In 2020, Steptoe & Johnson PLLC began a partnership with West Virginia University College of Law and Street Law, Inc. to increase local and diverse high school students’ knowledge and interest in the law and legal careers. Street Law, Inc. is a non-profit organization focused on developing classroom and community programs that educate young people about law and government. The collaboration between the organizations is focused on developing the Appalachian Legal Diversity & Inclusion Pipeline. The Pipeline’s purpose is to show high school students in West Virginia that a wealth of career opportunities exists within the legal profession, and to give them an avenue to explore those opportunities. Ultimately, the goal is to foster young talent so that the students see that West Virginia is a place where they can live, work, and prosper.
Educating young people about careers in the legal profession is a core value of the firm. As part of the firm’s Diversity & Inclusion initiative, Steptoe & Johnson representatives, in partnership with Street Law, helped facilitate and get the program off the ground, beginning with a group of students from the Advanced Placement Government class at Fairmont Senior High School in Fairmont, West Virginia. Nick Bartic, AP Government teacher, and other school officials enthusiastically agreed to be the first school in the state to take part in the Pipeline.
Throughout the semester, attorneys from Steptoe & Johnson volunteer to visit the class and discuss their careers, teach about law firms, highlight aspects of the law, and guide the students through hands-on exercises. At the program’s conclusion, the students would visit Steptoe & Johnson’s Bridgeport office for a conference and enhanced exercises in a law firm environment.
While the inaugural semester of the program was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the 2021 session concluded earlier this year and was held in a virtual setting with students attending from homes, and attorneys conducting sessions from home or office. The virtual setting did not affect the goals of the program or deter students from taking full advantage. Everyone involved adjusted accordingly and moved forward with aplomb.
According to Bartic, “High school age students today are familiar with using [Microsoft] Teams so there was a seamless transition into having a distant rather than an in-person program.” He wanted to continue the program since so much was left unfinished last year, especially for the graduating seniors.
Steptoe & Johnson’s attorney volunteers led students through three interactive sessions focused on contract law. The first covered the parts of a contract, negotiations, and identifying and solving problems within a contract. The following two sessions put students through a mock negotiation where they were to negotiate an endorsement contract between a famous athlete and a shoe manufacturer. They divided into pairs, with one pair representing the athlete and the other representing the shoe company. The aim of the exercise was to simulate a situation the student might encounter later in life – such as negotiating a home loan or an employment contract.
Steptoe & Johnson attorneys Russell Jessee and Alyssa Lazar led the contract law sessions. Jessee said, “I was particularly pleased that the subject-matter this time was contracts. That allowed us to not only give the students insight into the law and legal careers through the lens of contract law, but we also could give the students practical advice about contracts they enter in their own lives.”
“I thought it was an incredibly worthwhile experience to engage with young people who have bright futures ahead,” added Lazar. “Many students clearly had an interest in pursuing law as a career. It was also a great chance to show these students that there are opportunities to pursue law right in their backyard.”
Finally, the students participated in a virtual career fair with professionals in the legal field so they could hear about individual career journeys and ask questions. Elissa Momen, Interim Assistant Dean for Enrollment Management and Scholarships from WVU was a featured speaker.
“I feel that high school students anywhere would get a lot out of this, especially seniors preparing to graduate and going into a real-world scenario and understanding law and how it applies to them even if they don’t want to go into a law-related field,” said Bartic.
“Steptoe & Johnson was founded in West Virginia, and we remain committed to the state now and for generations to come,” said Steptoe & Johnson CEO Christopher L. Slaughter. “It is exciting to help make the Appalachian Legal Diversity & Inclusion Pipeline a reality in our endeavor to strengthen diversity and inclusion in the legal field.”
Plans are underway to resume the Pipeline for the fall 2021 semester with the anticipation that additional schools may come onboard.