Our non-profit works through a three-part framework that includes 1) the sharing of legal knowledge through secondary legal education, 2) the provision of free legal services at high school legal aid clinics, and 3) mentorships and career counseling in pursuit of legal careers.
Students from Youth Justice communities are the victims of exploitation, unlawful evictions, and illegal terminations, among many other issues. By training our students to understand the basics of landlord tenant law, family law, immigration law, and employment law, we teach them how to protect themselves and to become sources of valuable information to their community. Even if they decide to pursue a path outside of the legal field, they leave empowered by the law. We are preparing students for law school, but we are more focused on preparing them for life.
One of the benefits of running such a unique program is that there is flexibility to adapt the curriculum to the challenges of a community. At Akins, immigration and domestic violence were atop our list of topics to cover. Our conversations about immigration were rich with stories of traveling to opportunity and safety. At the same time, about three quarters of the students said they observed or experienced domestic violence. There is no core curriculum addressing these issues. It takes the flexibility of a law course to bring up these topics, and the power of the law to learn how to confront them. Many of my female students said that they were afraid that they wouldn’t know what to do if they were ever abused. We changed that. We spoke about the rights of domestic violence victims, citizens and otherwise. We also took the opportunity to speak to all of the students about making a choice to end the violence toward women in our community. Our goal is to ensure that our students are protected by the law, and do not become perpetrators under the law.
For many students, academics and extracurriculars are secondary to the daily repercussions of living in poverty or with trauma. Homelessness, sexual assault, physical abuse, exploitation, and immigration status take priority over succeeding on the next exam. By establishing legal aid clinics on high school campuses, we can help provide remedies for these legal matters so our students can refocus on the classroom to the extent possible. By employing high school students as legal assistants in these clinics, we empower students to recognize their ability to not only change their own lives but to transform their community. Now, school is where families go to receive free legal support for the greatest obstacles they face.
Our clients include campus staff, community members, and occasionally folks from outside the school boundaries. One Saturday, attorneys from the Cancer Law Clinic traveled to Akins High School to help prepare wills for terminally ill cancer patients. Students served as witnesses, reviewed wills for errors, and helped attorneys conduct intake. During another weekend clinic, The University of Texas Aggie Law Society and the Akins Legal Eagles helped prepare fifty wills for Akins teachers and staff. During the week, we focus on case requiring long-term involvement. The Legal Eagles completed immigration applications for custodians from Mexico and Central America. The Spanish speaking interns helped translate during intake, and all students helped prepare the legal documents under the mentorship of Mr. Salek.
Sample Case (included with permission) – LGBTQ member of the Akins custodial staff comes to the United States after experiencing persecution in his home country in Central America. In the United States, he begins dating a new partner who physically assaults him with a knife and leaves him in critical condition. The staff member supported the investigation and cooperated with law enforcement, qualifying him for a U Visa as the victim of a serious crime. With the help of our Spanish speaking students, his documents were translated, forms were completed, evidence was collected, and he received his Green Card. When the news came in that the case was successful, we surprised the staff member with cake, a flag, and their official notice of approval!
We also frequently answer family law questions. Even with self-help guides, our clients struggle to understand how to manage the most common legal issues. This leaves our community members in marriages with long estranged spouses, with the last names of abusive ex-partners, and without access to the child support they are entitled to. As a result, they reach out to our clinic.
Sample Case (included with permission) – A security officer at Akins was separated from her husband for over ten years. He was already living as husband and wife with another woman. The security officer wanted to get the divorce finalized for many years, but she was not able to overcome the challenges of the legal system on her own. Eagle Aid helped finalize her divorce. After it was complete, she brought a check to attorney Armin Salek (not cashed). She told him to look at the name in the upper left-hand corner. For the first time in a decade, she was not carrying the name of her ex-husband.
High School Student Legal Assistants
Our strength is in our high school legal assistants. It is their passion, their language skills, and their empathy for our clients that allows us to serve effectively. With our legal curriculum, we take that commitment to the community and transform the students into voices for the underserved. While our students are especially suited for serving their own communities, the truth is that we run our clinic much the same way that most legal aid clinics run their organizations. Legal aid attorneys are there reviewing documents and finalizing legal arguments, but legal assistants and law clerks are often tasked with completing forms and handling phone calls. By managing our caseload, our attorneys actually dedicate more time to each case than a typical legal aid clinic.
By providing mentorships and institutional knowledge to these students, we can help them gain access to a financially viable and socially significant career. They belong in the hallways of a legal institution as much as students from any higher income campus. We will make sure they have every opportunity to make that choice. Support will include tutoring for the SAT/ACT, college admissions advising, support during college, LSAT tutoring, and law school admissions advising. Students will also have access to a portfolio of attorney mentors spanning countless practice areas.
We use a family mentorship system at Akins that will serve as a model for all of our law programs. Current students and alumni are matched with a local attorney or judge that will answer any questions the students may have about the legal practice and law school. We currently have six families, each named after a different Supreme Court justice. Thurgood Marshall (first African American), Sandra Day O’Connor (first woman), Sonia Sotomayor (first Latina), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (student favorite), Anthony Kennedy (famous swing vote), and John Roberts (current Chief Justice) are the current namesakes. We hope to eventually connect the families from our various campuses and grow to nine large families to match the number of Supreme Court justices.