I think that we’re able to give a little bit of advice to them based on our own experiences. If they take that and run with it and it plays a small part in their finding success and happiness, that is a huge success for us.
For associates at Big Law firms, an email can come at any hour flagging a client matter that needs immediate attention.
But lawyers in V&E’s Washington D.C. office make time for another critical assignment: mentoring high school students.
For close to two decades, V&E has partnered with Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA), a law-themed public charter high school located in Washington D.C.’s historically disadvantaged Ward 8. As part of the school’s Law Firm Tutoring program, V&E welcomes a group of 11th graders to its Washington D.C. office and offers them dinner, homework help, SAT prep, college application guidance, and life skills workshops.
V&E volunteers – generally associates as well as staffers – spend an hour and half every other week during the school year tutoring students. Some take on the added responsibilities of becoming coordinators, helping solicit fellow V&E tutors and coordinating efforts with the school.
Exposing students to role models in a corporate environment
“I’m a woman of color who is a lawyer. That’s not something that they see as frequently in their community,” said Carla Jordan-Detamore, a V&E senior associate who has served as a coordinator of the program. “They get to meet young people who are practicing law, talk to them about their life journey, and get excited about the opportunities education can bring.”
The 11th graders aren’t the only ones who benefit. V&E’s volunteers take a break from their busy work schedules and give back to the community in a meaningful way.
“As an associate at V&E you’re surrounded by a lot of people who are working in the same field and you get really hyper-focused on work and the clients,” said V&E associate Abby Meredith, who currently leads the program at V&E along with fellow V&E associate John Satira. “This is a really nice way to meet with a younger generation. The students may be in a different phase of life, but you can always find shared experiences or passions while having dinner together.”
Alexis Harder, a recruiting assistant at V&E, said she gets personal satisfaction from tutoring students who may not have all of the advantages she had as a student.
“I was very blessed growing up, so to have the opportunity to give back to those who come after me brings me joy in itself,” Harder said. “Not all of the kids have the tools and resources they need to excel in school. If an hour-long tutoring session can alleviate some of that struggle, I’m going to jump at the opportunity to help.”
Each school year TMA assigns V&E a cohort of juniors.
At the beginning of each year the group gets to know each other with the help of team-building activities. (The program is temporarily paused in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.)
Accompanied by a chaperone, the students arrive at the firm’s Washington D.C. offices every other Tuesday at 5 p.m. A typical evening begins with dinner and casual talk. From there the students break into small groups led by the V&E tutors. The school provides a curriculum that covers such topics as preparing for the SAT, choosing the right college, or how to excel in an interview.
Think all lawyers are bad at math? The V&E tutors do their part to debunk that myth, helping the students with their math homework, too.
In addition, the students learn life lessons such as how to budget, resolve conflicts, draft resumes, apply for jobs, and much more. In one popular activity, students are handed a certain number of beans representing their income for the month. They must choose how they will allocate their resources on necessities and wants across several categories, including food, clothing, housing, transportation, entertainment, and other items.
“It makes the students think critically about economics and their priorities,” said Elizabeth Krabill McIntyre, a V&E senior associate and a past coordinator. “Those types of activities help foster conversations.”
Learning about what it means to be a lawyer
While TMA’s Law Firm Tutoring initiative doesn’t require participants to focus on law per se, students will sometimes ask the tutors about their job. For 11th graders who might think most lawyers handle personal injury or criminal defense matters, the answers can be eye-openers.
“A common question they’ll ask is: ‘What type of law do you practice?’” Satira said. “I explain that I focus on government contracts. What I always say is, law is a lot like history. Everything has a history to it. Any type of interest you have, also has a law behind it.”
For both the tutors and the kids, a major highlight of the year is TMA’s Shining Star Gala. The event generally takes place at the end the school year at Thurgood Marshall Academy. Law Firm Tutoring volunteers have the opportunity to see their students’ diverse talents on display.
At past galas, guests have had a chance to play video games – created by the students – and have watched science and 3D printer demonstrations. The students have also wowed the audience with historical reenactments and scenes from Shakespeare plays.
“They showcase everything from musical talent to the debate team,” Meredith said. “It’s very impressive and just amazing. The kids have taken advantage of all the opportunities. They are so eloquent and thoughtful and are real go-getters. Seeing them in their own environment is really inspiring.”
The students’ hard work shows in another important way. TMA prides itself on having a 100% college acceptance rate.
Christina Schwarz, TMA’s programs manager, said she appreciates the commitment and energy that V&E volunteers put into their work.
“I know it’s not easy having a crazy schedule and then fitting in tutoring at the end of the day,” Schwarz said. “It’s always comforting to know that we have people who love supporting our students.”
A lasting impact
In some cases, the V&E mentors remain in touch with students who have graduated from the program. V&E associate Andrew DeVore, a former coordinator, said he was happy to have had the opportunity to advise a past student on a major decision.
“Last year we had a former tutoring student call us for advice on colleges,” DeVore said. “Because we had established a relationship, she felt comfortable enough to reach out to us for guidance. That kind of relationship-building has been really rewarding to see over the years.”
More than that, the V&E tutors hope they will have an impact on their students that lasts long after they graduate from high school.
“It’s really challenging, no matter what your background, to go somewhere where you’ll be successful and happy,” Satira said. “I think that we’re able to give a little bit of advice to them based on our own experiences. If they take that and run with it and it plays a small part in their finding success and happiness, that is a huge success for us.”