March 6, 2018

Honigman Academy prepares future attorneys for the courtroom

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin speaks to Cody High School students.

Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin speaks to Cody Academy of Public Leadership students during a recent session of the Honigman Academy.

A boardroom 22 stories above the city was alive with spirited debate on a recent snowy morning. Sixteen students — mostly sophomores — from the Cody Academy of Public Leadership joined a group of volunteers from Honigman law firm to discuss the merits of a Detroit curfew for minors during the latest session of the Honigman Academy.

The Honigman Academy, an initiative spearheaded by the firm’s Chief Community Officer Fritz Morsches and partners Khalilah Spencer and Gabrielle Sims, is an innovative program which provides local public high school students with a broad overview of life at a corporate law firm. The inaugural eight-session program is the first of its kind in Detroit.

The students meet at the academy once a month as part of their Cody APL law class. The school is part of United Way for Southeastern Michigan’s College and Career Pathways work where we connect students at 16 different Detroit high schools with real-world experiences and hands-on technical training with our partners to prepare them for life after graduation.

On this day, the students were greeted by a special guest: Former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin — who now works at Honigman — led the day’s discussion.

“I’m going to talk to you a little bit about the legislative process, how laws are made and how ordinances are made,” he said. Copies of the curfew law and the Detroit City Charter were distributed to every table.

Some students were hesitant to share their opinions, but as the conversation progressed, more and more hands shot up.

“It can go either way — it can help or hurt,” said student Christopher Taylor, speaking of the curfew. “I understand they don’t want people out and causing problems. At the same time, as a teen, we have other things to do. This curfew is stopping teens from doing things that are productive.”

Airreona Godfrey thought the curfew was a good idea.

“It keeps kids out of trouble,” she said.

Sophomore Honesty Williams shared a different point of view.

“My group, we were thinking of the parents’ view,” she said. “If our child goes out and we know there’s a curfew and they know it, we shouldn’t be held accountable for it just because they went out.”

After debating the ordinance, the students learned about the complexity of legislation with a little help from the School House Rock classic: “I’m Just a Bill.”

As the class broke for lunch, some students discussed the morning’s lessons in further detail with attorneys in the room.

Honesty Williams (left) and Airreona Godfrey take notes during a recent class at Honigman.

Honesty Williams (left) and Airreona Godfrey take notes during a recent class at Honigman.

A short trip to a different world

“We are intensely proud of the Honigman Academy, which is a product of more than five years of team work with United Way,” said David Foltyn, the Chairman and CEO of Honigman. “As a firm, we’re committed to giving back to the community in a way that will impact these students’ overall learning experience.”

Honigman is a longstanding United Way partner, where Foltyn serves as vice chair on our board.

The bus ride from Cody to Honigman is 14 miles, but it transports the students to a completely new environment.

“I’ve never done anything like this before,” said Honesty. She hopes the class will propel her into a career as a police officer.

“I’d like to help the community out and put the bad guys away,” she said.

Honesty, who wore a black blazer, said her goal is to enter the criminal justice program at Wayne State University after graduation.

Christopher Williams (right) talks the curfew over with a Hongiman attorney.

Christopher Taylor (right) talks the curfew over with a Honigman attorney.

Invaluable experience

Christopher — a senior at Cody APL — said the class is relevant to the career he’d like to have as a bodyguard for politicians or celebrities.

“I can learn a lot and possibly pass it on to others who might be coming into this type of field,” he said.

Dressed in a red dress shirt and a black vest, he said it was his first time joining the class at Honigman, and he was enjoying it.

“This is something I really don’t get to do every day,” he said. “I want to get out of the house and experience new things. I felt like this program could help me in the future. “

For other students, law-related careers aren’t necessarily the reason students join the class — it enhances traditional civics curriculum in a tangible way. This was the case for Airreona, a sophomore who plans to be a chef. Levin’s lecture stuck with her.

“The most interesting thing I learned so far is probably the process of passing bills, how long it takes to pass a bill and how it has to go back and forth through the Congress and the Senate,” she said, sporting a pink button-up shirt.

No matter what career path students ultimately choose, the opportunity to experience a professional work setting is invaluable, said Tammie Jones, vice president of Education and Economic Prosperity at United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

“The academic, professional and technical instruction provided to students through our College and Career Pathways programs is important, but this must be supplemented with exposure to workplace settings and opportunities to build connections to industry professionals,” Tammie said. “Our partnership with Honigman does just that. Regardless of which career students choose to enter, this class sets them up for career success.”

Angela Ensley is all smiles while speaking with her students during a recent class at Honigman.

Angela Ensley is all smiles while speaking with her students during a recent class at Honigman.

Inspired to be better

Teachers like Angela Ensley — a 17-year veteran of Detroit public schools — see the benefits of College and Career Pathways programming every day.

“I have definitely seen a change in the students this year. They are inspired to be better, and now I think they want to go to college a little bit more,” she said.

Initially, students were intimidated by the law class, fearing they couldn’t speak or write well enough. But their confidence has grown, Angela said, noting that students are carrying their professional skills back into other areas of the school.

“We have a young man who has characteristics of a strong lawyer,” she said. “He loves to argue. He loves to debate. He loves to do his research. He wants to be a lawyer and now I notice every day when he comes into school he acts as if he’s a lawyer. He puts himself in that lawyer mode and he carries himself like it, especially in the class.”

Other students have been curious about what’s happening in the law class and what the firm’s offices are like.

“We’ve already had several students who are not in the law career pathway come to us and ask if they can be invited to visit or enroll in the law pathway next year,” Angela said.

“This class gives me a burst of energy to continue to do what I need to do. People do care. People will give back. This class is just pushing our students to be the best.”

Editor’s Note: United Way for Southeastern Michigan creates opportunities for corporate partners to volunteer in the College and Career Pathways schools and throughout the community. For more information on how you can give back, click here.