Several years ago, the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation evolved from a grant-making institution to one that offered programming aimed at improving the justice system in and around Kansas City.
As it sought to identify areas in which to operate, the foundation — the charitable arm of the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association — determined that students in some city high schools had little opportunity for exposure to the legal profession, KCMBF President Peter E. Goss said.
“We identified a need for a youth program in high-risk areas of Kansas City,” Goss said.
To meet that need, KCMBF in 2019 launched the third of its Legal Connections programs: The Student Law Academy, which intends to establish a pipeline for diverse students to establish legal careers, and in the process diversify Kansas City’s legal community.
KCMBF partnered with PREP-KC, a not-for-profit organization that promotes educational opportunities for at-risk youth, to create and establish the program for high school juniors and seniors from six school districts and three charter schools.
“We want to introduce them to the profession with the hope that we will attract these bright students. [PREP-KC] didn’t have a partner to start a program in the legal profession, [so] we became a perfect fit,” Goss said.
PREP-KC coordinates the application process and other administrative work at its partner schools for the Student Law Academy. KCMBF develops the programming for the academy, which in its inaugural session in summer 2019 offered an intensive, five-week paid internship for 14 student scholars.
During that session, scholars heard a speaker every Monday on topics ranging from litigation to etiquette before dispersing to work at different law firms around the city for a week at a time. At those firms, they shadowed volunteer lawyers who mentored them and assigned them to provide administrative help or sit in on depositions, mediations and court hearings.
“They went into a profession they knew nothing about. It was about getting them exposed to the environment of a law firm,” Goss said. “And judges in town were so generous about allowing them to tag along [to court proceedings,], taking time with them and introducing them to the court.”
The academy also provided transportation to and from law firms as well as business-casual clothing for its scholars during the 2019 session, which ended with a formal graduation ceremony, Goss said. To cover its expenses, the academy raised about $35,000 in 2019 and more this year from law firms in Kansas City, he said. “We’re also looking at grant funding eventually,” he added.
KCMBF initially planned to follow the same format for its 2020 group of 16 scholars, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to develop a virtual, four-week program instead, Goss said. In June and July, scholars participated in interactive sessions, discussions and special projects with legal professionals. They also made virtual visits to courts and depositions, and they learned about aspects of legal careers before graduating July 24.
“Last year’s program obviously looked different than this year’s,” Goss said. “We had an impressive list of speakers on all areas of law — some very well-respected lawyers,” as well as judges and University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law faculty.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shift to a virtual program offered an unexpected benefit in that it helped academy organizers to schedule volunteer speakers who wanted to help but otherwise might not have been available in person, he said.
Even if an in-person session is possible in 2021, Goss envisions tweaking the academy structure yet again to a hybrid program that offers both part-time work at firms and a speaker series. Organizers also aim to eventually increase class size to about 30 scholars each year, he said.
“The biggest question there will be, are we back to normal then?” he said. “Last year, all of the families came for the graduation, and it was a fun event. It was my favorite part.”
After completing the academy, many of its scholars have expressed their interest and determination to seek a career in law, Goss said.
“I don’t think we scared them off,” he said, laughing. “After talking to these students, we really got the sense of pride and self-confidence that they maybe didn’t have going into” the academy.
“They took full advantage of this opportunity and came out with self-confidence,” he added. “Just to see the response we’ve gotten from the students, it’s been one of the greatest projects I’ve been involved in with the foundation.”