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District Attorney’s Justice Academy Offers High School Students Internships and Lessons in the Law

February 25, 2015

District Attorney Justice Academy studentsThe media shapes our perception of the law with images of suspenseful courtroom dramas and paneled libraries of leather bound volumes. Yet this stylized view of what it’s like to be a lawyer is ultimately just a facade. For students wanting a richer understanding of what it really means to shape our legal system, a unique opportunity awaits at the District Attorney’s Justice Academy (DAJA). Piloted in 2011, the program has offered students aged 16-18 in the Tri-Valley and Eden regions the opportunity to learn from practicing lawyers – and get paid along the way.

Dublin High School’s Student Body President Tatiani Bouri summarizes her experiences at DAJA this way: “The program included extensive lectures from local and district elected officials as well as attorneys and judges, and we were given the opportunity to intern for one of them. I had two internships, one with the District Attorney for Fremont and the other for State Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan. Both were amazing experiences. I was transcribing video evidence, giving my opinion on cases, and sitting in on trials, all of which furthered my interest in the law. Interning for Ms. Buchanan introduced me to political systems and showed me that politicians really do listen to their constituents.”

To learn more about the program we spoke with Deputy District Attorney Teresa Drenick. What is the goal of the District Attorney’s Justice Academy (DAJA) and how did it get started?

Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Teresa DrenickTeresa Drenick: “Five years ago District Attorney Nancy O’Malley and I were in a meeting in the Tri-Valley with Aaron Ortiz, who is now the Executive Director of East Bay Community Services. We were talking about what programs would be beneficial to students in the Tri-Valley and ultimately all of Alameda County, and that would capitalize on our strengths from a justice perspective.

“What started as a conversation developed into the Justice Academy with the idea of exposing high achieving upper year high school students who have an interest in areas like social justice, criminal justice, the courts and the law, but who would otherwise not have an opportunity to learn from professionals.

“We’re now in our fourth year and have expanded beyond the Tri-Valley. We now have nearly three years of alumni and 100% of the participants are enrolled in college, and of those 92% have reported that the Justice Academy contributed to their preparation for college. Over half are majoring in a justice-oriented subject and 92% are participating in internships or are employed since completing the Academy. These are young people who come from all walks of life, from both traditional and continuation high schools, and students who previously had no exposure to the justice system or work experience. What is so gratifying is to hear students say that the experience with DAJA completely changed their path in life.” As the program becomes more well known I’m assuming the application process is becoming more competitive. What are you looking for in applicants?

District Attorney Justice Academy students 2Drenick: “Each year the application pool has grown and as a result the process is becoming more competitive. We are now getting hundreds of applicants, with each cohort only having 26 students. We go into all of the local high schools in September / early October to publicize the program. The application includes written questions, providing a resume (which in itself is a terrific learning experience for students) and phone interviews.

“In terms of expectations the most basic is to meet the application deadlines, submit a package that is well presented and easy to understand, and be available and on time for a phone interview. As adults we take these basics for granted when we apply for a job, but for students it’s all new. If you say you’ll be available but you never call back, that’s an indication to us that you aren’t serious about the opportunity.” What is the commitment for students fortunate enough to be accepted into the program?

Drenick: “Once a student is accepted the commitment starts in the latter part of January, coinciding with the start of second semester. Students come every other week from 4pm to 6pm at Dublin City Hall, where we present our seminars. During the application process we also confirm that students can commit to attending the seminars regardless of other commitments.

“When school lets out the students then have a four week paid internship, 20 hours per week, in the month of July. We work hard to place each student in a dynamic internship that matches his or her interests. Near the end of the seminar phase we pass out a questionnaire to assess student interests from police work to criminal justice to science and the law.” For students whose impressions of the law have been shaped by movies like Legally Blonde or Law & Order, what is the reality of being a District Attorney?

Drenick: “One of the questions we always ask student applicants is why they are interested in learning more about the law, and in my experience over half of students say it’s because of Law & Order Special Victims Unit. I think that’s ok, not everyone has a parent who’s a lawyer or has had a chance to see the law in action in real-life, so you’re right that the entertainment industry can spark the imagination of students. In reality what we do as District Attorney’s is reflected by these shows except that what you see in one hour, from the crime being committed to a prosecution completed, feels instantaneous when in reality things take much, much longer to be resolved. The human drama we deal with on a daily basis is very real.” Talk more about the human element of being a District Attorney.

Drenick: “In nearly every case, from a misdemeanor all the way up to a murder case, a D.A. works with victims and the victim’s family, through what is often the most traumatizing and horrible thing that has ever happened or ever will happen to them. In that instant in time, whether it’s a week, month or a year, you become part of the fabric of this person’s existence, you get to know and care about each other, and that’s what keeps D.A.’s going and working so hard.” Lawyers are both respected and the punchline for many jokes. What is the reality when students and parents think of opportunities related to law?

Drenick: “We try to expose students to the wide range of disciplines that make up the legal field. We try to remind students and parents that the study of the law is intellectually enriching and rewarding. You have to make yourself think in ways that are both creative and logical. Studying the law is great for your brain! You learn how to analyze a problem, how to clearly write a persuasive argument, and how to distill facts of a complicated scenario whether that’s a crime that happened or a medical malpractice situation or a contract dispute. You have to distill conflicting facts into something that is logical. You get to work with smart people who are interested in current events and what is going on in the world. You are surrounded by people who tax you intellectually.

“I think that most people go into the law because they want to challenge themselves and help others. Whether it’s a prosecutor who wants to help out victims, or a defense attorney who wants to make sure that a defendant’s constitutional rights are upheld, or a lawyer that wants to protect a patient that’s been harmed in a medical incident or a somebody that wants to make sure that immigrant rights are upheld. Most people find a good way to practice their profession.” For students who are already convinced that they want to become a lawyer, what should they do leading up to law school?

Drenick: “In college students should look for classes that will force them to think about those issues. Social justice majors, political science, theory or government majors, all will involve reading and writing that will ultimately help with how you need to think in law school. I think the more exposure students have to the day-to-day workings of an attorney or a law firm is really important. I always encourage young people to be avid readers of the news. Read about criminal cases, read about civil cases, really spend time absorbing and watching the law in action. Take an afternoon here and there and go watch a trial!”


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