To produce more minority lawyers, program focuses on teenagers

In a 12th-floor conference room of a Buckhead law firm the other day, a group of high school students took turns explaining the recent Supreme Court decision to block a class-action sex discrimination suit against giant retailer Walmart.

Girls dressed in modest skirts and blouses, the boys in shirts and ties, they easily looked the part. And their presentations were as reasoned and succinct as those of seasoned attorneys making opening arguments.

Vesselina Kotzeva was poised and easily made eye contact with her audience. She managed even to make her case absent that singsong phrasing that is so common among teenage girls and that her young "colleagues" had become used to over the past week.

That alone was enough to impress attorney Clyde Mize.

“I was so afraid you were going to end each sentence with a high note,” he told her, smiling.

Kotzeva, a Cross Keys High School graduate, was one of 10 metro Atlanta students to garner a paid internship at the law offices of Morris, Manning & Martin.

The two-week summer program was designed to show students how the real world of law and order is different from television shows like, well, “Law & Order.”

“I had this narrow-minded perception of what a lawyer was,” Kotzeva said during a break last week.

Her expanded view of a legal career was precisely what Mize had in mind when he introduced the idea of awarding internships to his partners at the Buckhead firm.

For years the real estate attorney had been bothered by the dearth of African-Americans and Hispanics entering law school.

Mize said that when he entered the University of Iowa College of Law in 1995, there were only 60 or 70 African-Americans in the entire school. The next year, only about half that number attended even though the overall class sizes were increasing.

A Columbia University study bears this out.

Although the number of law schools has increased, the percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics entering their doors has trended downward since 1993, the study found. There was, for instance, a 7.5 percent decrease in African-Americans in the 2008 class as compared with the 1993 class. Hispanics saw a 11.7 percent decrease in the 2008 class.

Even in real numbers, the study found, there were fewer African-Americans and Hispanics in the 2008 class (4,060 combined) than in 1993 (4,142).

That same study got the attention of the Georgia Bar Association’s diversity committee.

“My initial reaction was something needed to be done,” said Marian Cover Dockery, executive director of the program.

Dockery said the committee, along with two other organizations, established an intensive nine-day program to encourage more minorities to pursue legal careers.

Since then, Dockery said nearly 70 students have participated in the program, which includes classes in grammar and writing, skills critical to succeeding in college and law school. The program also introduces them to minority attorneys and judges and provides college scholarships.

“It’s important that they are exposed to attorneys and judges that look like them,” Dockery said.

Although internships are generally reserved for college students, both Dockery and Mize believe they can have a bigger impact if they begin working with students in high school, giving them the kind of mentoring each wished he or she had growing up.

Mize first enlisted Morris, Manning & Martin’s help in reversing the downward trend two years ago, when the firm invited its first crop of summer interns: five the first week and five the second week.

This year, he said, the firm decided to up the ante and host 10 students for the entire two-week period with pay.

Kotzeva, Khaliq Dansby, a rising junior from Chamblee High School, and Marco Silva, a rising senior from Holy Spirit Prep, said they applied the moment they found out about the program.

“I can kind of see myself doing this,” Dansby, 16, said after one week.

Kotzeva agreed. Silva, however, wasn’t as convinced.

“The pay is good, but you have to love it to be able to do it every day and enjoy it,” he said. “I’m not sure I could do it.”

The 17-year-old is considering a career in medicine instead.

Even so, Silva’s four-minute presentation on the Walmart decision met Mize’s standards. It defined gender discrimination and class. It described both the plaintiffs in the case and the Walmart corporation. And it succinctly summarized the court’s ruling.

“You have a great speaking voice,” Mize told the lanky basketball player. "Good job."