The Atlanta Lawyer — April 2012
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Rita A. Sheffey

Law Day: The Importance of Lawyers Engaging our Youth

May 1, 2012 -- Law Day: In 1957, then American Bar Association President Charles S. Rhyne urged a special national day to mark our commitment to the rule of law. One year later, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the first Law Day. Three years later, Congress issued a joint resolution designating May 1 as the official date for celebrating Law Day. This was later codified at U.S. Code, Title 36, Section 11.3. Why dedicate one day each year to the law? What can we accomplish in just one day?

After all, throughout the year, most people are exposed to lawyers and the legal system in some way, whether through one of numerous news media outlets or various television shows and movies. Occasionally, a neighbor or friend, or one of us, receives a summons to appear for jury duty. Sadly, that all too often generates a negative reaction and thoughts of how one might avoid the “inconvenience.” Some people interact with the legal system for personal reasons, such as to probate a relative's will, to get a divorce, to resolve a dispute over a business contract, or to respond to a traffic citation. But generally, most people never directly engage with the legal system, or think it matters to them. It does matter, and that is what Law Day is about.

There are so many reasons we should all care about our legal system and ensuring access to our courts and an independent judiciary. For example, in Georgia, we elect judges for our state courts, giving every citizen a role in deciding who our judges should be. In creating three independent branches of government, our forefathers felt strongly there should be checks and balances to ensure the protections of the freedoms we fought so hard to obtain. The framers of our Constitution made the judiciary one of the three coequal branches of government, recognizing that the courts are to protect our rights and to resolve our disputes.

The American Bar Association’s 2012 Law Day theme, "No Courts. No Justice. No Freedom." Underscores the Importance of the courts and their role in ensuring access to justice for all Americans.

All of us must have and protect our right and our freedom to use courtrooms when we need to. That courtroom must be open to protect families. That courtroom must be open to validate and protect contracts for business. That courtroom must be open to keep the wheels of justice turning. That courtroom must be open to defend our individual rights to prove again and again that we continue to be a free society. All of that takes more money … not less and less money for our courts.

American Bar Association President William. T. (Bill) Robinson III

As lawyers, we need to help ensure that our courts have what they need to function effectively and efficiently. We cannot sit back and be complacent, assuming that what is right will prevail. In the past, I am proud to say, leaders of the Atlanta Bar Association have been actively engaged in supporting our judiciary, including when faced with efforts to decrease funding for the courts. We have not done so blindly, but rather as practitioners knowledgeable about the operations of the courts. We also engage with our judges proactively to evaluate ways our courts can operate more efficiently and effectively in serving the public.

In addition to working with the Courts, however, lawyers have an important role in educating our non-lawyer friends and neighbors about the importance of an independent judiciary, so that when they vote for judges, they are well-informed, and that they will recognize the vital importance of jury service. This year, I have met with media representatives and with judges, discussing the challenges experienced by both in disseminating accurate information to the public. We have just begun this process, but I believe the Atlanta Bar has an important role to play to facilitate healthy relationships Between the media and our judiciary. Similarly, we would love to engage our non-lawyer legislators by inviting them to visit our courts to see what actually happens in our courtrooms.

One of the most vital roles that lawyers can and do play with respect to protecting our freedoms and access to the justice system is to engage our youth. By the time a lawyer is admitted to the bar of a particular state, typically, he or she has had at least 20 years of formal education. That is equivalent to a generation. And yet, tragically, some of today's youth are at risk of never completing high school, much less obtaining a college degree or an advanced degree. According to recent statistics, in Georgia, 1/3 of our youth do not earn a high school diploma. Some districts haven even lower graduation rates. With a high school diploma (or equivalent), that individual faces significant hurdles in succeeding in life.

Lawyers can positively impact and benefit today's youth in a variety of ways, including through mentoring, coaching, and other activities. We can, and should, educate and inform the next generation about the law, not only for those who might want the opportunity to practice law, but also to broaden the appreciation for and understanding of the importance of our court system. The Atlanta Bar has several programs focused on exposing youth to lawyers and the practice of law and offering first year minority law students an opportunity to gain valuable experience and networking opportunities. The Summer Law Internship Program (“SLIP”) will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year. Each summer, select high school students work in law firms, corporate legal departments, public interest organizations, or with judges to see first-hand what lawyers and non-legal support personnel do. These students also participate in rigorous weekly meetings, some with homework (called “enrichment”) where they are exposed to some of the pillars of our profession. Special thanks to the co-chairs of the SLIP Committee, Wade Malone, Natasha Perdew-Silas, and Nekia S. Hackworth, and the others who have been active with this program through the years], and to the employers and mentors who make the program such a success.

In addition, the Atlanta Bar Association facilitates first year minority law students in gaining valuable work experience and making connections important for their future careers as lawyers. This summer, we will have a record number of 1L’s -- 23. Sincere thanks to Charlie Lester and Seaborn Jones, the co-chairs of the Minority and Diversity Clerkship Committee, and to their predecessors in that role, for such a wonderful accomplishment. (See page 23 for a listing of firms). Both of these programs are incredible and have benefitted so many young people and young lawyers.

Notably, however, while we have focused on high school and law students, we have not similarly engaged college students in any meaningful way. If you are interested in helping us identify an appropriate avenue to connect the pipeline, please let me know.

For Law Day 2012, the Atlanta Bar is proud to sponsor an essay contest, using the ABA Law Day theme, for all high school students in the Atlanta Public Schools. Cash prizes will be awarded to the first, second and third place winners at a Law Day Ceremony held at the conclusion of a state-wide Georgia Bar Leadership Institute on Friday, April 27, 2012. Atlanta Bar members are visiting the schools to announce the contest and to talk with students and teachers about Law Day. Our members also will perform mock trials at a local elementary school and middle school, and will coach mock trial teams at the Atlanta Bar’s adopted high school, the D.M. Therrell High School of Law & Government. Fulton County Judges will preside at each mock trial and juries will render verdicts at the conclusion of the mock trial at Therrell. After the mock trial presentation at Therrell, a framed picture of five former Therrell students who participated in SLIP, and who now are practicing lawyers, will be presented to the School. These former SLIP participants are now helping mentor students participating with the SLIP program.

I urge you to take just a moment on May 1 to reflect on how you help ensure an independent and adequately funded court system which provides access to justice for all. Whether you engage in political advocacy on behalf of the courts, talk with your friends about the qualifications of judicial candidates or why jury service is worth the “inconvenience,” or you engage our youth in understanding and appreciating the importance of our legal system, as lawyers, we have a special responsibility.