Getting an early start on improving lawyers' image

Issue June 2004 By Abigail Shaine

Elsewhere in this paper you can read an article about the wonderful conference the MBA held in May about the topic of encouraging diversity in the profession. The program, chaired by President Van Nostrand, developed some fabulous ideas concerning initiatives that the bar can and will take to continue the critical mission of increasing the number of attorneys of color in our profession. One of the topics that inevitably come up during such a discussion is the broader issue of the public image of lawyers and the importance of the MBA's law-related education programs in taking on that issue one student at a time.

Over the past several weeks I have had the opportunity to engage students falling into three very different age groups. It gave me an interesting window into where that public image starts to falter.

Most recently I met with 60 second-graders to read to them and discuss the story of another 7-year-old, Linda Brown, the central player in Brown v. the Board of Education. I encouraged them to get on their feet and play lawyer by making arguments as to why Linda Brown should be permitted to attend the school closest to her home without regard to the color of her skin. The eagerness with which they took on the lawyer role reflected the obvious enthusiasm for the legal profession I found in that room.

Last week I spent time with an equal number of fifth-graders for A Lawyer in the School Day. I talked about the profession and answered questions that they had about what it means to be a lawyer. Again, the students were engaged in the discussion and a considerable number of them raised their hands when I asked how many of them were considering becoming a lawyer. Yet, even at this young age, some of the questions were more critical and already reflected some of the negativism that we see in our society.

A couple of weeks before that I participated in one of the MBA's Conversations on Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis programs at a high school in Westford. The focus of the program this year is also Brown. The discussion was spirited and stimulating. Yet by that young age that more cynical view of the legal profession as a whole is firmly embedded.

I share these thoughts with you because of the impact they had on my thinking of the importance of building even more law-related educational programming that we can take into the elementary schools. The clear message I saw was that somewhere between the second and fifth grade that shining admiration for and awe of lawyers already starts to become tarnished by all the media and other related reasons that are all too familiar to you by now. I know many of you already take part in programs either the same or similar to the ones I described above. I hope even more of you will join with the MBA in trying to reach into the elementary schools and educate them on the wonderful work that you all do.

And speaking of wonderful work … I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank the MBA staff for the fabulous work they do to support you and your efforts. We are truly fortunate to have such a hardworking and dedicated staff, whose ideas and efforts are often used by other bar associations as a model for their endeavors.