There aren’t many places where lawyers are treated like rock stars. But John Barry Elementary School on Chicago’s West Side is one of them.
For the past six years, attorneys from Accenture and DLA Piper have partnered with the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago (CRFC) to teach students at Barry, many of whom are low income, about the U.S. legal system. Through “Lawyers in the Classroom,” the attorneys teach quarterly hour-long lessons that help students understand how legal issues relate to them.
“Many of these students have never met a lawyer before,” says Jim Beyer, Accenture’s director of employment law. “Maybe they’ve seen a lawyer on TV, but they don’t have a realistic view.”
Accenture’s Legal Corporate Citizenship Committee, which Beyer helped found in 2004, extends its pro bono activities into many arenas. It partnered with DLA Piper in 2008 to send lawyers to teach courses in negotiation at the Addis Ababa Law School in Ethiopia. In February, Accenture’s team received the Pro Bono Partner of the Year award from the Center for Disability and Elder Law for providing legal assistance to senior citizens in partnership with Baker & McKenzie.
But none of the programs has resonated with Accenture’s attorneys as strongly as “Lawyers in the Classroom.” First started by Accenture attorney Shanin Fuller in 2004, 45 of the company’s legal professionals are participating this year. It’s been so popular that in 2009, Accenture’s participation expanded to another school in Chicago and one in Reston, Va.
The impact at Barry is clear, says Jessica Chethik, CRFC’s elementary and middle school programs director. She coordinates more than 650 attorneys from various firms in the 98 Illinois schools that participate in “Lawyers in the Classroom.”
“For the students, having this ongoing partnership where these attorneys are visible on a regular basis really makes them feel like an important part of the community,” she says. Students report that they love learning how difficult it is to interpret the law.
And the kids aren’t the only ones who benefit. Because Accenture’s attorneys work outside the office up to 50 percent of the time, Beyer says the pro bono projects give the team an opportunity to build morale.
Anne Geraghty Helms, pro bono counsel at DLA Piper, says the partnership with Accenture has fostered relationships between the two groups of attorneys.
“There’s a level of camaraderie that develops when you’re not working on billable matters,” she says.
All of that is just icing on the cake for the attorneys, who Beyer says take immense joy in inspiring Barry’s students. He sums it up simply: “It’s just plain fun.”
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