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Law Links makes a comeback

Raechel Mattison just landed her first job at a law firm — and she’s only 16.

This summer, she is working at the Baltimore-based Law Offices of Arnold M. Weiner and getting paid.

The job is through Law Links, a program that teaches promising high school students professionalism by placing them in summer internships at law firms throughout the city.

A faltering economy has taken its toll on the number of internships, said Rick Miller, the executive director of the city’s Citizenship Law Related Education Program, which leads Law Links.

“Last year was the smallest [internship] class, because the economy has negatively encountered law firms,” he said. “It’s hard to ask them to take an intern when they are laying off attorneys or staff.”

The program usually has about 20 to 25 interns, Miller said, but in 2009, resources only allowed for 13. This summer Law Links is back to a class of 19 interns in Baltimore, thanks to fundraising and more firms getting on board, according to Miller and Shelley Wojciechowski, assistant director of CLREP.

Weiner’s firm was one of the newcomers, thanks to a conversation attorney Barry Gogel had with a CLREP representative at a holiday party last year.

Gogel, himself a former teacher, said he doesn’t understand the reluctance of some firms because the only expense is the interns’ wages. CLREP trains the interns, gives them work-appropriate clothes (two dress shirts, a pair of slacks or a skirt, a jacket and, for the young men, two ties) and monitors them throughout the seven-week program.

“You get somebody who is going to be trained, get clothing and [be monitored] that they’re performing well,” he said. “All that for $7.55 an hour — it’s a really great deal.”

He added with a laugh, “They know I’m going to come after them next year.”

One Baltimore firm that’s returned for a dozen years running is Schochor, Federico & Staton PA.

Even while cutting back elsewhere, it made a commitment to Law Links and vowed to keep it, said Carolyn Kramer, the firm’s legal administrator and a former Law Links committee member. In addition to its own intern, Schochor Federico has paid for Law Links to provide an intern elsewhere since 2005.

“We’ve put it in our budget and persevered in keeping that consistent,” Kramer said.

Kramer recognizes the challenges of incorporating a high school student into the work environment, though.

“You have to consider what a student that age can handle in terms of a work environment,” she said. “It’s become a struggle for [firms] to find work that for seven weeks an intern can perform.”

At Weiner’s firm, Gogel said the distribution of work depends on how much “lawyering” goes on in the summer — typically a quieter time — but he shoots for about 60 percent administrative and 40 percent law-related tasks such as accompanying him to court.

“I thought I was going to be following an attorney around all day with a clipboard,” Mattison said. “But I actually get to learn more.”

When asked why Gogel chose Mattison as an intern he said, “She walked in the room, looked me in the eye, stuck out her hand and said ‘Pleased to meet you’ with a confidence that a high school student doesn’t always show.”

Stashauna Whitaker, 17, who was part of the 2009 Law Links intern class, credits the program with breaking her out of her shell.

“I was a shy, quiet girl,” she said. “Working at the [Legal Aid Bureau] helped me with networking and speaking up for myself.”

Whitaker, who is working at Legal Aid again this summer, will attend Bucknell University in Pennsylvania on a full scholarship in the fall, according to Wojciechowski.

According to CLREP’s 2009 annual report, the college attendance rate is 85 percent for Law Links alumni in Baltimore, compared to 47 percent for nonparticipants.

“I think city students are not challenged as much as they need to be,” Wojciechowski said.

The program was initiated in Baltimore in 1994, and has since expanded to Prince George’s, Worcester, Wicomico and Somerset counties.

The Baltimore program costs about $140,000 per summer to run, Wojciechowski said. The money goes to personnel salaries, fees for the leadership institute the students are required to attend, professional attire for the interns from Jos. A. Bank and Ann Taylor, and other program services.

Potential interns apply by sending a package to CLREP with school documents, letters of recommendation and a letter of interest, and then go through interviews with the committee and firms.

Mattison, who is thinking of going to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to study psychology, says she has “considered doing law,” but is not “100 percent sure.”

And that’s just fine with the program’s leaders.

“We are not trying to groom lawyers,” Wojciechowski said, “but foster an appreciation of the legal system.”