Bringing Legal Education to Underserved Communities
Heather A. Creed and Steve Jemison
Photo by Wes Battoclette
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The eighth grade might seem a little early to think about law school. But for some students, helping them dream changes the reality of their future.
That’s where Ohio’s Law & Leadership Institute comes in. Many high school students, primarily from urban public school districts, don’t have access to professional environments. They sometimes don’t see college as an option for themselves, let alone law school.
But since 2008, the Law & Leadership Institute (LLI) has created a statewide initiative in collaboration with the legal community that prepares students from underserved communities for post-secondary and professional success through a comprehensive four-year academic program in law and leadership.
Modeled after a successful program in New York called Legal Outreach, LLI is already making a difference in Ohio.
“The thought was that if it can work there, it can work here,” says LLI chief executive officer and board president Steve Jemison, retired chief legal officer of Procter & Gamble who volunteers his time to the cause. In 2008, the program launched in Columbus and Cleveland. Results were positive, so LLI expanded to the six largest cities in Ohio the next year, by adding Cincinnati, Dayton, Akron and Toledo.
“Now, we have about 350 students across the state,” adds Jemison, with about 60 students participating in Cincinnati. “The idea is to take students leaving eighth grade, going into ninth grade and work with them all four years of high school. We work with them four to five weeks they’re off during the summer and 10 Saturdays during the school year. This provides an intense addition to their education. We focus on writing, speaking, critical thinking and exposing the students to professional environments so they can see what it is like. They also gain a support group because they are exposed to other stu- dents who have a similar desire to succeed.”
And succeed they do. LLI has a phenomenal graduation rate, with all students thus far completing high school compared to a 60 percent graduation rate at some of their home high schools. Almost all of the LLI students go on to college, with some exceptions for military or other career paths.
And if New York’s program is any indicator, LLI will see students follow through and go to law school as the pro- gram matures. “Over the course of all the years of Legal Outreach, about 14 percent of these kids have gone on to law school which is remarkable,” says Jemison.
LLI executive director Heather A. Creed explains that many of the students have never met an attorney. With LLI, “as a high school student, they can be exposed to attorneys, the profession, see what attorneys do and how people get into the profession. They can think ‘this is possible for me to do, I can do this.’”
Creed says seeing the possibility gives the students “more reason to go through what they see as the drudgery of school and do the work because now they can see where that can lead for them.”
After participating in programs such as mock trial, internships in legal offices and ACT prep classes, “by the time the students graduate from high school, their academic record will be strong. Their skills will be strong, and they’ll have a real sense of where they’re headed,” explains Creed. “To make a career choice in eighth grade is still pretty young, but our goal is that those who remain interested are prepared and on the right path to law school and those who aren’t have great skills that will help them become successful professionals and leaders in the community with an understanding of the law.”
LLI relies on lots of people to rally around the students. There’s an LLI site administrator at each law school – Diane Cross leads the Cincinnati program – plus law students who teach the LLI participants. The curriculum was developed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jeff Sutton along with volunteer attorneys and is further refined by LLI program director Rachel Wilson. There are volunteers ranging from mock trial coaches and judges to internship coordinators at local law firms who all support the students’ education. Board members are extremely involved, not only with making sure the program is on track, but also with fundraising and with helping in any way they can.
“I’ve been in Cincinnati for 30 years and spent my career here at Procter & Gamble,” says Jemison, noting his desire to give back to the community. “I was the chief legal officer at P&G, and now they are one of our biggest corporate sponsors, along with AEP and Key Bank. On the board, we have two other chief legal officers, from Key Bank and Nationwide, along with a dean of one of the law schools, a former Ohio Attorney General, two federal judges, several law partners and a government attorney who all have a common goal of helping give inner city kids a better chance.”
Companies have helped to support LLI with tax-deductible donations, and foundations have stepped up to be a big help in getting the program off the ground, especially the Law School Admissions Council, the Ohio State Bar Foundation and The Supreme Court of Ohio.
“It costs about $760,000 per year to run the program statewide,” says Jemison. “We provide about 700 hours of tuition-free training over the course of four years at a cost of about $2,000 per student, per year. The Ohio State Bar Foundation has been our main life blood, and that is based on donations from lawyers into that Bar fund and has been critical to our being able to survive. But in the past year, aside from the money from the Bar Foundation in Cincinnati, we’ve raised more from contributors like P&G, the Seasongood Foundation, the Metropolitan Bar Foundation, the Southern District Federal Courts and others. We don’t have an endowment, so every year we are trying to raise enough for the next year and the year that follows that.”