Affiliates Serving Schools
By Isa Gonzalez-Zaya
Isa Gonzalez-Zayas is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and is an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
If you ask a junior high student what he thinks a lawyer does, he would most likely say that a lawyer either defends people accused of a crime or tries to put them in jail. His limited exposure to attorneys is likely based upon whatever Law & Order episode or movies he has seen. Through volunteer efforts in local schools, young lawyers are working to change that perception and make a difference in the lives of children.
Mary Beth Hughes, a civil law attorney at Peterson, Johnson & Murray, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was part of a mock civil trial at the Johnson Creek High School. The students participated in the mock trial as part of their seventh grade social studies class. Hughes explained that many of the students only knew about criminal law because of television. Commenting on the students’ experience with the mock trial, she said, “They learned about something new and some basics of what it is like to be a lawyer.” When asked if young lawyers would benefit from participating in such programs, Hughes said, “Young attorneys benefit by doing something positive for young kids, in particular, teaching them about a subject matter they often know very little about, introducing them to the practice of law, and putting a much-needed positive face on the legal profession.”
Hughes’s experience is probably no different from that of other young lawyers volunteering in their local communities and schools. I shared a similar experience when I made a presentation at a retreat for students from Messmer Preparatory School in Milwaukee. The students had a wide range of questions: “Do you defend people that killed other people?” “Do you make a lot of money?” “Have you ever lied to the judge?” I answered the questions candidly, and I explained to the students that I have defended people accused of abuse as well as victims of child abuse and domestic abuse. Inevitably, they wanted to know how I could do it. I told them that lawyers cannot prejudge their clients because it is a lawyer’s job to make sure that the client’s civil and constitutional rights are not being violated. As a criminal defense attorney, I am not condoning or defending what my clients may be accused of. I am defending a fellow human being and protecting their constitutional and civil rights. I explained that under our legal system, you are truly innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Unfortunately, if all young students know is what they see on TV and in movies, their concept of how the system works and for whom the system works gets muddied, unless we—as young lawyers—are willing to volunteer our time to change their perceptions of how the civil or criminal system works.
Jessica King, a staff attorney for Steinhilber, Swanson, Mares, Marone & McDermott, in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, participated in the Winnebago County Bar Association 2006 Law Day project. This project was a collaboration between Gannett Publishing, Partners in Literacy Program and the Winnebago County Bar Association. Twenty-three volunteer lawyers went to classrooms and met with 450 students in one day. On the same day, an insert was sent to 20,000 households in the county. The theme for that Law Day was the importance of serving on a jury. “I would definitely recommend this [program] to every community. It’s important for children at a young age to see lawyers in a positive light,” King said.
King took the idea of this Law Day classroom project to the Board of Directors of the Wisconsin State Bar Young Lawyers Division, of which she is a member, and in conjunction with its president, Amy Wochos, is planning the 2007 Law Day to focus on the topic of separation of powers. King hopes that the project is offered in ten counties throughout Wisconsin. “Personally, I enjoyed being a positive face for youth in my community. I want the students in my community to understand and appreciate their legal system, and understand that it is meant to serve them,” King added.
Programs like this year’s ABA YLD’s public service program, Choose Law, are needed more than ever in our schools—not only to teach young students about a day in the life of a lawyer and about their civil and constitutional rights and to empower students to become lawyers, but also to encourage them to have goals and to assure them that there are young lawyers who understand their duty to help them achieve their goals.