Street Law at 45: Teaching High Schoolers the Law
April 20, 2018
As a student in Georgetown Law’s Street Law Clinic, Natasha Walls Smith’s (L’19) role was to teach D.C. high school students about constitutional policing, focusing on probable cause and reasonable suspicion. She taught the unit at Eastern High School, and then at Roosevelt High School, changing mid-semester.
She also had to prepare the Roosevelt students for an early interscholastic mock trial competition in the fall. Because of scheduling issues, the class was small; students were frequently absent due to family court hearings or truancy. So on the morning of the mock trial, Walls Smith was dismayed to see that just one student showed up. One student, by herself, would be competing against a team of ten students from Anacostia High School.
But Mercy Ayodeji, a 16-year-old who had arrived in the United States from Nigeria just a few months before, wants to be a lawyer. She was nervous about taking on all parts of a trial singlehandledly. But she was up for the challenge.
“Natasha helped me prepare well, and gave me support…I’m a shy person,” Ayodeji said. “It was a case about someone that wasn’t hired [for a job]; he thought he wasn’t hired because of his religion and the way he dressed. I was defending the employer’s decision, arguing that he didn’t have enough experience.”
Ayodeji would deliver both the opening and closing arguments, cross examine witnesses — in fact, play five of the 11 roles in the mock trial in all.
“I said, this is completely up to you…do you want to go to the mock trial?” Walls Smith recalled. “But she had prepared…she said, okay. So in the car ride to the competition we went over her opening and closing statements, and I started prepping her for three extra roles.”
Walls Smith had helped Ayodeji craft her opening and closing statements in class, honing her argument and making it her own.
When Georgetown Law Visiting Associate Professor Charisma Howell gave them the green light to go ahead with only one student on the team, teacher and student were both ready. With support, Ayodeji won a favorable verdict on 2 of the 3 counts against her client. “At that point in the semester, I had learned enough about Street Law to realize that you kind of have to go with it,” Walls Smith said, “and not worry when things don’t go as planned.”
Conquering your fears
Walls Smith says she has wanted to become a lawyer even before she was in grade school. “I played make-believe as a kid with my sister and cousins,” she says. “They would be dancers and singers, and I’d say, ‘I’ll be your lawyer.’”
But when she graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in sociology in 2009, it was the height of the recession, and she wanted to make sure that going to law school was still a good idea. She worked as a unit director for the Boys and Girls Clubs; with a spouse in the military, she could join the organization wherever she moved. When she moved to Hawaii, she worked as a criminal defense paralegal.
She chose Georgetown Law because of its focus on public interest. “The Office of Public Interest and Community Service, OPICS — they had an office with more than one person, which the other schools didn’t seem to have,” she said. “I talked to people there…I knew I really wanted to go into public interest. I didn’t want to waste my time with anything else.”
And of course, she was attracted to Street Law, run by Professor Rick Roe. This year, Street Law celebrates its 45th anniversary, with a summer celebration for alumni and guests, and the final round of the high school moot court competition in Hart Auditorium on Monday, April 23. “It was an experiential learning opportunity, and it was working with youth…I was pretty excited to be able to get involved with this program.”
In the future, Walls Smith wants to work in the intersection of disability and criminal defense law — to expand the Americans with Disabilities Act to better protect persons with intellectual or developmental disabilities in the criminal justice system. “I feel like it’s an area that’s really needed,” she says. “The law is a lot better with disability and employment law, but not so much when it comes to criminal cases.”
In the meantime, Street Law has helped Ayodeji, the high schooler, hone her new lawyering skills.
“It helped me overcome my fear of talking in front of people, and it was a really great experience that helped me to overcome that fear,” Ayodeji said. “After that experience, I felt really content.”
“Mercy’s performance, resolve, and her dedication were simply amazing,” Howell said. “We look forward to hosting the Roosevelt team at the mock trial competition.”
Georgetown Law 2L Alexis Blair (C’16, L’19) served as Ayodeji’s Street Law teacher and mock trial coach for the Spring 2018 semester. A former English major at Georgetown University, Blair has taught English classes and participated in speech and debate, which led her to choose the Georgetown Law Street Law clinic.
“I like teaching, and I like helping students learn what I’m learning right now at law school, so Street Law seemed like a great program,” Blair says.
This year’s mock trial involves a shooting at a mall in which a civilian, trying to be a hero after the shooting, pulls out a gun and is shot by police; the police officer is the one on trial.
Blair, like Walls Smith before her, is working very hard to motivate all the students — so that they will want to show up, and to be prepared.
“We’ve gone over the witness statements, we know the facts of the case, we’re getting into the law right now, which is really complicated — not just one line. Getting the high school students to understand how a very complicated statute works takes a while, but when they do, it’s exciting, and I think they are excited to learn that, too.”
In the end, though, it was Dunbar High School facing off against School Without Walls at the April 23 finals. And for the first time in 46 years of Street Law high school mock trials, Professor Rick Roe acted as judge — patiently explaining to “counsel,” with obvious care and concern for the education at stake, why he chose to sustain or overrule an objection, for example, or why a witness may or may not be qualified as an expert.
“I want to tell you how proud I am…,” Roe told the students at the end of the night, when Dunbar was declared the winner by a mere third of a point. “The trial was presented extraordinarily well…with real knowledge of the case, with real legal skill, thinking on your feet, and persuasive arguments back and forth.”
Though Roe has directed the program since 1983 — as he told the students, Street Law is his life’s work — he’s never served as judge, since he’s typically working to prepare the students for trial. “This final event is really the highlight of our spring semester, and it represents the top two teams of the program.”
Thirteen other teams, representing 300 students in D.C. schools, were bested before the final night.
Whether the high schoolers pursue a career in the law or not, Roe said, Street Law will help them become whatever they choose.
“As a law professor, I like the idea that some of you might want to become lawyers. But I actually believe that the Street Law program helps you become anything you want to be,” Roe said, noting that Street Law helps students make sense of a complex set of issues and narrate those issues to others. “That kind of skill happens in any profession — engineering, science, medicine, health and in the law. So I’m very happy that you did so well here…what you showed here means that you can go a long way with your skills in anything that you do.”
The Georgetown Street Law program has trained more than 1300 law students and served more than 35,000 Washington, D.C., high school students since 1972. The D.C. Council recently passed a ceremonial resolution acknowledging the work of the Georgetown Street Law program.
The resolution, signed by Councilmembers Kenyan McDuffie and David Grosso (L’01), was presented to Professor Rick Roe, Visiting Professor Charisma Howell (LL.M.’11) and Teaching Fellow Gharrett Favinger (LL.M.’21) on Tuesday, April 10. McDuffie went through Street Law as a high school student; Grosso is a Georgetown Law alum of the Street Law program. The resolution may be viewed on the D.C. Council’s web site.