The Paralegal Pathways Initiative seeks to amplify the talents and perspectives of formerly incarcerated individuals by connecting them with employment opportunities in the legal field and preparing them to navigate these professional opportunities. This initiative will also build awareness of the criminal legal system and its consequences among law students and future legal professionals, and promote the leadership of justice-impacted individuals. Ultimately, this Initiative seeks to serve as a national model for other law schools to replicate—illustrating how participatory learning and collaboration can create economic opportunity, advance racial equity, and expose the legal profession to an untapped wealth of experience and talent.
There are approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., and about 600,000 of those people return home from prison each year. While many have gained a range of legal research and litigation skills while inside correctional settings, they currently face barriers to high-quality jobs due to legal restrictions, stigma, or other structural barriers. Despite this valuable knowledge and leadership experience gained during incarceration, formerly incarcerated individuals lack opportunities to apply these legal skills toward meaningful employment. Those who are able to find work are often employed in temporary labor jobs. There is vast potential in these individuals if their existing talents are recognized and utilized.
Unlike other programs that focus on immediate employment in short-term jobs or teach entirely new skills, the Paralegal Pathways Initiative elevates the existing legal skills of justice-impacted people and connects them to long-term employment in the legal profession within New York. We emphasize a shift to an assets-based approach: one that recognizes those experiences and enables more fulfilling, sustainable careers for our participants.
Since January 2019, Columbia law students and Program Director Devon Simmons, with the support of Columbia Law Professors Susan Sturm and Philip Genty, have been researching the vision and design of this initiative and building partnerships with legal employers, reentry and social work specialists, expert practitioners, and other faculty members.
After a year of researching and consulting with partners, we launched a 14-week course in January 2020 to pilot the program curriculum in collaboration with a team of Co-Designers who have had direct experience themselves as well as guest practitioners from partnering organizations. The pilot classes were facilitated by law students, professors, and practitioners, and our Co-Designers have acted as both students and advisors—they participated fully in the lessons led by the facilitators, and also provided feedback on the content and structure of each class. Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, classes transitioned to a virtual model in mid-March.
In January 2021, after a year of refining our curriculum and further consulting with our community partners, we are looking forward to launching our fully virtual, 12-week pilot with a new cohort of co-designers.
Housed at Columbia Law School, The Center for Institutional and Social Change (CISC) is a facilitator of innovation and collaboration for scholars, practitioners, and students striving to address structural inequality through institutional transformation.
The Project Manager for the initiative is Devon Simmons, 2019 Soros Justice Fellow and CISC Catalyst fellow. Columbia Law professors Philip Genty, Everett B. Birch Innovative Teaching Clinical Professor in Professional Responsibility, Susan Sturm, Founding Director of CISC and George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility, and Ilene Strauss, Director of Legal Writing and Moot Court Programs, have supported this program since its inception and continue to guide its development. These individuals will continue to advise the law students engaged in this initiative, as well as the justice-impacted individuals involved in the program.
The Paralegal Pathways Initiative is currently looking to create enduring, mutually beneficial partnerships with legal organizations that advance the objectives of the Initiative: (1) providing a quality training program to participants that covers essential aspects of legal writing, research, and professionalism, (2) connecting participants with one-year, paid fellowships as paralegals within the New York legal community, and (3) ensuring that host organizations are well-prepared for and supported during the course of these fellowships.
If you or your organization are interested in funding or hosting a future fellow, facilitating a segment of the course, or mentoring current participants, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.