Designed to Say Yes: Reflections on the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship

Group of business people clapping.

Thanks to a partnership between Georgetown University and the DC’s Mayor’s Office on Returning Citizen Affairs (MORCA), the Paralegal Fellowship Program represents Washington D.C.’s larger commitment to returning citizens. Recent initiatives such as the Reentry Empowerment Expo and the passage of the Restore the Vote Act exemplify the District’s investment in this community.

Although returning citizens face numerous barriers, one of the most pressing issues for formerly incarcerated people is securing stable employment. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, each year, over half a million people are released from U.S. prisons and jails, and roughly 2,000 of those people are from the nation’s capital according to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) for the District of Columbia. The MORCA-Georgetown Program seeks to address this issue by providing returning citizens with the opportunity to interview for paid paralegal positions upon successful completion of the Georgetown certificate program.

On January 16, 2019, nine returning citizens celebrated their successful completion of Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies’ Paralegal Studies Certificate Program. As residents of Washington, DC, the graduates were not only cheered on by their friends and family at the graduation ceremony but also by notable guests from the DC community, including the President of the American Bar Association and DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who spoke to graduates about second chances and her hopes for the future, "We know that we must continually find new ways to overcome the barriers our residents face and create new pathways to the middle class. Our hope is that this program is just the beginning—that it will not only create new opportunities, but prove what is possible and serve as a model for future programs for our talented and hard-working community of returning citizens."

The Fellowship Program recognizes the immense potential of returning citizens to develop as uniquely-suited legal practitioners. Because many returning citizens are former “jailhouse lawyers”, they are ready to augment their extensive knowledge of the law with Georgetown’s academically rigorous Paralegal Studies curriculum.

A New Opportunity

The Fall 2018 class cohort of the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship Program was selected through a competitive application process. Upon admission, these formerly incarcerated students were enrolled in the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies Paralegal Studies Program. Six days a week, for ten weeks, the students worked towards their certificate in Paralegal Studies—learning everything from case law to legal drafting and software. Upon graduating, many students went on to complete year-long placements with prestigious law firms and were subsequently hired for full-time legal positions.

Among these graduates is Pili Greenfield, a paralegal at Venable LLP. He speaks about his experience of the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship Program as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As Mr. Greenfield recalls, “For a group of returning citizens to be afforded the chance to go through not just any paralegal program, but Georgetown University’s Paralegal Studies Program...It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Becoming Students of the Law

Through the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship Program, returning citizens have the chance to reinterpret their relationship with the legal system and see it through a new lens. For example, in the 2018 program, students were given the chance to experience the courtroom as judges, jurors, or prosecutors in their final project for Professor Suzanne Tsintolas by holding moot court.

Professor Tsintolas, a civil rights attorney who taught the program’s legal writing and research class, also facilitated this shift in perspective by bringing students to watch ongoing trials. As Professor Tsintolas noted, “Instead of being defendants at the table, they were students of the law.” She describes this teaching experience as the best of her career and remains in contact with several students from the program.

At the graduation ceremony in January 2019, the Dean of Georgetown’s School of Continuing Studies, Kelly Otter, told students, “Keep learning. Seek moments, mentors and materials that will challenge and enrich you. Make the life of the mind a crucial component of your life.” A year and a half later, many students have followed Dean Otter’s advice. Pili Greenfield and Sekwan Merrit, another graduate, are both using their legal knowledge in business law and contracts as a springboard for entrepreneurial pursuits.

Paralegal Fellows Offer a Sense of Hope

By providing this diverse group of returning citizens with access to a world-class education and positions at prestigious law firms, the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship Program gave Mr. Greenfield and his fellow classmates the possibility of financial mobility and professional advancement.

According to Mr. Greenfield, the program also serves to change the broader narrative around formerly incarcerated people. Mr. Greenfield explains that, “It’s important for average citizens to see returning citizens in a different light—to see us get these opportunities and to see returning citizens thrive and excel.”

The positive impact of the 2018 MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship Program is felt far beyond the learning community at Georgetown and the law firms which now benefit from employing graduates. Program graduates return to their home communities as success stories and positive neighborhood influences. As Mr. Merritt notes, “community members look at us as a sense of hope.”

“Why Not Change Someone’s Life?”

When Mr. Merritt joined the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship Program, he had only been out of prison for nine months. During that time, he was dealt a series of rejections. As Mr. Merritt explains, “I was denied life insurance. I was denied employment. I was denied housing. All because of my background.” Like so many other formerly incarcerated people, Mr. Merritt is no stranger to the word “no.” A report from the Prison Policy Initiative identified that unemployment is one of the leading causes of recidivism. Understanding the injustice inherent to so many of those rejections, The MORCA-Georgetown Fellowship Program was designed to say “yes.” Mr. Merritt has now been gainfully employed as a paralegal at a local DC-based law firm for 18 months.

With U.S. unemployment at a record high during the COVID-19 pandemic, the challenge of finding work to support oneself and one’s family is more daunting than ever, which according to the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) has particularly impacted U.S. citizens with a criminal record. This problem calls for innovative approaches to education and employment that meaningfully re-engage returning citizens and help to unleash their immense potential. With the help of its partners and the dedication of its graduates, the MORCA-Georgetown Paralegal Fellowship Program is committed to being part of the solution. As Georgetown’s Paralegal Studies Program Director Corey Brooks puts it, “Why not change someone’s life?”