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Youth Law Program Provides Vital Training for Disadvantaged Teens

Center for Youth Development through Law mock trial
Abraham Salazar cross-examines Brianna Thomas.

By Andrew Cohen

Out of all the bright young students who have completed the Center for Youth Development through Law (CYDL) program over the past 17 years, it’s hard to imagine a more compelling spokesperson than Lonisha Willard.

“I’ve gained skills and confidence that will benefit me for the rest of high school, college, and beyond, and I’ve made connections and bonds that can never be broken.” said Willard, who graduated from the annual summer program last Friday with 30 other disadvantaged East Bay teens. “This experience will help me become the person I aspire to be.”

Willard exemplifies the mission of the legal fellowship program: to enable disadvantaged students to achieve academically and pursue productive careers. The program’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed. Next month, CYDL will receive the 2011 Diversity and Education Pipeline Award from the State Bar of California’s Board of Governors. The award honors attorneys, firms, bar associations, and education programs that make outstanding efforts toward diversifying the legal profession and raising awareness about the legal system.

The students began their summer with two weeks of intensive study at Berkeley Law. One of this year’s instructors, Palomar Sanchez, is a former program participant who just joined the California Bar. Sanchez, along with law students, practitioners, and local judges, helped teach courses on U.S. government and the law, the constitution, and how law can be used for social change. Students also learned about ways to access and pay for higher education, and various legal career paths.

During the past seven weeks, the students received a $1,400 stipend for working full-time four days a week at internships in law, government, or nonprofit offices. They also convened once a week at the law school for academic classes, interactive exercises, mock trials, and discussions with legal professionals.

Willard, who worked in the Oakland District Attorney’s office and watched several trials in the courthouse, honed her technique accordingly during a recent CYDL mock trial. “I saw how the lawyers used cross-examination to form a storyline,” she said. “So when I formed my questions, I used those same tactics: start off with easy questions, get the witness comfortable, and then zero in on the root of what I’m trying to establish.”

Cesar Perez, who will attend Berkeley City College this fall, interned at Berkeley City Hall. “Learning how to draft laws and meeting with people from my council member’s district was really valuable,” he said. “Speaking with constituents about issues like affordable housing taught me a lot about research and how to communicate more effectively.”

Growing the Program

The CYDL program started in 1995, when then-Berkeley Law Dean Herma Hill Kay encouraged director Nancy Schiff to get it up and running. While it remains a separate nonprofit organization, in 1999 CYDL formed a stronger partnership with the law school and opened a small office there.

“Over the years we’ve gotten more Berkeley Law students, professors, and alums involved in different ways,” Schiff said. “We have a great mentoring arrangement where alumni and law students match up with our participants to help them with their studies, college applications, and career advice.”

All program graduates completed their high school education and more than 90 percent have enrolled in higher education. The program actively seeks to develop the students’ emotional intelligence along with academic, critical thinking, communication, and conflict management skills.

“This is a chance for youths, whether they’re superstars academically or not, who are interested in the law and want to work hard,” Schiff said. “We look for students who are capable and talented but who need extra support. Just being on a college campus like Cal, and coming to a place like Berkeley Law, is huge for them. It reinforces that they belong here and can succeed in this type of environment.”

That was evident earlier this month when Alameda Superior Court Judge and Berkeley Law lecturer Jon Tigar ’89 presided over one of the students’ mock trials, which involved claims of driving while intoxicated and vehicular manslaughter. “This is one of the best mock trials I’ve ever judged,” he said. Tigar urged participants to convey confidence at all times, be friendly during the trial when appropriate, and make sure to always ask leading questions on cross-examination.

For Willard, who next year plans to enroll in the criminal justice program at Merritt College in Oakland, CYDL is both a realization of her childhood dream and a launching point for her career ambitions.

“The law has been my passion ever since I was a little girl,” she said. “I have Halloween pictures of me with a little briefcase going out to trick-or-treat. When I heard I could learn at one of the best law schools in the country and actually work on issues I care about with experienced lawyers in my internship, I jumped at the chance. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”