On the same day Barack Obama made history by locking up the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, a group of 26 African-American high school students in Atlanta took an important step in securing their own futures through a program that will show them the path to a career in the practice of law.
Beginning June 9, the students will be enrolled in the Gate City Bar Association’s Justice Robert Benham Law Camp at Georgia State University College of Law, named for the Georgia Supreme Court Justice. Now in its second year, the program, presented in partnership with Georgia State University College of Law and Clark Atlanta University’s Educational Talent Search Program, exposes high school students to the legal profession.
The purpose of the program is to address a glaring inequality in the racial makeup of the legal profession. While African-Americans make up just under 13 percent of the overall population, they represent only 4.2 percent of lawyers and judges, according to an American Bar Association group’s analysis of Census data and membership figures.
At the program’s June 3 kickoff event at the Atlanta law firm of King & Spalding, Gate City Bar Association President Thomas “Woody” Sampson, II noted the significance of Obama’s run for the presidency.
“So people think, well, hey times have changed. And times have changed. But then again, things are still the same,” Sampson said. “There is a pipeline problem. We have had declining numbers of African Americans going into the legal profession. And you say, well why is that important? It’s extremely important that the legal profession maintains diversity, that the face of the legal profession is not just white faces or Hispanic faces. It’s important that the legal profession reflect the demographics of society.”
To encourage more minority students to consider careers in the legal profession, Harold E. Franklin, Jr., a 1999 Georgia State law school graduate and a partner at King & Spalding, came up with the idea to offer a three-week summer camp for rising 10th, 11th and 12th-graders.
“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,” Franklin said. “We believe that is a very important goal and that our profession should continue to be diverse. And so that is why we started the Justice Robert Benham Law Camp last year.”
The Justice Robert Benham Law Camp “affords students the opportunity to get experience and exposure to the legal profession,” says Georgia State University College of Law admissions director Cheryl George, one of the program’s organizers. “Students interact with people who look like them doing positive things and it shows them they can do it too.”
The camp involves two weeks of instruction at Georgia State along with visits to area courts and a one-week internship allowing students to work in a legal environment.
Speaking at the June 3 kickoff event, Justice Benham told the students they will leave the camp with “five little tools” that will help them on their way, including good memory techniques, analytical ability, a sense of culpability, an appreciation of consequences, and a sense of maturity.
“We want you to think like you’re older than you are. And you can only do that if you have some values, you have some principles, you gain some experiences, and you have a sense of morality,” Benham said. “The courthouse is where we uphold our morals and our principles.”