Teenagers are typically not seen much around O’Brian Hall. But the law school filled its halls with several young people recently, thanks to two initiatives that brought the tools and possibilities of the law to people of high school age.
The first, a faculty-led mini-training for at-risk youth, introduced teens to some practical skills in conflict resolution and negotiation. Hard on its heels was a student-led program to encourage high school students to think about entering the legal profession.
“Gain a new superpower!” promised publicity for a day of enriching skill-building through a Youth Conflict Resolution Training held April 15, presented by Steven Sugarman ’85, director of the law school’s Mediation Clinic, and his spouse, Judith Gerber ’84, chief attorney for the Attorneys for Children Unit at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo. The event brought together a diverse group of nine young people, some of whom have journeyed through the child welfare system. They joined in a fast-paced daylong program of instruction aimed at reframing their approach to conflict.
“We looked for a project that could help a population of youth in our community who could most benefit from gaining a new perspective on conflict resolution and learning a powerful set of tools to navigate conflict effectively,” Gerber says. “When we talk about conflict resolution skills, in good measure it’s about negotiation. We teach the mantra ‘Seek first to understand, then be understood,’ as a guide for people of any age to achieve mutual understanding, a key element to productive communication and finding creative win-win solutions.”
“One of the things we teach first is how to separate the people from the problem,” Sugarman adds. “You have to deal with the people problem before you deal with the substantive problem. Otherwise, we can be our own worst enemies. This can be especially challenging for the adolescent brain.”
The instructors, assisted by five students in Sugarman’s Mediation Clinic, broke those lessons down into bite-size pieces, leavened with clips from movies like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Inside Out, and interspersed with hands-on exercises that took learning beyond the theoretical. One memorable example: a one-minute arm wrestling match in which each wrestler would get $1,000 each time they forced their opponent’s hand to the table. The “aha” moment came when students realized that if the two cooperated, they could flail back and forth for the whole time, letting each other win continuously and breaking the bank.
"We loved working with the youth and were blown away by their engagement and insight,” Sugarman says, “The idea we emphasized is that as you apply these skills, you will learn that it serves your own best interests and you can preserve and build relationships, too.” They hope to repeat the program yearly and possibly expand it.
In a reflection, Mediation Clinic student Abigail Jackson, a 3L, wrote: “These youths are often placed in situations where their voices are not heard, whether it is in a courtroom or family services programs. The younger members of our community also face challenges at school, work and in their personal lives. Many of these individuals have never been given the tools to handle conflict effectively, which only adds stress to their situations. … We wanted to emphasize to the participants that they all have a voice and that their voices matter.”
The social services providers who accompanied the students did all the exercises, too. “We had a great time,” reports Jeannine Larkin, who coordinates a youth court for Orleans County Child and Family Services. “The youths that I brought talked about it all the way home. They were very comfortable in the way the program was presented and felt like they gained knowledge that will be very useful in their new roles on the Youth Court. We had a wonderful day of learning.”
Exposure and inspiration were the goals of UB Law Day, which brought 15 students from East Community High School to O’Brian Hall and gave them a quick immersion in the law school experience.
Organized by third-year law student Qui’Essence Harris ’23, with the support of the law school’s DEI office and the student-run DEI Council, the event aimed to open new horizons for students from the East Side public school.
“We wanted to expose high school students to the legal profession and the legal environment, both from the perspective of law students and the perspective of professionals,” Harris says. “My hope was to show them that the law touches so many facets of our lives—that it’s about helping people problem-solve and meet their needs—but also to show them, through the diversity we have, that any one of them can be in the same positions that we are now. This is attainable; it can be you.”
That effort included a panel of law students talking about life in law school; an abbreviated class on First Amendment law taught by Professor Thomas Hare, a lecturer in the law school’s undergraduate program; some nuts and bolts on how to evaluate a case and make an argument; and, in the highlight of the day, two versions of a murder trial in which the students took the parts of prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors. The juries in both of those trials, conducted in the Francis M. Letro Courtroom, returned verdicts of not guilty.
“We had them focus on how lawyers can use their advocacy skills, for example in questioning witnesses and gathering facts,” Harris says. “The students had an opportunity to look over the fact pattern and decide what questions to ask. We wanted them to understand the significance of the questioning and how that really can determine the case.”
More broadly, says Harris, who hopes Law Day becomes an annual event, “we wanted to give them some insight into the privilege that being a lawyer is, and the power that comes with it when we’re practicing.”