St. Charles Catholic student gets a taste of the law

Over three weeks in June, rising St. Charles Catholic senior Alyssa Portillo got her interest in law piqued by attending the 2018 Louisiana State Bar Association’s “Suit Up for the Future” summer program for rising 11th and 12th graders. Her session’s focus was “Strengthening Diversity in the Legal Profession.” 

During the legal institute, operated from the Louisiana Bar Center in New Orleans in cooperation with Just the Beginning and the Louisiana Bar Foundation, Portillo was exposed to the legal system from all angles.

Portillo, who is Hispanic, attended a mini-law school session; learned about the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT); toured Criminal Court, the Public Defender’s Office, the District Attorney’s Office and the Louisiana State Supreme Court; and heard mock oral arguments by law students representing Uber and taxi cab drivers. She also shadowed lawyers and judges to discover the diversity of the profession. 

Portillo gleaned what law schools look for in applicants when she talked to admissions counselors at Tulane University and Loyola University law schools. 

“We had talks from different law professors, and we got to shadow attorneys,” she said. “I loved it. I really enjoyed it. I would give it a 10 out of 10. It was really interesting. I met a lot of lawyers, and they told us about their personal experiences in law school and were really encouraging.”

Teacher found course

Retired lawyer Ron Courtade, Portillo’s former religion teacher who will teach a law course Portillo will take this coming year, informed her about the program. At St. Charles Catholic, Courtade teaches a law studies course that surveys U.S. and Louisiana law so students learn practical applications of legal principles by studying precedent-setting cases and more. He also teaches a law and morality honors course that introduces students to real-world moral issues in American society while developing their analytical, critical thinking, writing and speaking skills.

To be among the 24 participants in Suit Up, Portillo wrote and submitted a 500-word essay on “What is the importance of the American legal system and the role it plays in developing and maintaining our society?”

Surprise each day

Portillo said she even shadowed those who hire attorneys as well as Civil District Court Judge Piper Griffin, who didn’t have a trial that day. 

“So, the judge sent us down to domestic court,” Portillo said. “We got to sit in on child-support hearings and divorce hearings. It was very emotional.”

The judge discussed each case and asked Suit Up participants their opinions.

Mock trial problem tackled

In one component of the Suit Up program, students were presented with a mock trial problem and prepared a legal writing assignment and oral argument to present before a judges’ panel. The assignment was to prepare a motion for a change of venue for a trial in a small town, providing legal memoranda supporting their argument. Portillo said Suit Up participants were given a fact pattern about what happened in a case. She was selected for the prosecution’s side, which filed a motion to deny our age because it exposed us to so much,” she said. “It was hands-on learning that I couldn’t have learned on my own.”

The experience solidified her decision to become a lawyer.

“I didn’t know anything about the legal career path,” Portillo said. “This program could have persuaded me to either not be an attorney or be an attorney. You have to be really passionate about a legal career and to keep your grades up in high school, undergraduate and law school. Undergrad (studies) can help you get into law school and help you get scholarships to law school.”

This fall, she’s looking forward to taking one of Courtade’s Law and Morality Honors classes because he attempts to “challenge students to go beyond the letter of the law and learn how to apply the law to real-life situations to make a better world.”

“Maybe I will learn a little more in-depth about the law,” she said.

The honors student, who finished seventh in her junior class, plans to attend the University of Louisiana in Lafayette for her undergraduate degree, possibly in political science and Spanish, in 2019, and then earn a law degree, possibly at Loyola Law School in New Orleans.

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.

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