect and steward our democracy and justice system. Boston has a new generation of students eager to learn the skills to act on their passion to address and meet the significant challenges their City faces.
For more information on the Discovering Justice’s Mock Trial and Mock Appeal programs, contact Malia Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joshua Levy is the First Assistant United States Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office District of Massachusetts. Joshua, who is currently the Vice Chair of the Discovering Justice Board of Trustees, was formerly the co-Managing Partner of Ropes & Gray’s Boston office. The views expressed in this article are his alone and this article does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Justice.