December 18, 2017
Street Law recently sat down with Juan Gascon and Alexandra Gordon, both litigation associates at the New York office of Paul, Weiss, Wharton, Rifkind & Garrison LLP, to discuss their experiences participating in the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program. The program connects volunteer teams from law firms and corporate legal departments with local high school classes. Through classroom visits and a field trip to the law firm, volunteers teach lessons and lead activities designed to increase students’ knowledge and interest in the law and legal careers.
Paul, Weiss is one of more than 70 law firms and corporate legal departments currently participating in the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program. Last year 1,841 legal community volunteers taught 5,083 diverse high school students about law and pathways to careers in the legal profession through these programs.
The Paul, Weiss New York team recently completed their second year of the program. They partner with Ed Davey’s Introduction to Law class at Cristo Rey Brooklyn High School. This semester Paul, Weiss volunteers visited the class six times to teach about contracts, torts, and social host liability and to help prepare students for participation in a mock trial. The program culminated with a Legal Careers Conference held at the firm. There, students participated in a mock negotiation for an athletic shoe endorsement, a mock trial on social host liability, and “lunch with a professional”—at which volunteers from the firm spoke about their roles at work and the diverse career opportunities available within the legal field. (View photos from Paul, Weiss' recent Legal Careers Conference.)
What compelled you to volunteer for the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program?
Juan: I’ve always been involved with programs that do outreach efforts for children. I grew up in an immigrant community, and there wasn’t a lot of access to resources. I didn’t know what a legal career looked like. When I started law school, one of the things I tried to do was see if there were any programs that involved speaking with younger kids. There was a program at NYU Law called “High School Legal Institute.” The law school reached out to high schools in Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and welcomed applications. We’d select about 100 students to come to NYU Law on Saturday mornings to be taught constitutional law, criminal law, and mock trial. It was absolutely the most rewarding experience I had in law school, among many great experiences. When I came to Paul, Weiss, I looked for similar outreach programs to with which I could volunteer. I get really excited about working with kids. It’s their energy that makes the program.
Alexandra: I first volunteered last year. I thought that it would be a fantastic way to get to know students in New York and hear what they’re thinking about careers. It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was thinking about the same things. Anything I could do as a baby lawyer to get the students thinking about careers in the law, that might be outside of what they have imagined for themselves, I thought would be a great way to contribute. After the first time [participating in the program], I thought, I can’t wait to do this again. It was so much fun! By the time we got to the conference, I loved the students and their teacher. I waited with bated breath for the chance to volunteer this year and when offered, I didn’t hesitate. I couldn’t wait to visit the school and talk to them, and see what this new class was thinking. How would I change my presentation? How would I change how I talk to the kids? How can I improve over [last] year and make it even better for the next round?
What have you gained from participating in this program?
Juan: In regards to the legal industry and how [there is underrepresentation] in terms of women in partnership positions and people of color: When you look at the number of minority students in law school, it somehow doesn’t translate into law firm practice. I believe pipeline programs are the best resource for improving representation. There are a lot of efforts to make everyone feel included in the law school environment, but that may be a step too late. Creating an inclusive environment begins when you’re young; when ideas are inculcated in you as to whether you’re welcome in an industry. The most impressive thing about this program is that it’s reaching out to students at a young age. There are not enough programs like Street Law.
Alexandra: As a woman of color, one of my main concerns in the legal field is increasing the representation of people of color. I’m a third generation lawyer, and I’m a black woman. People in my family have been doing their best to represent people of color in the legal field for decades. But there is still a lot of development necessary. We need more Latino, Asian and African American representation. If I can get even one more student to consider going into the legal field, that completely satisfies me. Incremental growth does volumes and has an enormous effect for years to come.
How does your participation help you to be a better lawyer?
Alexandra: When you’re in law school, you have your favorite subjects. I was really focused on criminal procedure classes. Maybe it was the teenager in me who really loved the television show “Law and Order”. When we started doing Street Law, the lessons we taught were torts and contracts. Even though in law school they weren’t my favorite classes, studying them again with the students made them more enjoyable for me. It made me look at them from a more realistic perspective – how the law isn’t limited to the law school “bubble” of how we learn case law. [Instead] I can do real life application; it’s not just old cases from 1850. It’s improved how I think about these issues. Also, the students see things in ways I would never think about. They’re interacting in the real world more than I am when I’m sitting in my office.
