Latino teens prepare cases for their future at summer ‘Lawyer Camp’ in St. Paul

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 17 rising ninth-graders embarked on a field trip for summer camp. But instead of going to a park or zoo, these kids headed to a lesser-known spot for summer fun: the St. Paul Police Department headquarters. It was their first day of Latino Lawyer Camp, and the kids appeared eager to discover the legal system in action.

The camp aims to introduce different aspects of the legal profession to Latino kids before they start high school — and also show what the path to becoming a lawyer could look like.

Enrique Estrada, a community engagement specialist with the St. Paul Police Department, told them about his years working with Latino kids who needed help navigating the court system. One problem he noticed: very few Latino lawyers.

“If everybody here graduates and becomes a lawyer, you’re going to make my job really easy,” Estrada said.

Nineteen percent of the U.S. population is Latino, but only 5% of lawyers are, according to the American Bar Association. This camp aims to change those statistics, one high school freshman at a time.

The St. Paul–based camp is the brainchild of Jorge Saavedra F., an assistant Ramsey County attorney. In the summer, he is the camp director. He first ran the camp in 2016. After a six-year hiatus, it returned this year. Saavedra hopes it will become an annual event. The camp is funded primarily by the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association endowment fund; students pay $20 for the weeklong camp.

Saavedra’s goal: to reach Latino kids at the beginning of high school so they understand how to begin preparing themselves for college, whether they become a lawyer or choose a different career path. The camp recruits students through teachers and counselors, aiming to find students with potential who may not be the highest achievers. That is, kids who might especially benefit from the opportunity to see themselves in a future career.

“It’s to demystify the legal profession: to pull back the curtain and show these kids that lawyers are normal people, that the work we do is something that they can understand,” Saavedra said.

At lawyer camp, students prepare for a mock trial and hear presentations from lawyers. They also take daily field trips, where they meet officers at the St. Paul Police Department, corporate lawyers at BestBuy headquarters and sports lawyers at Target Field.

At the end of the week, Jocelyn Pacheco, 14, said she wants to pursue a career in law — and now she has a better idea of what it will take to get there. Pacheco will be starting at Brookwood High School in Wisconsin this fall. Her counselor recommended the camp.

For 14-year-old Isabella Skidmore, who will attend Two Rivers High School in Mendota Heights this fall, the camp expanded her idea of what lawyers do. Previously, she thought lawyers worked in courtrooms all day.

“Through this camp, I learned that there are way more types of lawyers than I ever thought there would be,” she said.

During their tour of St. Paul police headquarters, the students visited the officer gym and climbed inside squad cars and SWAT vehicles. Next on the docket: They headed to the chambers of Judge Jacob Kraus in Ramsey County District Court.

The campers filed into the courtroom and watched quietly as, one by one, real defendants emerged to discuss their cases. One defendant asked for a new lawyer; one took a plea deal for release to an inpatient substance-abuse treatment facility; one announced that she was already seeking treatment.

After several hearings, Kraus called for a break and came out from behind the bench to address the students.

The students peppered him with questions: How did you become a judge? Do you decide if someone is guilty or innocent? How do you decide your decisions?

“It’s an amazing job and you should all do it,” Kraus replied. However, he told them, some parts were a little awkward: “People only call me Your Honor. They don’t call me Jacob anymore.”

The visit to the judge’s chambers in some ways served as preparation for their mock trial. All week, students practiced for a pretend trial in an imaginary case, which they staged at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.

Not all the students who attended the camp intend to become lawyers.

Lineibi Nuñez, 13, who will start in August at Hiawatha Collegiate High School, still does not know what she wants to be when she grows up.

But she has talked with her mom about the possibility of becoming a lawyer. She loved seeing the State Capitol. “It’s so beautiful,” she said. And she surprised herself by how much she enjoyed picking up a court case and learning to defend it.

“I really like taking charge of things,” she said. “And it’s not something that I explored before, at all.”

It’s the kind of realization Saavedra wants his students to take with them as they enter high school — whether they become lawyers or not.

Even in moments when it seemed the campers were not paying attention, he said, they had been preparing the case for their future.

This story comes to you from Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to covering Minnesota’s immigrants and communities of color. Sign up for a free newsletter to receive Sahan’s stories in your inbox.

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