Spring 2018: My Experiences Volunteering for Discovering Justice

By Eva M. Zelnick, Esq.

I have been volunteering for Discovering Justice for the past seven years.  I initially began volunteering as an attorney instructor for the afterschool Mock Trial Program during my tenure at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office in New Bedford, MA.  I was immediately hooked.  Since that time I’ve taught the program in three cities, run the Boston Marathon for DJ twice, and currently serve as on DJ’s junior board, the Justice Leaders.

Discovering Justice’s Mock Trial program is an 11-week after school program that catapults middle school students into the role of trial lawyers.  With the assistance of professional attorney volunteers, students tackle age-appropriate legal issues and ultimately try cases in real courtrooms before real state and federal judges with juries composed of members of their own communities.  The cases typically raise constitutional questions like the extent to which students may exercise their First Amendment rights in public school, or the extent to which school administrators may search a student’s belongings when he/or she is suspected of possessing contraband.  I quickly fell in love with the program.

What struck me immediately was how little middle school students know about our justice system and about their rights.  The little they did know is often related to a relative who has had one or more cases in criminal court, or gleaned from what they see on TV.   Needless to say, their perception is often negative and/or fanciful.  

The Mock Trial program is an opportunity to work one-on-one with kids to start to shift that perception.  I will never forget an eighth grader we’ll call “Thomas.”  During our first few sessions he was not engaged, to say the least, and was often disruptive.  However, when I did push him on an issue, he almost always had something very insightful to say.  He was smart, but something was holding him back.  Slowly but surely we were able to draw him out and he eventually drafted a closing argument that any seasoned attorney would have been proud of.  Towards the end of the program we had a rehearsal at New Bedford Superior Court.  Thomas was lagging behind his classmates as we entered the courthouse and almost looked frightened.  I pulled him aside and asked him if we could chat.  I told him that I noticed something seemed wrong and wanted to know if I could help.  “The last time I was here, was because my father was on trial.”  He said, “I’m scared someone is going to hear my last name and recognize me.  I’m embarrassed.”   I told him how proud I was of him for all the work he had done that semester.  “Thomas,” I said, “When our trial is over in a couple of weeks, people are going to remember you for your amazing closing argument.  That’s what they’re going to think of when they think of your name.  A remarkable achievement.”  Thomas was unbelievable at the trial and was beaming with pride when he introduced me to his mother and siblings.

I have had the privilege of working with so many kids just like Thomas through my affiliation with Discovering Justice, and the Mock Trial program is only one of DJ’s many programs.  Stand Up For Your Rights is another after school program which follows the same format as the Mock Trial program, but focuses on appellate advocacy.  Students argue their cases in real courtrooms before appellate panels composed of judges and experienced attorneys.  DJ also offers tours of the Moakley Courthouse, and other courthouse field trips. 

One of the most exciting aspects of Discovering Justices’ programs is its innovative K through 8 literary-based social studies curriculum.  The Curriculum is fully aligned with state and national frameworks, and provides elementary and middle school students with tools to understand ideas like democracy, tolerance, rights, responsibilities and the connection between rules and law.  

Discovering Justice believes that access to information about the justice system, insight into the way it functions on a practical level, and experience with its processes should be a part of every child’s education.  And so do I.  Discovering Justice and its volunteers work with under resourced communities to bring DJ’s programs to them.  I know we make a difference.  I’ve seen it.  It’s not always easy and kids don’t always initially understand how much work and focus it takes to try a case – even a mock one.  But they always succeed, and it’s so amazing to watch them learn new concepts and skills, or even to stand up in front of their classmates for the first time ever with confidence and poise.

I have now had the privilege of teaching DJ’s Mock Trial programs in three cities:  New Bedford, Boston, and now Worcester, at Mirick O’Connell, a firm I joined two years ago this July.  I am delighted that my colleague Alexandra Mansfield and I will be leading our second group from Seven Hills Charter Public School through the Mock Trial program beginning in March.

I would encourage anyone who is interested to get involved with Discovering Justice.  It is such a great way for attorneys to give back to our communities, and DJ makes it so easy to get involved.  If you cannot commit to assisting with an after school program, sign up to give a courthouse tour, or volunteer to serve on a jury for one of the mock trials.  They take place sometime at the end of May or beginning of June in Boston and now Worcester. 

I honestly believe that civics education has never been more important in our country.  By teaming up with Discovering Justice, you will help to prepare young people to value the justice system, realize the power of their own voices, and to embrace civic responsibility by connecting classrooms and courtrooms.  It’s fun, it’s rewarding and it’s for a good cause.  If you want to learn more about DJ, check out their website:  discoveringjustice.org. 

Eva Zelnick is a litigation associate at Mirick O’Connell DeMallie & Lougee