Although Joenathan Smith, 16, participates on the mock trial team at his high school, it was a weeklong summer program that helped cement his passion for law.

“Seeing the day to day of some of the lawyers and understanding what they do made me want to do the job even more,” Smith says.

The junior participated in the Summer Legal Institute, a free one-week immersion program, in Indianapolis designed to expose high schoolers to law, connect them with professionals in the field and teach them how to build the critical thinking skills they’ll need in college and law school.

Short-term programs like this are opportunities for high school students who are interested in law – or those who are looking for something productive to do over the summer – to get an in-depth look into the legal profession and parts of the judicial system that they usually wouldn’t have access to, experts say.

Most students come into law with a one-dimensional view of what it looks like but leave the summer program understanding the options available to them in the legal field, says Aprill Hawkins, director of engagement at Just the Beginning – A Pipeline Organization.

The Chicago-based nonprofit offers the Summer Legal Institute to high schoolers in Indianapolis; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Detroit; Los Angeles; Twin Cities, Minnesota; New Orleans; and Springfield, Massachusetts.
 The length, size, curriculum and fees of summer law programs vary, but they all share a common goal of exposing teens to the various options that exist within the legal system. Programs can be as short as a week and include between 20 and 40 students.

The programs are likely to include trips to local courthouses as well as activities such as a mock trial or a case study that allow participants to present their ideas in front of professionals and get feedback. Some programs also include advice on paying for college and law school.

 Although it can be challenging to find these opportunities, families can check with local universities to see whether they offer a law-based pre-college program. They can also speak with law schools, bar associations and law-focused nonprofits to find opportunities in their area, experts say. Some organizations work with local high schools to connect with students, so high school counselors can be good resources too.

Students should look for programs that expose participants to different types of legal professionals, such as litigators and judges, professionals who work in fields like business or health care, and those who may use their degree in untraditional ways, says Kellye Testy, president and CEO of the Law School Admission Council, the nonprofit organization that administers the LSAT and provides admissions advice to students.

LSAC is working on initiatives to provide online resources for high school students who are interested in law. Testy encourages families to look for programs that teach students how to examine problems creatively and critically and provide them with the opportunity to find mentors.

“A lot of lawyers and judges are really eager to do that if they know a student who wants some assistance along the way,” she says.

These experiences can range from free to a fee of thousands of dollars. The cost for many of the pre-college programs that universities offer or host include meals and room and board.

While students may focus on a specific subject area like law, the goal of pre-college programs is to show students what it’s like to be an undergraduate student and live on campus. Though costly, they can help high schoolers get a taste of the college experience.

“The experience of living with and learning from students from all around the country is really invaluable,” says Christine Venter, academic director of The Law, a pre-college program at the University Notre Dame.

But families don’t need to spend a lot of money on short-term summer law programs, Testy says. “I really am not a big believer in investing a lot in them at this early stage,” she says. “There are a lot of them that are offered free or low cost that are really good.”

 Organizers say these types of programs can be good options for any student, but they are especially beneficial to first-generation students, minorities, students with disabilities or anyone who doesn’t know someone in the legal profession, because they connect students with local professionals who may share similar backgrounds. Building relationships with professionals makes it easier for students to envision themselves in law, experts say.

Applications for many summer programs open in the winter or early spring. Specifics vary, but applications may include a short statement of interest, recommendation letters and a high school transcript.

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