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Their goals aren’t strictly legal

Before this summer, 16-year-old James Branch thought he wanted to be a lawyer. After five weeks at the Legal Aid Bureau, now he’s not so sure.

Fifty-four high school students — including, from left, Naima Shoukat, Lauren Sheeder, Aisha Shoukat, Jeffrey Watts and James Branch — have spent their summer working as legal interns through the Law Links program organized by the Maryland State Bar Association. Sheeder, who will be a senior at Baltimore City College High School and wants to go into law to help children, said of her summer job with the Legal Aid Bureau, “It’s been one good experience after another.”

“I don’t have the patience,” said Branch, who is going into his senior year at Southwestern High School in Baltimore. “I’d rather be a paralegal than a lawyer any day.”

Branch learned this lesson as a participant in Law Links, a program organized by the Maryland State Bar Association, which gives high school students the chance to work for eight weeks at a law firm or law-related agency.

This summer, a record number of students — 54 in all — are spending their summers getting paid to do everything from sitting in on depositions and court proceedings, to filing, filing and more filing.

This is also the first year that students on the Eastern Shore are included. Five students in Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties are interning with the program.

According to Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge Wanda K. Heard, groups in Anne Arundel and Baltimore Counties are exploring the idea of joining the program. Judges in Montgomery County have expressed interest too.

Heard, in fact, helped spur the Eastern Shore’s participation this year.

In the state judiciary’s newsletter, she read about a judicial internship program put together last year with the help of Chief Judge Robert M. Bell, Administrative Judge Daniel M. Long of the first judicial circuit, and Lynn F. Cain, the circuit’s court administrator.

After the article appeared, Heard contacted Cain about expanding Law Links to the Eastern Shore.

“I advised them of what we were doing and asked them if they would like to join under the umbrella of Law Links,” Heard said. “We would have the benefits of their experience and they would have the benefit of ours. It seems to have worked out really well.”

The Eastern Shore program operates somewhat independently from the rest of Law Links, getting its funding from the Lower Shore Private Industry Council, which allows the students to work with judges. Their counterparts on the other side of the Chesapeake work in firms or government agencies.

Otherwise, Cain said, the Eastern Shore students are fully included in the Law Links experience, including the field trip to Annapolis and the group’s yearbook.

“We feel we’re part of Law Links now,” Cain said. “As to whether it will extend to a further degree, I’m not sure. The geographical distance is one of the problems that may be involved.”

Another problem, at least for some counties, has been funding.

According to Shelley B. Wojciechowski, assistant director of the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program — the committee that manages the program for the MSBA — the goal this summer is to “spread the momentum” to other counties.

“It’s really dependent upon local funding and local resources to make that happen,” she said.

The Prince George’s County branch of Law Links returned this summer for its third consecutive year with 15 interns.

An education in professional experience and etiquette
Law Links got its start in Baltimore back in 1994, and has since spread to other counties.

“We’ve had, including this year’s interns, more than 360 interns that have completed the program successfully,” said Shelley B. Wojciechowski, assistant director of the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program, the committee that manages the program for the MSBA.

Applicants must be going into their junior or senior year at a public high school. The interns are then selected based on a rigorous application process, which includes three letters of recommendation, an essay and interview.

“It’s trying to prepare them for the college application process,” Wojciechowski said.

In addition to working, students also take part in the program’s educational component.

The Law Leadership Institute, which meets three hours each week, serves as the students’ introduction to both the professional world and the legal system.

“They’re honing their business and management skills in addition to the professional work,” said Janet S. Eveleth, director of communications for the MSBA. “We try to allow as many students to take advantage of it as we can.”

For James Branch and other students, the institute is a place where the students can regroup and discuss their work with one another.

“At our leadership institute on Wednesdays we just discuss the things that we did in the past week with our firm and the different issues that we come across during the week,” Branch said.

“We also get to listen to judges, lawyers and different kinds of speakers,” he added.

Two weeks ago, for instance, the students took a trip to Annapolis where they had the opportunity to meet with Court of Appeals Chief Judge Robert M. Bell.

“He was cool,” said Naima Shoukat, another Legal Aid Bureau intern.

The institute is also an important way to teach the students about working in a professional setting, Wojciechowski said.

