This nationwide law program is helping to make the legal world more accessible to young people
Allstate volunteers from across the country sponsor Street Law programs at underserved high schools to educate and expand the opportunity for a career in law to all students.
It sounded like a simple request. “We have a program in home office called Street Law. I’d like to extend it to the field. Are you interested?” I said what anyone would say to their boss in that situation. “Of course!” I said this not knowing anything about what Street Law was or how it worked. Ten years, and dozens of programs later, Street Law has proven to be one of the most fulfilling projects of my career.
Street Law is a global, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that specializes in developing classroom and community programs that educate young people about law and government. It had humble beginnings. In 1972, a small group of law students at Georgetown University developed an experimental curriculum to teach D.C. high school students about law and the legal system. The lessons were an immediate success, and, responding to their practical nature, the high school students called them “Street Law.” The name stuck.
Allstate began its association with Street Law around 2005 with a program in home office called the Corporate Diversity Pipeline Program, now known as the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program. Each year, lawyers and staff from the various home office legal departments volunteer to teach classes to students from underserved high schools in Chicago and surrounding areas. In addition, the students come together for a career day at the Allstate campus in Northbrook, Illinois. Dozens of students participate in mock legal exercises, speak with leaders at Allstate (including the General Counsel) and discuss careers in the law with the volunteers. The goal of the program is to promote diversity in the legal profession, but it has the secondary effect of making the legal world more accessible. The program was such a success that my director, Joan Gilmore, thought it would present a great opportunity for the staff counsel operation. Was she ever right!
“Staff Counsel” is the field operation for Allstate’s Law and Regulation Department. We have about 1,400 employees in 80-plus offices in over 30 states. We represent people insured by Allstate and its associated companies in legal claims brought under their policies. We have talented lawyers and dedicated support staff representing thousands of clients and we try cases in jurisdictions all over the country. Joan thought we had the resources to help students in the cities in which our offices are located. She also thought I was the perfect candidate to coordinate the programs among all our offices. I never regretted that assignment.
Allstate now sponsors 17 Street Law programs in cities across the country in addition to the home office program. We cover most major cities, such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and some smaller ones as well like my home program in Hartford, Connecticut. The programs follow the same general design. Representatives of Street Law train the lawyers and other volunteers, and provide the teaching materials. They also match the staff counsel offices to high schools in the area that would benefit from the program.
The Allstate volunteers teach classes at the high schools, usually to juniors, and then bring the students together for a full day of events like those at the home office. The programs involve anywhere from 10-15 volunteers and from 20-50 students each year. In a typical year, Allstate reaches 700-800 students though it’s Staff Counsel programs.
Our lawyers and staff get as much as they give through Street Law, perhaps more.
The experience has been eye-opening, not only for the students, but for the volunteers. For the students, they receive insight into current legal topics, anything from 4th Amendment searches and seizures to intimate partner violence laws to cyber-bullying. Most of all, they learn that a career in the law is attainable. They interact freely with the volunteers and come to realize that not all lawyers and law firms are as portrayed on television. They come to realize many of our attorneys struggled to achieve the positions they are in now. Perhaps they did not face anything close to what many of the students did, but at least the students realize that most people are not handed their law degrees on a silver platter.
For the Allstate attorneys and staff, Street Law gives us perspective. We realize from meeting the students that many of our problems pale in significance to what they face. The first teacher I met at our local program told me “Don’t worry about trying to teach these kid’s everything you know about the law. They just need to know that people from the outside care about them.” He was right. After one career day, another teacher told me that the one remaining thing the students wanted was to visit our office. It never occurred to me that most of these kids had never been in a downtown office building. Maybe by walking around and getting to know people in the office, they could picture themselves there one day. Our lawyers and staff get as much as they give through Street Law, perhaps more.
As the country-wide coordinator, I get to share in the successes of my fellow employees, and I am always astounded by their efforts. We have a program leader in California who conducts a Street Law program in LA and then flies to San Francisco to do another. We have another leader in Texas who does the same between Dallas and Houston. Our leader in Miami has conducted programs in two high schools and assists in programs in Tampa and Orlando as well. I have a local assistant, Verna Young, who handles getting all the materials—t-shirts, certificates, goody bags—to each site across the country. She literally does all the heavy lifting! Their dedication and generosity, and that of all the other Allstate volunteers, is incredible.
Allstate remains an enthusiastic supporter of Street Law. The director who inspired me to get involved has moved on, but my current leader, Gerard Gregoire, has the same commitment to the program, as does our Senior VP George Grawe, and our General Counsel, Susie Lees. I am told by the Street Law organization that Allstate is one of the largest supporters, in terms of volunteers and students, of all the companies in the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program. It is one of the reasons Allstate has been recognized as one of the 50 top civic-minded companies in the country.
Anyone who has participated in Street Law though can tell you that it is the connection with the students that matters most. That and the hope that perhaps you gave them one little nudge along their road to success.