Cory Lewis, 31, is an associate in Baker McKenzie’s Corporate & Securities Practice Group whose workload includes cross-border transactions in the mergers and acquisitions space and securities work.
He is also a volunteer lawyer for Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc., whose workload includes fighting to keep some of the most troubled kids in Chicago Public Schools on track to graduation. And he’s getting other associates at his firm involved.
After hearing about the program at a pro bono meeting for Baker McKenzie associates, Lewis began defending students facing expulsion from Chicago Public Schools, often working in tandem with their defense counsel in criminal hearings.
“Keeping them with as clean a criminal record as possible, or with as reasonable a record as possible so that their futures are not substantially affected, it’s very, very important,” he said.
CL: How did you get involved with the Lawyers’ Committee?
Lewis: Especially because I’m a corporate lawyer, one of the byproducts of that is you really don’t work with individual clients. Most of our clients are companies. I really wanted to get involved in some pro bono work where I could affect the lives of individuals.
CL: Take us through one of these expulsion hearings.
Lewis: [After the Lawyers’ Committee reaches out with a case], you get in touch with the client, you try and contact them to find out what their status is, whether they’re in school or whether they’re currently out of school. You try to get a feel for the person, because I think that the person has a huge bearing on how you decide to approach the hearing and the defense.
The next step is to get in touch with Chicago Public Schools to get the misconduct report to the extent the client doesn’t have it. My own preference is to try to have a conversation with the staff attorneys at Chicago Public Schools, to find out anything that’s not clear with the situation.
The attorneys at Chicago Public Schools are, I think, on the whole really helpful and flexible in terms of trying to provide as much information they can and that is appropriate.
I try to meet with my clients in person to the extent that I can. Certainly leading up to the hearing I try to go through what I think is going to be said, what’s going to be asked and make sure they’re prepared. I also try to prepare their families, especially if I’m going to be calling their families as witnesses, which is often the case.
CL: Why do this?
Lewis: There’s no secret that the vast majority of the kids that are in these hearings are minorities. Many of them are African-American. This is a personal opinion — I don’t purport to know for a fact — but from what I can see, a lot of these kids are really disadvantaged. A lot of them don’t have the support either at home or don’t go to schools that have the resources to provide counseling and other forms of support that would have prevented this. They’re out in the winds and they’re just trying to survive.
I see it as my responsibility to try and help them as much as possible and to provide them with the opportunity to have that support, starting with me and then hopefully getting them back in school and hoping to help the school appreciate there’s more to this than “He’s just a bad kid.” I’ve generally found Chicago Public Schools to be pretty receptive to that.
They just need a chance. To the extent that we as lawyers can give that to them, I think it’s more than just a great opportunity. I think it’s a responsibility.