Juan: When you talk to children about the law, you can’t rely on all the legal mumbo-jumbo that you normally use when trying to describe a legal concept to someone else; you have to synthesize it first and simplify it. The kids will call you out or zone out if it’s not understandable. For me, putting in the time beforehand, trying to figure out how to connect with the kids really helps.
Also, you see [the students’] eyes light up when you talk about something that strikes a chord. They’ll raise their hands and ask as many questions as possible, whether it’s about some situation in their life that sounds analogous to whatever aspect of the law we’re talking about, or whether they want to push boundaries. It’s really invigorating and reminds me of why I entered the law. There’s a human aspect to the law. These students remind me of that, especially when they bring up problems that are almost too specific to not be real. It’s amazing to me.
How does program participation benefit your firm?
Alexandra: Paul, Weiss has an amazing reputation for our commitment to pro bono representation, working to enhance diversity in the legal profession and social justice. There are many opportunities to work on pro bono matters, which is fantastic for me and fellow associates to enhance our legal skills while doing work that [we’re] passionate about. But pipeline programs such as this directly impact members of our community, which is essential. The legal field shouldn’t be limited to the people we see walking around in our hallways. Everyone should have access to the legal profession if they are passionate and have the “right stuff,” and these students have demonstrated that they do. I’d be proud to have any of them as members of the bar with me.
Juan: It improves the morale within Paul, Weiss. Every firm talks about “pro bono,” but at some point “pro bono” becomes a vanilla term that says “we care about our associates and the community.” Like other firms, Paul, Weiss does a lot of asylum work and partners with organizations like Legal Aid. But when our efforts stretch beyond that, like going to a high school in Brooklyn and teaching kids two days a week, the morale of the volunteers picks up. It’s something different and we are connecting with people in such a different place. As years go by, and the program grows, it’ll be one of those programs we can hang our hats on and be really proud of.
What benefits have you observed in the participating students?
Juan: I noticed a change in how the students took everything in. In the classroom, they were very respectful; it was very “student-teacher.” They asked really good questions in terms of firm work and what the firm looked like. But when they came to visit the firm for the Legal Careers Conference, they were clearly giddy to be roaming our halls. Being in this environment put pep in their step and made a legal career seem more tangible.
Alexandra: It was great to see them helping one another in the classroom and in the conference. I love that the legal field is collaborative. As lawyers, we support one another and try to provide input, help, and criticism where needed. Those things were present in the classroom environment and then refined, pushed to a professional level during the [simulated] trial. It was wonderful as a juror to watch that. It could have been simple things, like talking about the issue and getting your partner excited and ready but also calm and poised before going to the podium. Little things like people clapping for one another after each side finished their opening and closing arguments. That was really impressive because they understood what a taxing undertaking it would be to speak before a judge, jury, and their teacher. That little bit of support meant a lot to the person receiving it. It was really heartening.
What would you say to your peers at other law firms or corporate legal departments who are considering becoming involved in the program?
Alexandra: I would ask why they haven’t gotten involved yet! I have friends at the firm that I’ve been trying to convince to join and I’m still scratching my head about why they haven’t done it. For me, this is the most meaningful of the pro bono opportunities available to us. These are things my colleagues care about intensely, so they should be involved. If you care about people coming after you in the legal field, let’s start earlier than law school or college. Get them before college. Show them this is something they should pursue. You need to join. Why haven’t you joined? Email the site coordinator right now!
Juan: Programs like Street Law allow us to make a difference. The smallest bit goes a long way. That’s how I fell into a legal career. I didn’t know what a career in law looked like until a few years before I applied to law school. Exposure to any career is a student’s first step toward realizing their own skills and how to apply them. “What can I do that I would find really enjoyable, make me happy and make the world a better place?” If more lawyers spent time talking to kids, the kids would get the sense that people care, and are willing to spend time helping them figure out what they want to do in life.
I appreciate all the time spent on the Street Law Pipeline Program partnership. It’s fantastic and I’m so glad that Paul, Weiss is involved.
Interested in learning more about participating in Street Law’s Legal Diversity Pipeline Program? Contact Joy Dingle.
(Reproduced with permission)
Corporate Legal Diversity Pipeline Program
Legal Diversity Pipeline Program for Law Firms