Legal recruiting begins earlier than ever

April 30, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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If Afrika Earvin enters law school about seven years from now, it may be traceable to one of the moments she experienced firsthand this spring.

It won't be easy to pinpoint which one, because there were a lot of those moments, but if she ends up becoming a determined prosecutor, it may be because she never forgot the fact that she lost her first case.

Earvin was one of several 9th and 10th grade "law interns" at University Prep Academy in Grand Rapids who were hosted by the Varnum law firm in mid-April at a dozen "legal education days," part of an effort by some prominent members of the Grand Rapids legal community to begin recruiting at a younger age.

"Legal education days" is an idea supported by the Managing Partners Diversity Collaborative Agreement, which was signed by 13 area law firms. In addition to Varnum, the collaboration members include Barnes & Thornburg LLP, Miller Johnson, Clark Hill PLC, Price Heneveld LLP, Dickinson Wright PLLC, Rhoades McKee PC, Dykema, Smith Haughey Rice & Roegge, Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC, Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones, Warner Norcross & Judd LLP, Miller Canfield and the Grand Rapids Bar Association.

The five-year action plan lays out steps to increase diversity and ensure that area firms and the Bar Association are open and inclusive. The goals include:

**Increasing the number of attorneys of color in their organizations within five years;

**Improving the rate of retention and advancement of female attorneys and attorneys of color in the member organizations;

**Expanding the pipeline of persons of color who enter law school and the legal profession.

Varnum is coordinating three days of the program. In mid-April, Joy Fossel, Varnum's Diversity and Inclusion partner, took seven 9th and 10th graders from University Prep to a session of Circuit Court at the Kent County Court House. They also will go to District Court to watch a live trial.

University Prep Academy, which opened in 2008, is part of the Grand Rapids Public Schools system and the first school to be launched under the GRPS Centers for Innovation model. It is a tuition-free public school with an individualized, college-focused curriculum. The primary goal is to get every one of its students to achieve his or her dream of attending college, and it has a rigorous college prep curriculum to help reach that goal.

"Our partnership with University Prep is one effort to expand the pipeline of diverse persons who enter the profession," said Fossel. "It's important to reach out to diverse communities and students and show them the importance of law careers and the opportunities that are here."

Throughout the legal education days, the University Prep students have been learning about the various areas of law, the court system and its branches, as well as other professions in the legal field such as legal secretaries, librarians and paralegals. The students have been observing judges and attorneys in the court room and spent six days going to law school — almost literally. Cooley Law School provided the students with a law school "crash course," exposing them to actual classes in session so that they can experience the rigorous atmosphere of law school.

"I'm really hopeful that with a program like this, that not only will some of them go to law school, but that they will choose to stay in Grand Rapids," said Fossel.

She said developing the "pipeline" of future law students "is, I think, critical for the long-term health of the city. I want to see the kids grow up and say, 'I can make it in Grand Rapids. I can make a life here.' That's what this kind of program is designed to help foster."

The University Prep kids quickly learned one of life's most valuable lessons — that everyday reality "isn't like what they see on TV," Fossel said. For example, things didn't get underway as scheduled at Circuit Court when the kids were there to observe.

"They couldn't understand why, if things were supposed to start at 1:30, things didn't start" then, said Fossel. In their world at school, class starts at a given time and there is no variation.

"Things go along according to a routine and you don't have to adapt" to change, she said. "But in court, it's a different story, and a large part of that story is how you adapt to the situation."

Plea bargaining was another profound learning moment for the University Prep kids. When some of the kids asked Fossel to point out the "criminals," she indicated the individuals who had plea deals and were waiting to enter their pleas. Fossel was also careful to explain that all people are innocent until they are found guilty or plead guilty.

"Just because they have been arrested doesn't mean they did it," she told the students. "They are sharp kids. Their comeback was, 'Well, if they didn't do it, why are they pleading?'"

Fossel then explained why people sometimes plead guilty to a lesser charge.

The kids also were fascinated by the Varnum law library and how research needs to be done to construct a legal defense, based on precedents. But some of the kids asked Fossel why lawyers need to worry about that. Why don't they just go into court and argue things out?

Afrika Earvin said she wants to be a lawyer "because I like to get my point across, and there's not a lot of lawyers in my family, so I want to be one."

Besides sitting in on law classes at Cooley, the University Prep students staged their own mock trial in a Cooley "court room" one day. Earvin was the prosecutor, and the case involved a girl who was found to have drugs in her bag. Her defense was that she "got the bag at some garage sale from some hippies," said Earvin, and so the girl didn't know the drugs were hidden in a secret pocket inside the bag.

"I was trying to prove she knew about the drugs," said Earvin. "I liked the experience."

So how did the mock trial come out? "She was found not guilty," said Earvin, somewhat glumly.

"I felt like I had enough evidence," she said, but apparently the girl was sketched as a popular person at her hypothetical school, active in track and other things.

Daniel Williams, principal of University Prep, said the jury was also University Prep students — but they weren't part of the "law interns." They were just brought in that day to be the jury, much like juries in the real world don't necessarily have any in-depth knowledge of the law.

The day after the mock trial, the kids at University Prep were all still rather excited about it, and Williams said he overheard much conversation about the case and the points that were argued.

The Grand Rapids University Prep Association launched the school as a private/public partnership with GRPS. University Prep has a separate board of directors that works with the GRPS superintendent and school board. Chairman of the Association board is Brian Cloyd, vice president of Steelcase global corporate relations. The treasurer is John Kennedy of Autocam Corp., and the secretary is Mary Alice Williams of the Nokomis Foundation. Other board members represent both public and private organizations in Kent County.

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