Twice during my childhood, my father was sentenced to serve time in prison. His second arrest occurred when I was a junior in high school while away at boarding school. My mother explained that the police received an anonymous tip that my dad possessed and sold drugs. While they found no drugs, they did find a gun, which, while legal to own for most people, constituted a crime since he had been convicted of a felony more than 30 years ago. They ransacked our house, arrested my dad, and paraded him down our street in handcuffs, a walk of shame for him and our family. My dad’s lawyer insisted he would not serve jail time for the offense. But deep down in my subconscious was the harsh reality that as a Black man in America, he may not have it as easy as others. And he didn’t. I accompanied my dad to meetings with his lawyer and began to understand the inherent racial inequities embedded in the criminal justice system more acutely. I realized that lawyers could confront injustice, and my desire to become a lawyer was born out of this lived experience.
What Is the Paralegal Pathways Initiative?
My dad was sentenced, served his time, and has since returned to our family. I am now in my third year of law school. In addition to my studies, I have served as a managing editor of the Columbia Law Review and as the student director of the Paralegal Pathways Initiative (PPI). In my first year at Columbia, I took Professor Susan Sturm’s class, Lawyering for Change. The course and practicum taught me how to blend law, policy, artistry, and community engagement and imagine how change can happen. The PPI was one of the projects presented in the class by its project director, Devon Simmons, who also had a lived criminal justice experience. He inspired me to apply for a role with the project, where I have now served for two years.
Why Is PPI Unique?
Student engagement, perspective, and leadership are aspects of the PPI that make it unique. Supported by faculty and organized into committees (Participant Recruitment, Fellowships, Fundraising, Mentorship, Communications, and Curriculum), students work with faculty, formerly incarcerated individuals, practitioners, and community members on all aspects of the program and receive experiential credit for this work. Getting involved at the beginning of the initiative meant I could help build the program from the ground up. I helped develop the paralegal training curriculum and mentorship components as well as recruit organizations (including law firms, legal service organizations, nonprofits, and government entities) to provide fellowships and employment to graduates and evaluate the program to improve. The curriculum teaches legal research and writing, workplace communication, ethics, client interviewing, discovery, and networking. Upon completion of the course, graduates have the skills to succeed as law students or serve as legal advocates such as reentry chairpersons, paralegals, and program associates.
I have been honored to work alongside the PPI participants, all formerly incarcerated individuals, many of whom have served in a jailhouse lawyer capacity while incarcerated. I have learned so much, including how the lived experience of PPI’s participants can be such an asset to the organizations that hire them and the communities they will serve. The partnership between faculty, students, and participants redefines normative roles, doing away with a top-down approach where learning is a one-way street from teacher to student. I am particularly proud of this non-hierarchical learning space that respects everyone for their important contributions, often born from their lived experience. In this space, we are all learners, and we are all teachers.
The American Bar Endowment Helps Make These Programs Possible
In April 2021, PPI received a grant from the American Bar Endowment to launch the first cohort of students. Six PPI participants are currently in the 12-week training course. Upon graduation, we hope to place successful program participants into fellowships and job placements that align with their interests, including at public interest organizations, civil rights law firms, corporate and real estate firms, and more. Given our successful pilot of the fellowship program last year, we are excited to develop this component of PPI. In particular, I want to thank REFORM Alliance for being the first and inaugural organization to host a fellow. One graduate said, “PPI gave us the opportunity to sharpen our skills and gave me the confidence to leverage my experiences while incarcerated. It’s not what I took away, but what has followed me, and that is the continued support from the faculty and students at PPI.”
How Young Lawyers Can Help
Because the Opportunity Grants are made possible when ABE insureds who participate in ABE-sponsored insurance programs donate their dividends, I want to express our gratitude to those lawyers for their support. Young lawyer to young lawyer, I would also like to ask for your help. I was inspired to become part of PPI because it is a concrete way to break down the barriers and stigmas associated with people who have criminal records. If you share this concern, you can help us find places for our graduates to work. I have already talked to my firm, where I will work after graduation, about the possibility of providing a fellowship. If your organization or firm has offices in New York, I hope you will think about doing the same. Collaborating with like-minded individuals and developing a project from the ground up has been a rewarding and meaningful student practicum experience and has shaped me as a lawyer. We also believe that law schools around the country could implement the PPI program in their own experiential learning curricula. Consider introducing the idea to your school or alma mater. Please visit Paralegal Pathways Initiative to get in contact with us and learn more.