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As second-year law school students around New York City prepare for on-campus interviews for next year’s summer associate classes, several minority students will be able to boast of having big-firm experience, thanks to a program that placed them at some of the city’s top firms even before they entered law school. Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), which started in 1963 as a general mentoring program for high school students, has since 1986 provided about 350 outstanding minority college students positions at major New York law firms beginning the summer before they enter law school. “When they go to the firms they are essentially used as legal assistants, although a lot of the firms will make the work as interesting as possible and maybe they will be involved in more complicated projects,” said Milton L. Williams Jr., an assistant general counsel at AOL Time Warner who has run SEO’s legal program since 1987. “They are given mentors at the firms who will look out for them and give them guidance.” The goal of SEO’s legal program is twofold. In addition to providing future minority attorneys the opportunity to receive hands-on experience before they begin law school, the program, which the students continue throughout their years of study, provides participating firms with a talent pool of experienced law students. “It gives us a chance to showcase the firm and our practice to a very desirable group of law students,” said Samuel W. Seymour, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell who has served as a mentor with the program since 1991. “All institutions benefit from diversity, and all legal institutions benefit from having new young people join the firm every year. [This program] gives us a chance to get to know them earlier in the process.” In addition to working alongside seasoned attorneys, the SEO students attend regular seminars throughout the summer on topics such as corporate practice, international law and ethics. The seminars are presented by senior partners at some of the 13 participating firms. Those firms are Sullivan & Cromwell; Cravath, Swaine & Moore; Davis Polk & Wardwell; Simpson Thacher & Bartlett; Weil Gotshal & Manges; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson; Debevoise & Plimpton; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy; Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton; LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & McCrae; Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison and Shearman & Sterling. “We meet partners … . We get to talk to the associates, people at different levels, and ask them what they like and don’t like about working at the firm,” said second-year University of Maryland School of Law student Christine Bautista, who has participated in the program. According to Williams, the vast majority of applicants selected by SEO have achieved academic success and have been accepted by a top 10 law school. “Because SEO does the selection for the firms and they rely on our judgment, we have extraordinarily high standards in the selection process,” Williams said. “We are not only looking for individuals with outstanding academic credentials, we are looking for individuals who can go in and excel and meet the social and political demands in these environments.” For the applicants, the best remembered part of the selection process is what has come to be known as the “stress interview.” Once likely candidates have been identified, Williams and other members of the board test the students’ emotional strength with an interview in which it seems no question can be answered correctly, and every wrong answer leads to criticism. “It’s a very aggressive interview,” said Tyson A. Pratcher, an associate at Davis, Polk & Wardwell who participated in the SEO corporate law program. “It’s almost like a cross-examination — they really come after you. I was shocked because I’m from the genteel South, and I’m sitting in this room in New York City and people are basically screaming at me.” Knowing the high standards of big law firms, Williams and his colleagues have designed the “stress interview” to weed out candidates who might buckle under the pressure that working in a law firm can bring. “Almost every student remembers their interview,” said Williams. “After the fact they are appreciative, but we’ve had students get very testy. There have been instances of one or two students getting up and leaving in a huff.” The success of the program has led to its expansion into the courtroom. Southern District of New York Judges Harold Baer Jr. and John S. Martin Jr. helped start a program this summer where SEO students between their first and second years of law school serve as interns for judges. Martin, for one, sees the new judicial internship program as one which, like the law firm program, can promote diversity while giving the student participants important legal experience. “I think it’s terrific,” said Martin. “The clerks we get down here are the people who were at the top of their [class]. For someone who only finished her first year the opportunity to work with [those clerks] and learn from them is invaluable.”

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