In a week of discovery, high school students experience NYU Law

Debo Adegbile with students
Debo Adegbile '94 with NYU College & Career Lab students

This July, rising eighth and ninth graders spent a week at NYU Law, getting a taste of law school and legal careers through classes, field trips, and talks by leaders in the profession. The group of 50 New York City public school students were participants in the NYU College & Career Lab, a new summer program that aims to increase the number of first-generation college students, low-income students, and underrepresented students at NYU. High schoolers spent one week at each of the five NYU schools offering the program: Stern School of Business, Tisch School of the Arts, Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and Tandon School of Engineering, in addition to the Law School.

Students learned about the First Amendment from Dean Trevor Morrison and discussed Texas v. Johnson, a case in which the US Supreme Court ruled that the burning of the US flag was a constitutionally protected form of speech. They received an introduction to criminal procedure from Professor Randy Hertz, who taught a class on the suppression of unlawfully obtained evidence. A two-hour session on immigration law with Jessica Rofé ‘14, the Immigrant Defense Fellow at the Immigrant Rights Clinic, was chock full of legal concepts, debate, and discussion about the immigration policies of the Trump Administration.

Rofé, who taught 11th and 12th grade before attending law school, kicked off the class with basic questions. “Who can be a noncitizen?” she asked.

Hands shot up in the air. “People who don’t have a green card,” said one student. “Illegal immigrants,” added another, to which Thalia Markowski, a ninth grader at the Clinton School, replied, “The ‘illegal’ part of it makes them sound like a threat, which is not always true.”

What if, asked one student, both of your parents are Americans but you weren’t born here? “You came up with a hypothetical!” said Rofé. “I love it. It’s very law school of you.”

Students read an excerpt from White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, a scholarly book that examines how courts in the early 20th century determined who qualified as white for the purposes of citizenship. They debated questions such as whether laws should be neutral, and learned what terms like “undocumented,” “naturalized,” and “detained” mean. “As an immigration advocate, I often advocate against what I believe to be non-neutral laws. And that’s something if you can do if you go to law school,” Rofé told the students.

During the week, students visited the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF), New York City Council, and Youth Represent, a nonprofit that provides legal services to youth in New York City. They met NYU Law students and alumni and attended talks by Vincent Southerland, executive director of the NYU Center on Race, Inequality and the Law, and Debo Adegbile '94, a partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and an NYU Law trustee.

Adegbile shared his personal story—how he was born in the United States to immigrant parents from Ireland and Nigeria at a time when some American states still had anti-miscegenation laws, and how he was inspired by Thurgood Marshall, who founded LDF before becoming a Supreme Court justice, as well as by many others who fought segregation. At NYU Law, he found a mentor in Professor A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., an African American civil rights lawyer and former Chief Judge of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Adegbile told the high schoolers about seeing his first argument at the Supreme Court with Higginbotham: “I decided the last thing I ever wanted to do in my life is argue a case in the Supreme Court. It was terrifying. I walked out feeling like my dream had died.” But years later, when he was a lawyer at LDF, Adegbile was offered a chance to argue before the Supreme Court in Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No. 1 v. Holder, a case concerning Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, considered the heart of the landmark civil rights legislation.

“My head said hell, no. My heart said the whole reason you do what you do is so you have an opportunity to advocate for people who cannot advocate for themselves,” Adegile said. He shared with the teens how he was able to face his fear with help from other attorneys, and especially John Payton, his mentor at LDF. Adegbile prepared for months, holding a total of seven moot courts to practice fielding rapid-fire, complex questions from the justices. The court sided with Adegbile and LDF that day (although Adegbile noted that his second Supreme Court appearance was less successful, with the Court effectively striking down Section 5 in a 5-4 vote).

Students say the week at NYU Law introduced them to new career possibilities. Markowski says the problem-solving aspect of practicing law appealed to her. “It’s a lot of debate and figuring out what’s right and wrong and supporting people,” she says. “That’s the most important thing I took away from this—how much, being a lawyer, you have to connect with different people and feel empathy for them and be able to help them.”

“This program is opening me up to either being a bioengineer or a lawyer,” says John Jimenez, a rising ninth grader at John D. Roosevelt High School in Brooklyn, “because I’m starting to learn that law is pretty cool.”

Posted on August 15, 2018