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VOL. 123 | NO. 115 | Thursday, June 12, 2008

Bar Internship Introduces Law To Students

By Bill Dries

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NO SUMMER BREAK HERE: Some of the 100 teenagers in the Memphis Bar Association’s Summer Law Intern Program pose for a picture with Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. Wharton, a former Shelby County public defender, told the group to take the month-long assignments seriously. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES

The courtroom where the Tennessee Supreme Court convenes when it is in Memphis was packed earlier this month. And to some on that warm late spring morning, the crowd seemed a bit young.

Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. even mistook a few practicing attorneys as part of the group of 100 teenagers who are part of the Memphis Bar Association’s 2008 Summer Law Intern Program. The MBA’s Diversity Committee started the initiative a year ago to interest minority students in exploring careers in the law.

More than 270 high school students applied earlier this year for the internships, which involve four weeks of work at various law offices for 15 hours a week with a $500 stipend. The turnout compares to 12 applicants the year before.

Good foundation to follow

MBA President Amy Amundsen said more law firms agreed to host the interns this year after the bar reviewed last year’s effort.

“We didn’t get the word out before,” she said.

That changed this year with an outreach effort that included not only law firms but also law offices within several major corporations. The ServiceMaster Co.’s legal office has taken on 10 interns, for example.

Amundsen kicked off the program Friday with an orientation at City Hall and then the session with Wharton and other members of the legal community at the courthouse.

“I’ll ask you not to consider this as simply, ‘What did you do last summer?’” Wharton told the room full of students and parents. “You are actually about the business of upholding what our nation, what our country stands for – the rule of law.”

Wharton, who is a former Shelby County public defender, also said some of the students might find themselves privy to confidential information that will demand a professionalism that goes beyond simply having a summer job. Even the most menial tasks might bring the students in close contact with the practice of law.

“When you’re working in a law office and they tell you that you must guard the secrets that come into that office, you are just as much a member of that profession as the president of the bar association,” Wharton said. “You’re being honored with a tour of duty this summer in one of history’s greatest professions – that of the law.”

It’s a topic Wharton has little trouble warming to no matter the audience. Even in the political arena, Wharton has reacted to criticism of some of his clients in criminal cases by saying he is proud to practice law in a system that guarantees legal representation to all.

Doling out advice

Kevin Smith, dean of the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, urged the students to take a good look around their surroundings before the internships end with the Fourth of July weekend. He also said they should include accounting and other undergraduate courses in college that might not directly touch on the law but that will be needed.

“Hopefully, we’ll see you again in four to five years,” he told the students.

The courtroom setting was a new one for the students and their parents. In welcoming the group, Amundsen talked of a renewed commitment to diversity in the local bar.

She referred to the June 6 start date – known as the anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion of Normandy during World War II – as Diversity Day.

Also on hand was Criminal Court Judge John Fowlkes, Circuit Court Judge Robert Childers, divorce referee Patricia Odell and U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Paulette J. Delk, a former University of Memphis law school professor.

Wharton garnered the most recognition among the students and their parents. The teenagers eagerly assembled on the courthouse steps for group pictures with the mayor.

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