Creating Opportunity for Legal Professionals with Past Convictions
By Maya Hambrick
Sixteen graduates recently walked across a stage at Georgetown University in cap and gown to collect the certificates in Paralegal Studies they had earned over months of hard work. What made the ceremony unique was that each of the graduates had previously experienced incarceration – and had overcome significant barriers to reentry.
At Georgetown University, the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program recognizes the regrettably underutilized talents of returning citizens and prepares participants for successful careers in the field of law. The program combines rigorous, full-time academic coursework, job readiness training, mentorship and employment support to open doors for graduates.
Meeting Demand for Qualified Paralegals
Approximately 600,000 people return to their communities following incarceration each year, and it is estimated that more than 1 in 4 returning citizens is unemployed. This is indicative of the collateral consequences of incarceration and the many challenges of reentry – but also shows that there is a massive pool of skilled individuals that employers are missing out on.
This is especially true in the legal field. Returning citizens have direct experience in the system, and many have also become practiced legal researchers while incarcerated – skills that would be an asset to any law firm.
Five years ago, Georgetown University and the DC Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs (MORCA) came together to create a paralegal program with the goal of helping connect returning citizens to sustainable careers while also meeting a need in the industry for qualified and highly skilled paralegals.
The program launched in 2018 and has since graduated 35 students over three cohorts. Some of those graduates have gone on to work at employers including the DC Corrections Information Council, the DC Office of the Attorney General, Kirkland & Ellis, Legal Aid Society, Maryland Office of the Attorney General, Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, Outten & Golden, Relman Colfax, Rising for Justice, and WilmerHale.
Welcoming a New Cohort
This April, we will welcome the program’s fourth group of approximately 15 students into the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program. As the program has grown, we’ve continued to hone the curriculum: This year, we’ve extended the program by four weeks and will add greater emphasis on digital literacy.
Coursework includes contract law, torts, constitutional law, litigation and procedure, corporate law, family law, civil and criminal evidence, investigations, ethics, legal research and writing, and legal technology. For students, it’s a full-time commitment: Classes meet 40 hours per week, mostly in person, at the Prisons and Justice Initiative office and classroom space.
Thanks to our partnership with the Department of Employment Services, we are able to offer each student an hourly stipend while they complete classes. We are also excited to welcome back past graduates as mentors to the new students.
Looking Ahead to the Next Graduation
In late September, we’ll be cheering on the next group of graduates as they are awarded their certificates. Our goal is that a few weeks later, they will be beginning full-time positions at area
law firms, public interest organizations, nonprofits, and government agencies.
To get there, program staff will be working over the next several months to build our network of employer partners interested in hiring a graduate this fall. Partners will have a chance to review student materials and interview select candidates for entry-level positions.
Whether through the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program or standard hiring practices, we know there is a mutually rewarding role for more returning citizens in the legal field. We have seen many of our graduates thrive in their careers when given a chance to enter a professional environment that may have otherwise been out of reach. And we’ve heard from many past employers that graduates of the program have become key members of their hard-working teams.
If you are interested in learning more about the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program, you can do so here.
Maya Hambrick is the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Program Manager, Georgetown University Prisons and Justice Initiative