Ramsey County District Judge Jacob Kraus describes how his courtroom operates to the students participating in Latino Lawyer Camp. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

On a recent Tuesday afternoon, 17 rising ninth-graders sporting matching blue T-shirts and tote bags embarked on a field trip for summer camp. But instead of heading to a park or the zoo, these kids headed to a lesser-known spot for summer fun: the headquarters of the St. Paul Police Department. 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 show different aspects of the legal profession to Latino kids before they start high school—and also demonstrate 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 percent 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. Throughout the year, Saavedra works as an assistant Ramsey County attorney. But over the summer, he becomes a different type of counselor—the director of Latino Lawyer Camp. Saavedra first ran the camp in 2016. After a six-year hiatus, the camp returned this year. And now, Saavedra hopes it will become an annual event. The camp is funded primarily by the Minnesota Hispanic Bar Association endowment fund; students pay a nominal $20 for the week-long camp.

The driving question for the camp: “How can we take being a lawyer, and law school, and cram it into a week?” Saavedra said.

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.

During their week 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. Jocelyn will be starting at Brookwood High School, in Wisconsin, this fall. Her counselor recommended the camp to her, and Jocelyn came to stay with relatives in the Twin Cities for the program’s duration. 

Jocelyn issued her opinion: After the camp, she plans to explore more extracurricular activities in high school. Through this experience, she said, she gained a clearer sense of the path she’ll need to take after she graduates.

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. Isabella affirmed Jocelyn’s opinion: 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,” Isabella said.

From district court to mock trial

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

“When we cross these doors here, we need to be quiet,” Saavedra told the kids before entering the courtroom. “Take a deep breath right now.”

The campers filed into the left side of 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. In one case, an interpreter appeared on Zoom to facilitate his client’s hearing.

At times, the hearings were difficult to follow, and even to hear; the microphone sound did not carry well into the courtroom. Still, students watched attentively for the most part. Occasionally, a student flopped forward or rested their head on a friend’s shoulder, prompting a poke from an adult to sit up.

After several hearings, Judge Kraus called for a break and came out from behind the bench to address the students. He explained that this was an “omnibus calendar,” where people charged with felonies have their second hearing.

“It’s probably a little bit weird to drop in and not know the context,” he said. “Sometimes it looks more like on TV when there’s a trial. Sometimes it looks more like this.”

The students peppered Kraus 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.”

In interviews Friday afternoon, students consistently named the daily field trips as a highlight of their experience at Latino lawyer camp. The opportunity to see different legal careers appealed to them. And none of the students raised any objections.

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

Miranda Del Toro, a 14-year-old who will start at DeLaSalle High School this fall, was a defendant in the mock trial—a complicated case about a driver whose passenger died in an accident.

“I don’t like confrontation,” Miranda said. “So standing in front of a judge is not really something I thought I would be doing. It’s fun. I like it.”

The camp helped her learn about the importance of actively participating in her learning space, Miranda said.

“I’m a little bit of an introvert when it comes to stuff like this,” she said. “Preparing for the mock trial made me feel more confident to talk and step up.”

Career goals

Not all the students who attended Latino lawyer 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. “I don’t think I’ll know anytime soon,” she said.

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. 

“Turning these kids one-minded about a career in law, that’s not the goal here,” Saavedra said. “If we inspire a kid to go to law school, that would be amazing. But everything we teach them is going to transfer.”

Saavedra came to the United States after a 1973 military coup in Chile. He was eight years old. He sees his younger self in his campers: a new immigrant who understood that law was important, but did not understand what exactly lawyers do.

In the first year of Latino Lawyer Camp, he recalled, students came in unsure of what to expect. But throughout the week, he watched them grow more confident. The mock trial they staged was “jaw-dropping,” he said.

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

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...