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Mock Trials Set Up Disadvantaged Students for Success

Alameda County Superior Court Judge Leo Dorado ’74 and students
Alameda County Superior Court Judge Leo Dorado ’74 and students

By Leslie A. Gordon

In late July, Bay Area high school students descended on Berkeley Law for two mock trials as part of the Summer Legal Fellowship Program at the school’s Center for Youth Development through Law. The two-month, full-time program includes educational and employment activities and culminates in the mock trials.

With dozens of family observing, 30 disadvantaged and diverse youth participated in both trials as lawyers, witnesses, bailiffs and jury members. Alameda County Superior Court Judges Leo Dorado ’74 and Brenda Harbin-Forte ’79 served as judges. “The trials are the intellectual and performance capstone of the whole summer program,” said faculty advisor Eleanor Swift. “It’s a very emotional event.”

The aim of the Summer Legal Fellowship Program is to nurture the youths’ interest in the legal profession and, as a step towards it, a college education. “We show them the range of activities the law creates in both government and the public and private sectors,” Swift explained. “It increases their motivations and they learn skills to act on their motivation. It teaches them about getting jobs and working and generates tremendous interest in legal careers.”

In addition to the mock trials, the program includes substantive law and life skills classes at Berkeley Law, as well as internships in law and government offices for which the students receive a stipend. This summer’s host employers include the East Bay Community Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office and Farella Braun & Martel. “The feedback we get from employers is great,” Swift said.

In addition to interactions with legal professionals, students are mentored by lawyers during the summer and beyond. Plus, the life skills class curriculum teaches self-awareness, emotional intelligence and social competence, as well as leadership and conflict management skills. Because most program activities take place on the UC Berkeley campus, students learn the value and accessibility of higher education.

Competitive program

About 60 students apply for 30 coveted spots. Youth-serving organizations as well as teachers, counselors and principals recommend students for the program, according to Nancy Schiff, executive director of the Center for Youth Development through Law. “These are students who are really motivated but who need extra support. They’re curious and passionate, but they’re not going to find opportunities on their own,” she said.

Students come from low-income families in Richmond, Berkeley and Oakland, and most of their families lack experience with higher education. Approximately half the kids’ parents don’t speak English, and some of the kids have been in the foster care system or otherwise have unstable home lives, Schiff said.

“Many of the students have life experiences that lead them to want to learn about law and even become attorneys—for example: negative interactions with law enforcement, immigration issues faced by them or their family members, or just observing injustices around them,” Schiff added.

The program has run every summer since 1995, and several alumni have gone on to pursue legal careers. Graduates include a criminal law attorney who graduated from UC Berkeley and Vanderbilt Law School, a lawyer for Bay Area Legal Aid, a housing attorney for the City of Berkeley and a restorative justice coordinator at an Oakland middle school.

"For some of our students, the program serves as a springboard to a career as an attorney. Other students may be unsure of their career goals, but engagement with the University and the professional world gives them the confidence to aim high. All of the youth feel empowered by their knowledge of law, and feel more inspired and prepared to succeed in a professional career, whether in law or otherwise, as well as to contribute to greater justice in the world," Schiff said.

Program graduates go to college in far greater numbers than the average, Professor Swift added. “The program builds self-confidence so they go back to high school and really excel – it’s a hidden gem within the law school.”