James Forman, an Explo at Yale Scholar in Residence, is a Clinical Professor of Law and Supervising Attorney at Yale Law School. He is a graduate of Atlanta’s Roosevelt High School, Brown University, and Yale Law School and was a law clerk for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor of the United States Supreme Court. He is meeting with students in Criminal Justice, Criminal Psychology, and Security Matters classes.
What has been your experience interacting with Explo students?
I think the students have been very engaged, very prepared, very eager. A lot of the students I met are interested in the legal system — either careers as lawyers, or in some way associated with the legal system. The students are at that stage in their lives where they are asking questions, and nothing is taken for granted, nothing is assumed that it has to be a particular way. They can look at something and say, "Why? That doesn't make any sense. Why do it that way?" And that is refreshing, because law students who are only 6 or 7 years older are often more narrow and more accepting of the status quo. Law students challenge things within a narrower spectrum, whereas these students want to know, "Just because the search was unconstitutional, why does the weapon that was seized have to be suppressed? Shouldn't there be some other remedy?" And that's a big legal question that a high school student gets to ask because of their freshness.
What advice would you offer students interested in the legal profession?
As much as possible, students should to get a job, or get an internship working in the part of the legal system they think will be interesting. Many people have an idea of a job, or a job description that they saw on paper, or what they saw on TV, or read in a book, but doing it is a very different thing. Students need to be in that office, to work with those attorneys to really figure out "Is this what I want to do?" The best people to help you figure out how to get the kind of job you want are the ones already doing it. My big message to students in terms of figuring out the future is: you're not going to get the answer in a book or a classroom. You're going to get the answer by working, by being an intern. If you have the resources, take an unpaid internship. I couldn't figure out the kind of lawyer I wanted to be until I had worked in five or six different legal offices.
The Public Defenders Service in Washington, D.C., where I worked, has a summer internship for college students. You work as an intern investigator and the position used to be listed in Princeton Review's and Barron's top 10 internships for the value of the experience that you get.
People that go to law school and have a reason or motivation for being there, are so much more successful than people who merely have a broad idea that they're interested in policy, or to change the world. Having prior experience in the legal system makes you a stronger applicant to law school, but even putting those reasons to one side, it makes your experience so much better.
As a former Explo faculty member, and having gone through college, and law school, what value do you think the Explo experience offers students? And how might that be beneficial for them once as they move forward professionally?
I think that there's a value to navigating an institution that has moving parts, where you've got to get yourself from class A to class B, and it might be a couple of blocks away. And then you have to get yourself to the cafeteria at Commons at this particular time to have lunch. That experience was totally foreign to me when I got to college. I had gone to school, like most people; you walk into a big building at 8:30am, and you leave at the end of the day. That kind of preparation is not how high school operates, but it is how colleges operate and it's how Explo operates.
Explo at Yale students get to participate in a classroom environment that is discussion-based and where the most interesting and most important things are going to be said possibly by your peers and not necessarily by your teacher. That model of education which is very common at Explo, and many classes operate under it, is unknown to many high schools. When I went to college, then I taught at Explo, my reaction was, “Oh, these students at Explo are getting an experience that is more like my classes at Brown." Sitting around a table, having a shared text, debating it, and having your ideas put to the test, by the teacher, by one another, and coming out of the classroom in a different place intellectually than you walked in — that's not the standard education in America. And that's something; the classroom experience that students have at Explo is closer to college than anything they would otherwise have experienced before getting to college.