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When Lee Abrams read reports three years ago about the dearth of minority clerks at the U.S. Supreme Court, he started thinking about what could be done closer to home. Abrams, a partner with Mayer, Brown & Platt in Chicago, chairs the American Bar Association’s Section of Antitrust Law. Using his contacts in both channels, he oversaw the creation of a minority judicial externship program in Chicago, run by the Antitrust Section. The program, which just completed its sophomore run this summer, grooms first- and second-year law students for full-time clerkships after graduation by increasing their exposure to the courts — and judges’ exposure to them. An ABA study released in February 2000 underscored the need for the program. Just 15 percent of all judicial clerkships are held by minorities, although they make up more than 30 percent of the nation’s population and 20 percent of the law school population. In its inaugural run last year, the extern program paired 23 students with judges in the local U.S. district and bankruptcy courts, and Illinois’ Cook County circuit court. Participating students received $1,500 for their eight-week stint, furnished by the ABA and the General Motors Corporation. With such a modest stipend, the program’s organizers expected to attract only Chicago area students. But an outpouring of interest from across the country gave the program a surprising degree of geographic diversity. “We were astounded by the demand,” says Abrams, who was also bombarded with requests from judges hoping to host externs. This summer the program expanded to Houston, where several of Abrams’ judicial contacts asked to participate. Out of 60 applicants, 32 were picked for externships in Illinois and Texas. The program evaluated each student carefully, Abrams says. Knowing that many minority students don’t bother to apply for clerkships because they don’t think they have the grades or don’t attend the right schools, the committee interviewed each applicant three or more times. “We wanted to look at [applicants] as individuals, not as numbers on a piece of paper,” Abrams says. The personalized nature of the program also appealed to the externs, who got an intimate look at the way judges handle cases — and people — on a daily basis. Austiaj Parineh, a student at Santa Clara University School of Law in California, clerked this summer for federal magistrate judge Morton Denlow in Chicago. She says she was impressed at the compassion, patience, and negotiating skills her boss brought to the table. “The profession can seem so cold,” Parineh says, “but I found that the good judges really take the time to explain rights to defendants, to make careful choices, to be considerate and fair.” She was also struck by how much behind-the-scenes work each case took: “I used to think judges just make decisions — I had no idea how much paperwork and research is involved.” The students weren’t the only ones to benefit from the program. In addition to helping out with legal research and writing, Judge Denlow notes that the externs offered insightful remarks and asked challenging questions. “It’s great for judges to hear new questions and fresh ideas,” he says. For Abrams, who is Jewish, the diversity issue hit home on a personal level. When he launched his career in Chicago more than 40 years ago, “many firms made it clear that Jews were not welcome,” he says. The ABA program’s success repeats that of the 3-year-old Circuit Court Forum for Minority Law Students, the first attempt by Illinois courts to actively recruit minority clerks. The annual program informs minority law students about the benefits of a judicial clerkship through presentations designed to spark their interest and improve their applications. The Cook County circuit court has also launched its own summer extern program. The initiative, led by chief judge Donald O’Connell, has sharply increased the number of minority clerks — 24 were hired after the 2000 forum, compared to nine the year before.

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