In 1982, Legal Outreach Co-Founder and Executive Director, James O’Neal, graduated from Harvard Law School and came to New York as Harvard’s first Public Interest Law Fellowship recipient. Determined to serve at-risk teens, he taught law to students in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx. In the classroom, O’Neal discovered that he could sustain interest and develop skills by discussing legal issues prevalent in their communities, including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and police use of force. O’Neal then designed and wrote four innovative law-related curricula which continue to serve as the foundation of the organization’s work in New York City’s middle schools. For almost 30 years, Legal Outreach has used the appeal of the law as a vehicle for motivating urban teens to strive for academic success.
During that almost 30 year span, Legal Outreach has relied heavily on the strength of commitments from several New York institutions to supplement the curriculum and bring the law to life for young people. Legal Outreach’s partners include five law schools, 43 law firms, 3 government agencies, 3 public interest organizations, 16 judges and 182 attorney volunteers. Law students from NYU, Columbia, Brooklyn, and St. John’s have provided instruction in trial practice to Harlem middle school students participating in a Mock-Trial Competition, and partnerships with Columbia, NYU, Brooklyn, St. John’s, and Fordham Law Schools have led to the establishment of unique and rigorous summer law programs for eighth graders, known as the Summer Law Institutes.
This combination of law instruction, professional exposure, and simulated professional activities inspired many participants in the middle school programs to strive for more. Many, however, lacked the support and skills necessary to achieve their goals. To meet this need, in 1989 Legal Outreach established College Bound, a comprehensive, four-year program designed to equip students from underserved communities with the tools they would need to succeed. Since the graduation of the first College Bound class in 1993, 336 students have completed the program, and 99.4 percent have attended college! In fact, more than half of the program’s graduates have matriculated to top-ranked colleges and universities including Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Swarthmore, Cornell, NYU, Bryn Mawr and many more.