Preetha Gopalan, an associate at Oslwang LLP, writes about her experience of working with young people to increase their understanding of the law.
Lawyers in Schools is a unique programme run by The Citizenship Foundation that partners lawyers with students from schools in economically and socially disadvantaged communities. Participating solicitors and barristers lead interactive sessions in the classroom with small groups of 14 and 15-year old students on a range of legal topics. The aim is to increase young people's awareness and understanding of areas of law relevant to youth justice, while encouraging group learning and debate in the process. At Olswang, Lawyers in Schools is run in partnership with BBC Worldwide, Microsoft and Blackstone Chambers and is part of the firm's wider Corporate Responsibility programme.
The legal topics covered in Lawyers in Schools are selected on the basis of their relevance to young people. For example, social media and the law was one of the more heatedly-debated topics among the students. Some were surprised that there could be legal consequences for things said on Facebook and Twitter. Others considered the impact of this on freedom of speech. It is great to see young people engage critically with the law in ways that resonate with them - a very animated discussion on whether criticising Justin Bieber's vocal abilities on social media would constitute defamation particularly stands out for me!
Witnessing the students' confidence grow each week is highly rewarding. After the initial hesitation and nervousness in the early sessions, students become markedly more vocal and lively in expressing their opinions and sharing anecdotes. Their grasp of the rights and obligations that arise from the law visibly increases over the six-week period. It is also encouraging that many students are inquisitive about the legal profession - they took the opportunity to quiz the lawyers about their career paths and the day-to-day aspects of their practice. Several students also expressed an interest in carrying out work experience with the lawyers they interacted with. This is a promising outcome.
It is not only the students who benefit from Lawyers in Schools. The lawyers find the experience fulfilling, as it enables them to make a positive contribution to the community. Many feel that they improve their skills in facilitating discussion, simplifying complex legal concepts and engaging an audience. Like me, they thoroughly enjoyed interacting with the students, whose energy and humour are infectious. There is much to be gained by taking the law into the classroom in this way.