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“I ran. There was a bullet in me trying to take my life, all 13 years of it … “ When James B. O’Neal read those opening lines from a novel, he was an eighth-grade boy bound eventually for Harvard Law School, growing up in a very different environment than that of the book’s hero: a roughneck called Sonny, a sort of urban Huck Finn who grudgingly wised up and accepted help to escape the streets of Harlem in the bad old days. Inspired the searing message of “Manchild in the Promised Land” — the 1965 roman � clef by the late Claude Brown, a lawyer and crusading journalist — O’Neal left middle-class comfort in Atlanta and wound up creating his own life purpose: Legal Outreach, a little organization with big friends, headquartered on West 129th Street, four blocks north of Harlem’s main stem. Today, a pair of young lawyers from Harlem say they owe their lives and careers to O’Neal and Legal Outreach, when they first came to know themselves as eighth-graders. “I didn’t know that being an attorney was an attainable goal for a Dominican girl growing up in Harlem,” said Maria R. Mirabal, 26, a first-year litigation associate at Brown, Raysman, Millstein, Felder & Steiner. “Because of Legal Outreach, I’ve been afforded enormous, life-altering opportunities. I’ll never forget the day that O’Neal came to my social studies class. “He was trying to recruit some students to participate in mock trial competitions with other junior high schools,” said Mirabal, a graduate of the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C. “I said to myself, ‘Oh, I just have to do this!’ “ Sandy R. Santana, a first-year corporate associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, is equally enthusiastic about O’Neal. “He’s incredible, he’s been like a father to me,” said Santana, 26, a graduate of Columbia Law School. “He’s quiet and humble, he doesn’t toot his own horn. He’s very demanding, but very understanding. Students respond to him. They know the sacrifice he’s made. “James O’Neal could be doing anything. He could be a partner at a top law firm,” said Santana, who today serves on the board of directors of Legal Outreach. “But right out of Harvard Law, he chose this route instead, not really knowing what would come of it. He just went with it. You see — he understands our need.” One afternoon recently, the 45-year-old O’Neal sat quietly on the sidelines in a conference room at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett while eight new disciples squared off as plaintiff and defense teams in a mock copyright infringement trial. The youngsters — boys and girls aged 14 and 15 from schools in Manhattan and Brooklyn — were among other such teams culminating their four eye-opening weeks in the Summer Internship Program of Legal Outreach. Every morning at 9:30, they showed up at their assigned firms. They left each day at half-past five — or later, as may happen from time to time in the world of law. The real young lawyers at the firms, along with summer associates, worked with the Legal Outreach students in providing the facts of trial and guidance on marshaling their arguments. To O’Neal, it hardly mattered that perhaps only a few of the students would become attorneys like Santana and Mirabal. The structure and discipline of the law itself, he said, is lesson enough. “It’s empowering. That’s the whole key,” said O’Neal. The Legal Outreach has a staff of 10 full-timers and 38 part-timers, an annual budget of about $800,000, and support from an impressive list of the city’s law firms and foundations, he said. “I’m not Superman. I don’t do this alone. Together, we empower our young people to take advantage of opportunities so they can live out their dreams. That’s just one of the most fundamental notions of what American democracy is about. As a lawyer, I take that very seriously.” So seriously that his only practical experience as an attorney was as a summer intern. In 1982, he persuaded Harvard Law to provide $17,000 in seed money to his dream of living and breathing the message of Manchild. “When it came time to make a decision on what I was passionate about, I decided it was giving back,” said O’Neal, who is black. “It’s just part of my spiritual belief, and my sense of responsibility to the black community.” O’Neal has inspired more than any single community of New Yorkers. “His commitment is contagious,” said Judith E. Siegel-Baum, a partner at Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen. For years, Siegel-Baum has played the role of judge at mock trials for the Legal Outreach summer interns. Of the students, she said, “They’re amazing, sometimes astonishing. They come in, they’re all dressed up. The minute they get here, you feel so good about what you’re doing — making a difference. “Believe me,” she added, “we get more from this than they do.” Kevin J. Curnin, a senior associate at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan who is attorney director of his firm’s Public Service Project, said he is often asked the question, “Is James O’Neal for real?” “He makes a day-to-day impact in the lives of young people, and that’s not something that many of us can lay claim to,” said Curnin. “I’m not sure how he pulls it off, but I do know he’s for real. “And he’s got one of the smartest organizations of its kind. They do their homework, they understand the kids, and they’ve made it very efficient for lawyers like me to get involved. There’s no drag time, no down time. All your efforts go to the bottom line of helping students.” Siegel-Baum has an idea of how O’Neal pulls it off — operating a program of his own creation, that is, a program that began with just himself talking to students in New York City junior and senior high schools. This fall, the staff of Legal Outreach will serve a student group of 130. “Besides everything else, he has this one other fabulous gift,” Siegel-Baum said of O’Neal. “He makes it very hard for you to say no to him.”

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