The Paralegal Pathways Initiative seeks to amplify the talents and perspectives of those who have directly experienced incarceration by connecting them with employment in the legal field and equipping them to navigate these professional opportunities. This initiative will also build knowledge of the criminal legal system 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 to law schools—illustrating how participatory learning and collaboration leads to economic opportunity, advances racial equity, and exposes the legal profession to an untapped wealth of experience and talent.
Many individuals have gained a range of legal research and litigation skills while inside correctional settings, but they currently face barriers to high-quality jobs due to legal restrictions, stigma, or other structural barriers. These individuals are often limited to menial employment, without having the chance to build on the skills they acquired while incarcerated. Rather than ignoring the talents and experiences of justice-impacted individuals that could lead to long-term employment, our Initiative emphasizes 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.
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.
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, and Susan Sturm, Founding Director of CISC and George M. Jaffin Professor of Law and Social Responsibility, 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.