“In most cases this is their first professional experience,” she said. “Many of the questions ask how they should handle situations in an appropriate way. It’s mainly about professional etiquette.”

Proper attire is not an issue, though. An annual donation from the Department of Labor, Licensing, and Regulation provides funding so each student has a suit to wear.

“That takes some of the hesitation out of what’s appropriate,” Wojciechowski said.

In addition to the institute, CLREP also keeps a close eye on the students throughout the summer by asking supervisors to complete weekly evaluations. “We can closely monitor the interns even though we’re not there with them,” Wojciechowski said.

Due to budget constraints, roughly half as many students who apply are accepted, said Abigail Bruce Watson, an attorney with O’Malley, Miles, Nylen & Gilmore and chair of the Prince George’s Law Links Committee.

“Our challenge this year is to try to get funding,” Watson said. “It’s such a worthwhile program that if we can get more funding for it, we can expand.”

The main expense of the program, she said, is the Law Leadership Institute.

Wojciechowski estimates that it costs about $3,000 per student to run the program, and each county is responsible for raising the money for its own students.

That amount excludes student wages, which are absorbed by the various firms and agencies.Good grooming

At the Legal Aid Bureau, wh
ich has four Law Links interns this summer, the program is just as beneficial to the employer as it is to the student.

This is because of “the need to groom people for this type of work,” said Phillip C. Stillman, chief of human resources for the Legal Aid Bureau.

“We try to keep it interesting for them,” he said. “We felt that it was a good match in terms of what the students were interested in doing.”

Lauren Sheeder, 17, appears to be the exact kind of student Law Links is designed to help. Her summer job at Legal Aid allowed her to “resolve a dream” and decide what she wants to do in life.

“This program has helped me a lot to definitely decide that I want to go into law,” said Sheeder, who enters her senior year at Baltimore City College High School in the fall. “I’m still not particularly sure what area or actually what profession, but I know I want to go into law.”

Legal Aid has kept her busy, Sheeder said.

“I’ve been able to do a lot of different things and I’ve had new experiences every day that I’ve been here,” she said, going on and on about filing documents, setting up exhibits, and helping prepare cases to go to court.

“Everything has been so new,” she added. “It’s been one good experience after another.”

Regardless of what form her career takes, Sheeder said that she plans to work with children.

“I know that I want to go into law to help children, mostly children that have been abandoned, neglected, abused, that are having trouble in school. Just juvenile conflicts, basically.”

Volunteer coordinator Mary Anne Jones said that all of this year’s interns at Legal Aid are doing “very, very well.”

“I couldn’t ask for better students. This appears to be the cream of the crop,” she said. “Attendance is great, everyone is always on time, very mannerable, attentive.”

Not all of the students, however, are actually interested in pursuing law as a career.

Naima Shoukat, 17, is an intern at the Legal Aid Bureau but she really wants to be a doctor. Her involvement with Law Links, she said, is just for the professional experience.

“My major interest is in medicine,” said the soon-to-be senior at Patterson High School. “It was mainly for experience. How is the professional world? What is it like to be on the job?”

And even though she doesn’t see herself as a lawyer, Shoukat said that she has found her work with Law Links to be surprisingly interesting.

“It’s a productive summer activity,” she said. “It gets you ready for the professional world and gives you experience.”

Then there’s Harry Morgan Jr., 16, who wants to be a veterinarian. This summer though, he’s working at Gordon Feinblatt, where he gets to go to court, sit in on depositions and work in the office’s general services department.

“I really don’t want to be a lawyer,” said Morgan, who is going into his junior year at Baltimore City College High School. “I want to go into the medical field and be a veterinarian.”

His reason for applying? “It seemed like it would be beneficial for me,” Morgan said. “It’s been a new experience for me. I basically like everything I’ve been introduced to so far.”

According to Sibyl Gordon, director of human resources for Gordon Feinblatt, which has participated in Law Links since 1994, the program is good for students who are interested in any kind of professional career.

“Here are young people who wouldn’t have the chance to work in a professional environment. If nothing else, they get the chance to do that and they’re paid for that,” she said. “They really feel like they’re part of it and we love having them around. It’s refreshing.”

Not that his co-workers have given up hope of keeping Morgan from going to the dogs — but time is running out.

“We haven’t convinced him to be a lawyer yet,” said Gordon. “He still wants to be a veterinarian.”