Even if you don’t want to take Co-founder James O’Neal’s pride at Legal Outreach’s success at face value, you simply can’t ignore student Thursday Williams, who started the program without any public-speaking experience, became a passionate debater, and is now performing in a Broadway production on constitutional law.
Thursday Williams (left) with writer and actress Heidi Schreck.
CCBJ: How did the Legal Outreach Program begin?
James O’Neal: In 1982, right out of law school I was selected as Harvard’s first recipient of the Public Interest Law Fellowship. I was concerned about the paucity of people of color and people from difficult socioeconomic backgrounds in the major law schools. I really felt like a voice was missing in conversations that we were having in law school. The project I put together combined law and education as a means to transform the trajectory of kids coming out of public schools and underserved communities in New York City.
I started working at a Brooklyn high school, teaching an elective based on constitutional law. That year I discovered that law could be a mechanism to get kids to think positively about their future. But I quickly learned how underexposed these young people really were. I had assumed that every kid wanted the American dream, to be a lawyer, doctor, businessperson, engineer, architect, come what may. It was really naive of me because once I started to interact with a lot of the young people, I understood that their worlds were circumscribed by three or four blocks. Their communities oftentimes didn’t have the types of jobs that would inspire them to strive for more.
More important, I realized that starting to work with young people when they are in 11th and 12th grade is much too late in the process to change the outcome for their lives. So I put together the program that’s now known as the Summer Law Institute to work with young people before they start high school. It splits 160 students from across New York City among six law schools to learn about the criminal justice process. They’re introduced to lawyers who work in myriad areas of law. They go on field trips to courts and to see exactly what attorneys do in their work environments. Probably most important and most inspirational, they learn trial skills and have an actual mock trial competition at the end of the five weeks.
What we have found is that many students become more confident about their abilities. They start to see the light, that they indeed have what it takes to pursue legal and other professional careers. They develop this internal drive that makes them willing to put in all the work necessary to acquire the skills they’re going to need to get into good colleges.
Legal Outreach invites students who complete the Summer Law Institute to apply to the College Bound Program. It’s a year-round four-year program after school, on Saturdays, and every summer. Students who join College Bound participate in 10 different programs over the course of four years, including an after school study center, which students are required to attend unless they achieve at least an 85 in their major subjects; something we call life skills, where they tackle issues that can take them off-track; and the writing program, which takes place on Saturdays from 10 o’clock until 2. The first year, they concentrate on grammar; the second, essay writing; the third year, persuasive writing; and in the fourth, they do a major research and writing project.
There is also a debate program modeled after moot court in which the kids study constitutional law issues and are assigned the role of petitioner or respondent. They are given complicated debates, very much like what law students receive, and argue those cases before real attorneys and law students. They’re interrupted by the judges and have to respond to the challenges that come their way. There’s nervousness, but the more they do it, the more comfortable they become and the more confident they become in themselves. All of our sophomores, juniors, and seniors do at least three of these debates per year, and for those who do well, there’s a fourth debate, known as the Debater of the Year competition.
Incredible growth takes place over the course of the three years that students engage in these debates. We have documentation to show that our young people are active learners. When they’re in their college classes, they are raising their hands and engaging their classmates. They are not afraid of presenting their viewpoints or being challenged on those viewpoints.
We also have an SAT prep program, an on-premises college class that teaches them about how college-level courses are different from high school courses, and a college admissions program where they get individualized assistance in deciding what are the best schools to apply to given their record in school and at Legal Outreach. We’re proud that 90% of our kids graduate from college.
Thursday, how did you become involved with Legal Outreach? Describe your experience with the debate program.
Thursday Williams: I started the program the summer before my freshman year of high school. My guidance counselor suggested that I sign up. To start, they told us that we would be doing a mock trial at the end of the Summer Law Institute. I’d never done public speaking ever, ever, ever, so that was new to me. We were at Thurgood Marshall Courthouse. That was my first time walking into a courthouse, so I felt important. My group ended up winning the mock trial. I felt so empowered because it wasn’t me alone talking; it was me and a team. It felt really good to know that a real judge judged us. That led me to apply to the College Bound Program and debate my sophomore year.
