Most people don't think of lawyers as teachers. But in the view of professor Susan Leviton, JD, that's exactly what they should be. "To be a lawyer," says Leviton, who directs the Juvenile Law, Children's Issues and Legislative Advocacy Clinic at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, "you have to be able to tell somebody what they need to know very quickly and very succinctly." Through the clinic, Leviton's students learn to be better teachers and better lawyers.
The clinic began with a more traditional juvenile justice focus, representing children in the juvenile court system. Leviton and her students discovered, however, that their clients suffered from greater problems than simply an encounter with the courts: they didn't know how to navigate the system, to advocate for themselves, and sometimes even to make eye contact. Leviton wanted a way to intervene before the children's lives were harmed. That's where the Baltimore Freedom Academy (BFA) comes in.BFA, a citywide public charter school serving grades six to 12, was founded by Khalilah Harris, JD '01.
"BFA's goal," says Leviton, "is to build leaders." The school focuses on academics along with social justice and activism in order to enable its students to transform themselves and their communities.
UM Carey School of Law students in the clinic work toward this goal by teaching a yearlong criminal law and advocacy class, where BFA students learn substantive law along with, Leviton says, "how to use language to advocate for what they need." Carey School of Law students also coach the school's mock trial team, serve as mentors to the Leading Ladies of Tomorrow (a club for girls at BFA's high school), and work with community members on policy issues affecting the school.
The law and advocacy class meets in 10 sections of seven to eight BFA students. Each clinic student teaches one section and, after a training period, is responsible for conducting the class. The learning is a truly shared experience: the BFA students learn critical thinking and conflict resolution skills, while the Carey School of Law students gain a better understanding of the law through teaching it. And everyone learns empathy and how to build close relationships with people very different from themselves.
The relationships do not end when the academic year concludes. Carey School of Law students often stay in touch with their BFA students and mentees, some of whom now aspire to become lawyers themselves. The clinic builds bridges, opens doors, and, says Leviton, "gives a voice" to young people who may never have had one before.