The future of our country is in the hands of today’s teens. Wright, Constable & Skeen LLP is counting on that principle with its pro bono initiative Rosie the Lawyer. Alongside Baltimore’s CollegeBound Foundation, the firm is reshaping the perception of what it means to be a woman in the law. By highlighting different practice areas—particularly those that don’t typically see a lot of women—Rosie the Lawyer is able to offer high school girls in Baltimore a new perspective on the law industry outside of what they’ve seen in television and movies.
The program began in 2013, when Lisa Sparks, a construction lawyer with Wright, Constable & Skeen, coupled with the CollegeBound Foundation. The program started small with only a handful of attorneys, and through the help of their marketing director has expanded its reach. The program went from being made up of four firm attorneys to involve the efforts of six firm attorneys, two judges, and two in-house counsel, and Ms. Sparks has kept it running since. It has also achieved local and national recognition, including being a recipient of the prestigious Mayor’s Business Recognition Award, which is given to Baltimore firms for pro bono efforts that have achieved far-reaching impacts on the community.
“I run all of the sessions,” Sparks said. “I’m there from beginning to end with the young ladies, and sort of introduce our speakers and talk them through some discussions and activities.”
At the ripe age of 22 and as a first-generation college student, Sparks became a lawyer after graduating from the University of Baltimore. She has a background that’s relatable to many of the high school students, which is also a common thread among the lawyers and judges involved in Rosie the Lawyer: they got to where they are in their careers due to their personal drive and determination.
Rosie the Lawyer comprises four sessions in a fall semester, lasting approximately three and a half hours each. The first session is a meet and greet with the lawyers, who talk about their backgrounds, experiences, and practice areas. This session is invaluable to the students, offering them a perspective that puts them on a level playing field and shows them that women can succeed in male-dominated areas of law. In the second session, the girls meet a judge and observe her in a courtroom environment. The second day is business etiquette training, which focuses on how to dress, eat, and act in professional settings, as well as interview etiquette and building self-confidence for those interviews. The third session is at the courthouse where the girls meet with judges, first in their chambers and then in the courtroom where they get to see the judges in action. The fourth and final session is a wrap-up, a refresher, and culmination. The girls share highlights of the sessions over the past four months, lessons learned, and views changed or reinforced as well as ways that Rosie has affected their long- and short-term plans as they move into their junior year and start thinking about the possibilities after graduation.
Michelle Gomola, a family law attorney at Wright, Constable & Skeen and one of the attorneys who met with the students, recalls an inspirational guidance counselor from her high school who created a shadowing program that let students follow professionals in any career field. That was how she connected with law, and it ultimately brought her to the firm where she happily shares her experience with the Rosie students.
“I got to speak with the ladies about my background and experiences with becoming a lawyer, and then my experiences with family law, being a family law attorney and what that means, what type of cases I handle. Then I answered all of their questions about family law,” she said. Many of the girls already had a basic understanding of the practice area, as they had witnessed divorces or struggles over custody within friends’ families or their own.
And in addition to questions about law, there were plenty of questions about balancing work and personal affairs. “They were also asking about balancing my career and my personal life and how one does that. So it was neat for me, because I actually have a relatively new perspective on that because I have a two-year-old and a six-month-old.”
Another lawyer involved in the program, Alicia Wilson of Sagamore Development, said, “I think one of the highlights is always meeting and having that turning point, when the young ladies go from being shy and a little removed from what you’re saying and what you’re trying to do, and then they open up and start telling you about their hopes and dreams and their fears and their anxieties. And you hope to try and work them through that and build them up to understand one of the things that we as lawyers understand: that their voices are important and that their voices matter, how to advocate for themselves. But, more importantly, to dream of things that they may have never dreamed of being before, whether it’s a lawyer or judge—and the many different aspects of what it means to be a lawyer.”
For students to get involved in the program, they need to apply through CollegeBound. Between 15 and 20 students are accepted each year. Zyrashae Smith is in charge of that process and also attends every session.
“My job was coordinating things on the school side of it all: gathering the applicants, contacting them, keeping in contact with the students to get their applications in, encouraging them to come, and coordinating between the program and my school and other schools.”
Being at every session offered her the opportunity to see first-hand just how much it impacted the students. “It had a huge effect on them, especially the last session. We really got a chance to sit down and reflect on the things that we learned in the program.”
She added that “having the opportunity to really see first-hand and interact first-hand with women who have gone through things, who have been successful… That was very important. And having it over a couple of months allowed the girls to consistently get that reinforcement of, ‘This is possible. This is what you can do. This is how you do it.’”
This year’s session allowed the girls to watch Circuit Court Judge Audrey Carrion as she presided over an asbestos trial as well as Judge Diana Smith, who allowed them to sit in on a landlord/tenant proceeding in the district court that she presides over. Judge Carrion first became interested in law when she would visit from Puerto Rico and join her grandfather, a notary public who lived in the Bronx, at the attorney’s office where he worked. While attending the College of Notre Dame, she had an internship with Judge Robert B. Watts, who became a mentor to her. She went on to graduate from the University of Baltimore Law School and worked with Russell & Thompson, who later merged with Piper and Marbury.
“When there is a group or organization such as Rosie that involves young women who are leaders in their own way, I certainly would sign up for that. It’s not an imposition at all to meet with them; in fact, my whole chambers look forward to it.”
Breyana Wade, a sophomore at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who is interested in becoming a prosecutor, attended this year’s Rosie the Lawyer session. She became interested in law when she realized she had a knack for arguing her point while on her school’s debate team, and she felt particularly impacted by watching Judge Carrion.
“I like watching how they had to go back and forth with it. And I was like, ‘This is just really what I want to do.’ Being in that atmosphere and being in the courtroom, I felt like that was where I belong.”
And she wasn’t the only one. Regarding the other girls involved, Wade said, “I felt like this program really helped them decide what kind of lawyer they would want to be.” She added, “I felt like it really set the foundation and gave them insight on where they want to go.”
Rosie the Lawyer will continue to help girls in Baltimore by offering them insight into the legal field and introducing them to male-dominated areas of the law. According to the American Bar Association1, only 36 percent of the legal field is composed of women. Rosie the Lawyer serves as an example of what kind of change is possible.