Three Successful Ways to Share Our Profession to High School Kids - ABA YLD 101 Practice Series

By Ritchie Eppink

Do you remember what you thought of lawyers when you were in high school? Some of us already had designs on joining the legal profession back then. For others of us, the "attorney in the classroom" was just - to quote an old headline from the satirical newspaper The Onion - "Some Dork Brought in to Address Civics Class."

No matter how disquieting the resemblance between law school and high school, even the youngest young lawyer has been away from the real thing for several years. But sixteen million students tough it out in America's high school classrooms year to year, and a great number of them will either have a lawyer, be a lawyer, or deal with a lawyer at some point in their lives. Those that won't will watch a friend or family member navigate the justice system or see attorneys portrayed on TV. Nearly all will form some opinion of our profession, and if the results of a July 2006 Harris Poll hold, some 68% will not trust lawyers.

When you became a lawyer you became a "public citizen," say the ABA's Model Rules of Professional Conduct, with a responsibility for improving the public's confidence in the justice system. Reaching out to high school students can be a fun and highly effective part of meeting your responsibility. Dwight Smith, who chairs both the ABA's Commission on Youth at Risk and its Standing Committee on Public Education, says that many groups tell him stories of how "just one lawyer, volunteering just a little time, made a huge impact on some young person's life."

Whatever and wherever you practice, here are three fundamentals for making the most of high school volunteering:

  1. Go There
    Unless your regular work involves high school kids, arranging a visit to a high school in your area is a first step. When it comes to the nature of your visit, possibilities abound: lawyer in the classroom programs, career days, mock trial teams, youth courts, mentoring opportunities, and Law Day events are some of the basic options for working with high schoolers. Your local or state bar association may be able to help you with a placement, but if not don't hesitate to contact a nearby high school directly. Many government, civics, social studies, and practical law teachers will welcome the opportunity to connect you with their students.
  2. Make Yourself Relevant.
    When you get there, you won't have to be "some dork" in the front of the classroom. Be sure to consult with your contact at the school so that you understand the program you're participating in and the kids you'll be working with. Consider asking the teacher to distribute a short interest questionnaire a week ahead of your visit so that you can learn about and quickly connect with the particular students at the school. And be ready to tell things like they are - as they say to novelists, your best plan is to talk about what you know. Platitudinous oratories about abstract ideals of justice and the profession are difficult to execute and rarely fare well among adolescent critics.
  3. Don't Forget Your ABA Resources.
    The Young Lawyers Division Public Education Committee and the ABA's Division for Public Education are committed to making your trip back to high school as success. For a wealth of volunteering tips, program ideas, and a free "Guide to Educating the Public about the Law," visit the Division for Public Education's website for lawyers and judges at http://www.abanet.org/publiced/ljhome.html. Over the coming year, the YLD Public Education Committee will be providing a series of helpful articles and checklists, like this one, on meeting your responsibility for the public's understanding of law - keep an eye on the Committee's website at http://www.abanet.org/dch/committee.cfm?com=YL201000.

"A world of need and opportunity awaits," reports Smith, the Youth at Risk and Public Education chair. "I urge young lawyers everywhere to make a difference by sharing your particular insights and gifts with high school students and other youth who desperately need positive role models."

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About the Author

Ritchie Eppink is legal aid lawyer in Boise, Idaho primarily handling housing cases. Ritchie also works with domestic violence victims on family law issues.

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