June 24, 2008
Jermaunte Lamar knows what kind of law he wants to practice.
"International corporate law," the 15-year-old rising sophomore said after a recent discussion at the Georgia State University College of Law. "There's so much that goes on in corporate law."
Lamar is a student at the South Atlanta School of Law and Social Justice during the academic year, but for three weeks this summer, he is one of 26 high schoolers from across metro Atlanta participating in the Gate City Bar Association's Second Annual Justice Robert Benham Law Camp.
The camp is a collaboration between the association, Georgia State's College of Law and Clark Atlanta University's Educational Talent Search Program. Its aim is to teach minority students the broad concepts of law and introduce them to the possibilities of a career in the legal profession - in other words, get them into the "pipeline" to attend law school.
"Our concern is making sure that we have folks that are entering law school so that they can become lawyers and enter the profession and help to foster diversity in the profession," said Harold Franklin Jr. (J.D. '99), a partner in the firm King & Spalding who helped start the camp in 2007.
The legal community has dealt with a lack of diversity for years. In 1986, the American Bar Association created its Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and adopted Goal IX, which has since been expanded to read: "To promote the full and equal participation in the legal profession by minorities, women and persons with disabilities."
The Commission, which is now under the umbrella of the Bar's Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity, said in a report released in February that while African Americans make up about 13 percent of the overall population, they represent only 4.2 percent of lawyers.
While the group did note a sharp decline in the overall number of members reporting their race or ethnicity in a survey, it also noted the "number of members who identify themselves as minorities continues in a general decline."
To help reverse that trend, the Benham Law Camp, named for Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, introduces attendees to the concepts of law through classroom presentations by faculty members and practicing professionals.
After a first-day discussion about precedent and common law, Michael Tillman Davis, the College of Law's reference librarian, told students about his own career path, and how he decided, once in law school, that he didn't want to be a lawyer after all.
But "I'm glad that I went to law school and got the degree because there are a lot of things I learned about the law, about society and about myself that I wouldn't have learned otherwise," he said.
Students in the camp also visit lawyers where they work, taking field trips to firms around Atlanta as well as local courts. The stops include one at the Georgia Supreme Court where students hear from Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears. During their third week, students do paid internships to get a flavor of what the working world is like.
"Students interact with people who look like them doing positive things and it shows them they can do it too," said Cheryl George, the College of Law's admissions director and one of the camp's organizers.
Some students say their two weeks of classroom and field trip activities opens their eyes to areas of law they didn't know existed. For others, it affirms their direction or pushes them along a new path.
"We got to meet a lot of people we wouldn't normally get to meet and we got to tour a lot of places we wouldn't normally have access to," said Ameerah Mosley, a 16-year-old rising senior at Eagle's Landing Christian Academy in McDonough.
At the end of the first two weeks of the camp, students participate in a mock trial exercise, putting what they've learned so far about the law to the test.
While some students act as jurors, others act as attorneys and witnesses. Fifteen-year-old Kelsi Dean, a rising sophomore at The Lovett School in Atlanta, last week played an attorney representing a father suing his ex-wife after his daughter found a gun in her mother's home and shot her step-brother.
"I came into the program not knowing much about the law," said Dean. "Now I have so many more options and I think I have a better understanding of what the profession is about."
Her mother, Ruth Washington-Dean, said the law camp's speakers have encouraged her daughter to concentrate on her studies to prepare for college and, later, law school.
"She comes home so enthused," Washington-Dean said. "I owe all of them a personal thank you letter."