For most of us, a stint in the jury pool, a John Grisham legal thriller, some episodes of “Law and Order,” and big-screen courtroom dramas are as close as we get to the legal system. But for young people trying to decide which interests to pursue in college and careers, a more hands-on approach can give them a realistic view of their options and help set their course for the future.
That’s what the S.M.I.L.E. (Summer Mentoring in Legal Education) program is meant to do.
In 2016, Gwinnett State Court Judges Pamela South and Joe Iannazzone launched the program with the assistance of Gwinnett Assistant Solicitor Dana Pagán, a former teacher at Central Gwinnett HS, and Rebecca Streetman, GCPS’ Law and Justice program specialist who works with the Public Service, Law, and Leadership Academy at South Gwinnett HS. (College and Career Academies at seven Gwinnett high schools provide students with a rigorous curriculum delivered through the lens of a career and real-world experiences in the field.)
Based on a similar program in DeKalb County developed by Judge Stacey Hydrick, the S.M.I.L.E. program gives Gwinnett high school students a summer experience exploring various aspects of the legal profession. The planning team worked together to design the program to cover essential legal topics for high schoolers who are interested in legal careers.
Carlos, a South Gwinnett HS senior, says he appreciates how informative and thorough the summer program was. “The learning was very hands-on since we got to do things like sit in on court, go to the jail, and meet lawyers who answered our questions," he says.
Guest speakers, tours, and mentoring relationships ensure that students gain a perspective on the law that they typically don’t experience. “I think it is important for students to step away from the media and television representation of the legal system and to see it realistically,” says Judge South. “A tour of the county jail is an eye-opener for them, as they see people booked into jail and frisked. These students soon learn that the court system is complex and has a direct impact on the lives of citizens who are involved in it.”
Now in its second year, S.M.I.L.E. accepted 25 students from South Gwinnett, Central Gwinnett, North Gwinnett, and Norcross high schools for this summer’s program. For seven Friday afternoons in June and July, the students gathered at the county courthouse located in the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center (GJAC) in Lawrenceville.
The students, all interested in public service and the legal profession, had the opportunity to learn about the justice system, the trial process, and the Constitution through encounters with lawyers and judges during these summer sessions:
- Gwinnett County Solicitor Rosanna Szabo hosted lunch and a learning opportunity about domestic violence.
- State Senator P.K. Martin spent one afternoon giving students a primer on the legislative process and answered questions about how bills are introduced and how a citizen runs for political office.
- Attorney Rob Greenwald, a local defense attorney with decades of experience, gave students an inside view of the criminal justice system.
- A panel of local judges discussed their route from college to the practice of the law and to the bench.
- Snellville police officer Sgt. Rain Nieddu discussed police encounters, while Claire Lisco of the Partnership Against Domestic Violence reviewed dating and violence.
- And Erik Provitt, a newly minted member of the Georgia Bar, discussed his decision to go to law school after a successful career in banking.
- Students also got a behind-the-scenes look at the courthouse and were given a tour of the Gwinnett Detention Center, even getting to meet those involved in Operation Second Chance, a program that pairs adoptable Jail Dogs with inmates who learn to train and handle their canine charges while they’re waiting for adoption.
Four students who were part of the first S.M.I.L.E. cohort in 2016 had a bonus session, learning about a 1992 murder case from varying perspectives. The students read “The Empty Nursery,” which details the tragic death of Gwinnett infant Haley Hardwick and the resulting criminal investigation. At a follow-up luncheon, the students heard from Jackie White, the book’s author and a former police officer and Juvenile Court administrator; District Attorney Danny Porter, who prosecuted the case; and Superior Court Judge Ronnie Batchelor, who served as defense counsel for the man accused of her murder.
Attorney Norman Cuadra who served as a mentor in the program says exposure to legal careers and how the courts work is enlightening for the students because it helps prepare them for their role as adults. And that sentiment is echoed by Carlos who says, “The SMILE Program made me a better citizen and member of my community since it explained to me what exactly occurs in our judicial system."
In fact, meeting legal professionals through the S.M.I.L.E. program has several benefits for participants, according to Magistrate Court Judge Angela Duncan. In addition to gaining a more realistic view of the criminal justice system and learning about the many facets of the law, the students also have an opportunity to see that attorneys, judges, and law enforcement personnel are “just people, too.” She says that students discover that following their mentors into a legal career is an attainable goal should students choose to pursue that goal.
And, for most participants, S.M.I.L.E. does help confirm their career plans and open their eyes to the various related fields.
Maniah, a South Gwinnett junior was surprised to learn that there are so many different jobs in the field of law. “Not everyone is a judge or a lawyer! It really proved that there is a certain niche for everyone,” she says. Maniah wants to continue learning about the law in college and possibly go to law school now that she knows how many options she’d have after graduation.
Classmate Angelic, a senior who is also considering a legal career, appreciated the opportunity to learn more about her career options in the field and was impressed by the hard work of the sponsors and mentors.
The mentoring aspect of the program pays dividends for the students, says Ms. Streetman who values the real-world expertise and commitment of those involved in the program who invest in the students’ future. She says students get a true been-there-done-that view of the legal system and what it takes to be successful in the field. And participants leave the program with an established network of contacts should they decide on a legal career, something many law school graduates don’t have.
Judge Duncan adds that the opportunity to mentor students has enriched her own life as well. And, Judge South agrees, “Being a mentor has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my career, and I truly feel that I learn a lot from students!” she says “I am already excited about S.M.I.L.E. 2018!”