Saheed Adebayo stood before judges Saturday wearing a black bow tie and black dress socks — professional attire the 17-year-old was given to wear as he presented legal arguments in a mock trial at Suffolk University.
Suffolk University Law School student Mia Robles, who graduated in 2008 from the Jeremiah E. Burke High School where Adebayo is a senior, gave him the sartorial “starter pack.”
The Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project was an opportunity to teach not just legal advocacy, but also skills — such as dressing for the courtroom— that she had to figure out on her own as she entered the professional world, she said.
“I remember being like, ‘Ew, their [fashion] taste is so boring,’ ” said the second-year law student at Suffolk, laughing at the recollection. “But when in Rome, you gotta do like the Romans, right?”
Adebayo was one of eight high school students from the Boston area competing with others from across the country in the Marshall-Brennan moot court competition. The national rounds were held this year at Suffolk University Law School.
The 78 high schoolers presented appellate-style arguments in a fictional court case involving a star athlete whose urban high school expelled him for alleged bullying after searching his phone. The athlete’s college scholarship was then revoked, and he sued the high school, claiming first and fourth amendment violations.
Participating high schoolers were mentored by Marshall-Brennan Fellows — law students — at 16 law schools including University of Connecticut, Howard, and Yale. Fellows enroll in a year-long program in which they simultaneously study constitutional law and teach it to urban high school students.
The competition judges, which included practicing attorneys, law professors, and courtroom judges, asked probing questions of the high schoolers, who responded by citing court cases and arguing facts.
“It’s really nerve-wracking at first,” said Adebayo. “Especially knowing how prestigious your panel may be and how long they’ve been doing it, and how long you haven’t.”
But, he said, “Knowing that I can come out and support my school for something that’s positive, not negative — that was the major draw to me.”
The students loved gaining public-speaking experience.
Some students, including 18-year-old Aijai Alberts from Boston Latin Academy, said that though she is “not a very vocal and social person,” she found herself enjoying the performance aspect of appellate advocacy in a way she hadn’t expected.
Others, like Robel Mahari and Juliette Low Fleury — both 17-year-old juniors at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School — said that they relished the opportunity to channel their naturally outgoing and competitive traits into professional skills.
“It’s one thing to argue in front of your teachers and classmates at a desk, and it’s a whole ’nother thing at a podium in front of judges,” said Mahari. He recalled arguing in class in sweatpants and a hoodie, while Low Fleury said she delivered arguments in school on Halloween wearing a Yoda suit.
“There’s definitely a rush that comes with knowing that you know all of your points, and you get to share that knowledge with other people,” said Low Fleury.
Low Fleury hugged Jacqueline Cesario, the Cambridge Rindge and Latin teacher who taught their constitutional law class with the Marshall-Brennan Fellows, as the group sat at a lunch table between sessions.
“You think it’s about us,” said Low Fleury to Tara Higgins and Jacqueline Sparaco. “But we wouldn’t haven’t gotten this far without your preparation, so it’s really about all of us.”
Cesario said that she wished she had recorded the students at the beginning of the year to emphasize how far hard work taken them.
“Ms. Cesario came up to me and said that she sees me being here, which was pretty foreign to me when she said it,” said Mehari. “I didn’t see it. But her predictions were right.”
From feedback in the mock courtrooms to private conversations in the elevators, competition judges and law students praised the students’ advocacy skills.
“The level of competence and accuracy of these high school students rivals, if not exceeds, some of the lawyers that I’ve seen on both sides of [criminal cases] in Massachusetts,” said Tim Wilkerson, a Suffolk Law alum and former prosecutor.
Merita Hopkins, a Superior Court judge who served as a judge for the program, said the profession needs the diversity exemplified by the program.
“When you see talent — and this isn’t too early to see talent — it is, I think, our responsibility as members of the legal community to support the next generation to [join us],” said Hopkins.
Three Boston students — Alberts, Low Fleury, and Edweyza Rodriguez, 17, of City on a Hill Dudley — advanced to the semifinal round of the competition, according to Suffolk University Law School associate dean Kim McLaurin.
The semifinal and final rounds are scheduled for Sunday at the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse.