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‘Lawyer camp’ gives teens taste of legal life

July 8th, 2008


The Summer Law Institute drew 27 high school students.

By Jenne Hays

Last month, the University of Louisville helped send 27 Kentucky high school students to criminal court.

Not that the teenagers were in trouble. They went to Louisville Metro Hall of Justice to watch felony and misdemeanor arraignments, one of the activities in a “lawyer camp” operated by UofL’s Brandeis School of Law, Bellarmine University and Louisville Bar Association.

The one-week Summer Law Institute is geared to helping students between the ages of 14 and 18 decide whether to pursue a law career.

“It’s great because it gives students an honest look into what it’s really like to be a lawyer,” said Cindy Robinson, a bar association employee who directs the June camp. “They learn it takes a lot of preparation and may vary from what they had in mind.”

Counselors at this camp aren’t college kids who need a summer job — they’re some of the city’s top attorneys and law professors. And instead of hiking in the woods, these campers spend every day in classrooms and courtrooms listening to lectures, debating issues and honing their speaking and writing skills.

Subjects covered in the institute run the gamut from courtroom decorum to capital punishment, Robinson said.

“No legal topic is off the table, even highly controversial ones such as the death penalty and use of excessive force,” she said.

Students spend their evenings practicing for a mock trial conducted the last day of camp in the Allen Courtroom at UofL’s law school. This year, the trial focused on a child custody case in which a woman stabbed a social worker with an HIV-infected needle. Some students argued for the defense while others argued for the prosecution.

“You have to be dramatic, kind of like acting,” said Sam Nicholson, a St. Xavier High School senior who played the role of cross-examiner.

Jim Wagoner, an attorney at Ferreri & Fogle, and Ruth Wagoner, a Bellarmine communication professor, coached the students on how to prepare for court.

“We worked with our coaches until 10 p.m. every night,” said Ashley Gei, an Eastern High School senior who was lead prosecutor. “What they didn’t know is that some of us stayed up until midnight practicing because we wanted to present ourselves well and do a good job.”

Although neither side in the mock trial is declared a winner, all of the students receive feedback on their performance, Robinson said.

Students also receive professional critiques of their written applications to the institute, a step likely to help them later on if they do apply to law school.

“Besides exposing students to the practice of law, the institute also generates their interest in law school, so hopefully we’ll see some of them again,” said Keith Sealing, assistant dean at UofL’s law school.

About 150 students, mostly from high schools in or near Louisville, have taken part in the program since it began nine years ago.

Applications for the 2009 Summer Law Institute will be available in February. For more details, call Robinson at 502-583-5314.

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