Mentoring the Next Generation

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  by Joshua Levy

   The Profession

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 mbrooks@discoveringjustice.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. 

 


Kids Speak and Lawyers Listen, Thanks to Boston Debate League Partnership with Boston Bar

By J.D. Smeallie, President, Boston Bar Association

President’s Page

Smeallie_J.DWhen Tarae Howell, then a public high school student in Newark, New Jersey, signed up for the Jersey Urban Debate League, becoming a lawyer was the furthest thing from his mind. Despite winning fourteen debate titles over a two-year span, he had no idea he would one day be a third-year litigation associate at Nixon Peabody, much less a debate judge for a very similar program for Boston high school students. This fall, Tarae judged two Saturday morning debate competitions for the Boston Debate League (BDL). Afterwards, students plied him with questions about what it’s like to be a lawyer and his path to success.

Earlier this year, the BDL approached the Boston Bar Association to see if we would partner with them by providing judges and mentors. We liked what we saw. Not only did such a partnership provide a wonderful opportunity for public service within the Boston Public Schools, but it held the promise of advancing diversity efforts at the BBA. Too few students of color are entering law school. As a result, too few lawyers of color enter the practice each year. By mixing BBA lawyers with students from Boston’s high schools with large minority student populations, we hoped that the interest in law exhibited by Tarae’s debaters would be sparked as well many times over in other students. Perhaps the germ of a legal career would be planted, and the pipeline of students of color could be expanded. The hope is that some of the students we encounter in the course of volunteering as debate judges or mentors will one day return as lawyers in our community.

The metrics suggest this could very well happen. According to the BDL, debaters are three times less likely to drop out of school than non-debaters, and African-American males who debate, in particular, are seventy percent more likely to graduate from high school than those who don’t. Debate assists students in gaining entrance to college but, more importantly, it gives them the necessary skills to succeed and thrive once they get there.

In this regard, the BDL reports that urban debaters improved both their Reading and English ACT scores by fifteen percent and are thirty-four percent more likely to achieve the English college readiness benchmark, and seventy-four percent more likely to achieve the Reading benchmark, after just two years in debate.

The BDL does not require its volunteers to be lawyers. Yet BBA members participating in the program firmly believe that in addition to being extremely worthwhile, this particular volunteer opportunity is a great fit for members of the legal profession. As Tarae puts it, “[a]s lawyers, we have to be zealous advocates for our clients. Therefore, as a judge and a lawyer, I’m able to determine whether a debater has been an effective advocate for her position. It helps me give the student better feedback.”

Stories such as Tarae’s make all of us feel good about helping Boston’s young people develop the reading, critical thinking and advocacy skills associated with debating. Vickie Henry, a Senior Staff Attorney at GLAD, who as a high school student won a state debate championship in her home state of Michigan, says: “[y]ou look right in the faces of the youth getting your feedback and you can see it’s making a difference.”

Bill Fitzpatrick, Associate General Counsel for Litigation at the MBTA, says that what he found appealing about this particular volunteer opportunity is that debating offers Boston youth an opportunity for competition involving academics. “Life is not all about whether you can hit the free throw or hit the ball out of the park,” he said. “Debating gives the students a great outlet for skills that will serve them better in the long run.”

More than a few volunteers have marveled at the support students who are native English speakers gave to students for whom English is a second language, especially during those portions of the debate tournament requiring that they read aloud. They also commented on how heartwarming it is to see students improve dramatically from one tournament to the next.

Both Jessica Bloch of Bloch & Roos and Stephanie Hoeplinger, a solo practitioner, serve as mentors, which means that they’ve committed to spending between sixty and ninety minutes in the classroom every week between October and March, helping teachers and BDL staff prep the students for the tournaments.

“Good for these students for going to this afterschool program and pushing through,” says Jessica. “This experience is challenging but very rewarding.”

Though not required to attend the debates, Stephanie was deeply moved to see the looks on two of her students’ faces when she stopped by on a Saturday morning to see them perform: “Their faces just lit up; they looked so happy that someone not paid to be there really cares. They look up to you as a lawyer.”

“We are just so thrilled to have so many members of the BBA come out, judge at our tournaments, and work with our kids,” Steve Stein, Executive Director of the Boston Debate League, told us. “It is great to have such wonderful role models be there for our students, many of whom are aspiring attorneys. Our students love that for ninety minutes, they speak and adults listen. When the debate is over, the adults talk for maybe five minutes to provide feedback. That kind of power dynamic doesn’t exist anywhere else in their lives. BBA members are participating in an activity that is changing the lives of youth throughout Boston.”

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend a morning at Boston’s Josiah Quincy Upper School. What struck me was how genuinely enthusiastic the co-headmasters were in the face of poor facilities, budget constraints and a talent drain to the exam schools. One of the bright spots they described was their students’ participation in the Boston Debate League, and the very impressive fact that each and every one of the debaters on the Josiah Quincy team have gone on to college.

The BBA’s partnership with the BDL is a public service opportunity that truly hits the trifecta for the BBA — meaningful service to the Boston community, where our lawyering skills provide a special benefit, and with the prospect of expanding the diversity pipeline. I hope more BBA members will consider volunteering for this incredibly rewarding experience.