I did not win any debates my sophomore year, and my junior year, I didn’t win the first two debates. I tried to figure out what I was doing wrong and realized that it was the question and answer part. I started attending office hours at Legal Outreach at least once a week leading up to my third debate. I won, and I made it to the championship.
I won the first debate of my senior year. After every debate, I reflect on it. What did I do wrong? What could I have done better? My mentor is really honest with me and gives me little critiques, like “Maybe you could have said this” or “Keep your hands in your pockets.”
What has it been like making your Broadway debut in “What the Constitution Means to Me”?
Williams: I’ve never been involved in any type of play at my school. I ran for president of my school, and I became close to a theater teacher. One day she came to me and said, “I received an email for a show, and I think you’re a perfect match.” I was like, “You have the wrong person.”
But then I read what they were looking for: a young woman of color who is curious, who knows about the Constitution and has experience debating. I practiced with that teacher day and night, and I went to audition. After the audition I remember calling my mom and telling her that I didn’t think I got the part, but I did! Before I go on stage, I always get nervous, but overall, I enjoy it. I’ve found a passion that I never knew I had.
The show changes as issues arise – for example, the Georgia abortion law. We sat down and were like, “We’re going to put this right here.” Sometimes it’s nerve-wracking, but I have so much fun on stage. The way I look at it, as a lawyer, you’re basically acting. You have to be persuasive. You have to get your point across. As a lawyer, the courtroom is going to be my theater, but right now, the Helen Hayes Theater is my theater. That’s how I link what I see myself doing in the future and what I’m doing right now.
How has the Legal Outreach Program impacted your goals?
Williams: This program set high expectations for me and I needed that. I knew I liked law but I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to do. After doing the mock trial, after walking into a law school with a suit on during the whole summer, I was like, “This is something that I can do.” I feel like it’s me.
James, Legal Outreach partners with law firms, general counsel and other legal professionals. How do the partnerships work?
O’Neal: Partnerships with corporate law departments and law firms have played a critical role in our success as an organization, and they are an integral part of what we do and how our programming operates. We realize that the legal community and the corporate community are literally not equipped to educate young people – that is the job of our public school system and nonprofits like Legal Outreach – but they can offer young people exposure. That’s a key role that all of our partners play in the implementation of our program. At the very beginning, I endeavored to get law firms and corporations involved so that our young people could see what takes place behind closed doors in an arena they have not previously known. Law firms and corporate law departments thus provide internships, but they also sponsor our Summer Law Institute and debate competitions by sending attorneys to serve as judges and guest speakers.
"Legal Outreach is a terrific program that helps to prepare young talented students for academic achievement while providing them exposure to the law. Our profession must do a better job of creating a pipeline of future lawyers from all backgrounds and Legal Outreach is an important initiative to further that goal. Our team was so pleased to meet and observe so many talented and eloquent students as part of the "Debater of the Year" program and we sincerely hope many of them will consider a career in law in the coming years. We need them if our profession is to grow, innovate, and serve all communities."
–David Levine, General Counsel of Bloomberg LP
We wanted to make sure the kids get a glimpse into the world of these corporations and law firms, so one of the requirements with our internship program is that they cannot place our kids in the mail room or at the reception desk. They have to compose problems that will give our young people a sense of what lawyers actually do on a day-to-day basis. Over the years we have worked with 35 law firms, five financial institutions, and six governmental and public interest organizations, and all of our partners have come up with a simulated issue that requires our young people to act in the role of lawyers or counselors to help resolve the issue.
They’re given help, of course, by the people at the institution itself, and there’s always an event at the end when our students have to advocate, negotiate or make an oral argument on someone’s behalf. Those activities give our young people confidence that this is not beyond their ability to achieve. All it takes is doing that on a couple of occasions to really open up their world and inspire and motivate them, not only to strive for those careers but to put in the hard work necessary to gain the skills they need to legitimately pursue those options.
Published June 3, 2019.