MBA launches mentor program for high school, college, law school students

Issue December 2009 By Jennifer Rosinski

The Massachusetts Bar Association launched an innovative program last month that teams up practicing minority attorneys with diverse students in high school, college and law school. Aimed at giving inner-city students opportunities in the legal community that do not otherwise exist, the Tiered Community Mentoring Program has been a longtime dream of Norfolk and Probate Judge Angela M. Ordoñez.

"It's extraordinarily important because there are so many people who don't have an acquaintance as a lawyer. There are also a lot of students who write themselves out of thinking about (a career in law) because they don't know the details," said Ordoñez, a Framingham native and daughter of a single mother who didn't consider a legal career until high school teacher Marion Goodman brought up the subject. It was that teacher's husband, Natick attorney Elliot Goodman, who served as Ordoñez' mentor.

The pilot program, which kicked off with a ceremony at the John Adams Courthouse on Oct. 29, matches up four tiers of individuals: practicing lawyers and students from Suffolk University Law School, Roxbury Community College, and John D. O'Bryant High School in Roxbury.

All student participants have received honorary MBA memberships.

"I'm looking to make some connections with lawyers, judges … anyone who is involved in the legal field in Massachusetts," said Teresa DaVeiga, in her second year studying criminal justice at Roxbury Community College with aspirations to attend Boston University and Harvard Law before practicing entertainment law. DaVeiga is grateful to Carol Liebman, coordinator of Roxbury Community College's Criminal Justice program, who suggested she join the program.

"It's a great opportunity for students to learn more about the field and ask questions about what steps they have to take to get where they want to be," said DaVeiga, whose mentor is attorney Richard Gedeon at Carney & Bassil PC in Boston.

For Suffolk Law J.D. candidate Kristina Jean-Conte, being a part of the program allows her to tap into her love of mentoring - something she experienced during her undergraduate years at Boston College - and establish relationships with professionals in the legal world.

"I hope to give (the students) a glimpse of the future, encourage them and be there if they need someone to look to," said Jean-Conte, president of the school's Black Law Student Association.

A total of 40 participants have been matched into 10 groups, where the lawyers will serve as mentors, the high school students will take on the role of mentees, and students in law school and college will take on dual roles.

"It's an opportunity not only for me to serve as a mentor, but for all of us to serve as a mentor and a source of inspiration," said Kimberly Y. Jones, one of the mentors and co-chair of the MBA's Civil Litigation Section. Among Jones' goals with her group of all women is to help them see that the law is like a "buffet table" of opportunities, as well as help them develop leadership and public speaking skills.

"For me, it gives me an opportunity to grow and transform. We never stop learning," Jones said. "These young ladies continue to inspire me to do better."

Alexander Mitchell-Munevar decided to get involved in the program because he knows mentors make a difference. Now a staff attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services, Mitchell-Munevar credits Ordoñez with some of his opportunities and success. He was a clerk for her while she worked at GBLS in the summer of 2002.

"I'm an example of the benefit of having a mentor. It was her guidance and her mentorship that led me to where I am today," Mitchell-Munevar said of Ordoñez. He hopes to help the students in his group in several ways, including helping them determine their own definition of career success and serving as a resource.

"There's obviously an underlying desire to give back, but I don't stop there," Mitchell-Munevar said. "Students, at all points in their schooling, are filled with possibility and imagination. That helps my own sense of inspiration."

Liebman said programs like this one are critical in ensuring diverse students consider a career in the legal profession. "Community college students routinely don't have the opportunities to tap into networks of professional mentors," said Liebman, who described 99 percent of her students as minorities. "Many are intimidated by the process and don't have mentors."

Suffolk Law understands the importance of filling that gap, and is excited about partnering with the MBA to participate in the program. In fact, the goal of the program fits in perfectly with Suffolk's own objectives, said Susan Prosnitz, executive director of the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service.

"Suffolk as a university and as a law school is extremely committed to ensuring diversity among its student body and serving in a mentoring capacity," she said. "Having a diverse law school environment and involving the school in initiatives that bring the next generation of diversity to the law school is very important."

Ordoñez, who first got the idea for the program eight years ago, is thrilled to finally see it get off the ground. She is eager to see the program unfold, and hopes it can be expanded in the future, both across the state and country. "It really does offer some real life experience for people that they wouldn't get otherwise."