Students witness real-life 'L.A. Law'


To Ned French, the courtroom is a stage.

The 16-year-old Baltimore high school student, who aspires to become an actor, has started dramatic training this summer -- as a lawyer.

True to the video roots of his generation, Ned got the idea from such shows as "L.A. Law" and "Homicide." A program called Law Links gave him the opportunity.

"There's a lot of theatrics in the courtroom," he said. "I get a lot from courtroom scenes, they inspire me."

As one of 35 interns hired in the Law Links program this summer, he will get a front-row seat in the city's legal arena, a navy sport coat and khaki pants from state taxpayers and plenty of free advice from a bevy of attorneys.

The program, in its second year, enrolls high school students selected by their essays and interviews to work at Baltimore law firms from June to August. Paid $5.50 per hour, they are given a variety of assignments from "go-fering" to attending deposition hearings.

For many, these are first jobs. For others, the job represents an escape from some of the city's poorest neighborhoods to the legal towers of power.

"When the people in my neighborhood find out I'm working in Billy Murphy's law firm, they are very excited," said Michele Allen, a 15-year-old 11th-grader at Lake Clifton High School who is working this summer at William H. Murphy Jr. & Associates.

Or, as 15-year-old Leslie Ransom Jr., working at Ward, Kershaw and Minton, puts it: "This program will set you for life."

Law Links is modeled after a program in St. Louis and was established through a joint effort of the Maryland State Bar Association, the Bar Association of Baltimore City, the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program for the schools of Maryland and the city school system.

Included in their eight-hour workday are weekly seminars at the University of Maryland School of Law library, where the students meet lawyers, judges and politicians who describe the ups and downs of their profession and the sometimes entangled and controversial legal system.

"It is critical to provide opportunity for young people to see beyond their neighborhood and their high school existence to a more positive and brighter future," said Rick Miller, the director of Law Links and the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program.

"I think they come in with a demeanor and a behavior that is shaped largely by their peers -- that of MTV, and cool-like -- and by the end of the summer, I think they are on the road to becoming individual young adults who are looking at more options. They are able to communicate and articulate their thoughts and feelings much more clearly."

Grants totaling nearly $70,000 from the state bar association, the USF&G; Foundation and the Friedenwald Foundation pay for administration of the program.

Mr. Miller also has persuaded the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development to buy clothing for the students. A price break from J.C. Penney -- for the blazers, pants, skirts and white dress shirts -- helps defray the $8,800 clothing cost.

Starting on June 26, Law Links runs through mid-August, much to the delight of many who work in the 38 participating firms, where the students evolve from shy teen-agers into confident pre-professionals.

"They are very curious, it makes you more excited about what you are doing," said Dana C. Petersen, an attorney at Whiteford, Taylor & Preston, which has hired three Law Links interns this summer. "The firms that have participated are in a position to make a difference in a life. We don't do that a lot as lawyers."

At the firm of Church & Houff on Water Street, office manager Mari Beth Moulton said the program allows the students to see that most lawyers aren't as bad as their often-tarnished image projects.

"The lesson is that it is a business like everything else, it has good points and bad points but it is there for justice," Ms. Moulton said. "Hopefully, the students can take that into their personal life."

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