Thursday, September 06, 2018

Teaching Law as a Life Skill: How Street Law Empowers Vulnerable Populations to Make the Transition to Adulthood

Suzanne showed up at the Washington, D.C., shelter after a long history of problems — time in the juvenile justice system, deep poverty, and, most recently, living under a bridge with her two young children. The shelter staff offered her a wide variety of services, including a Street Law class, co-taught by a teacher and a lawyer, that provided her with important practical legal information. When she was ready to leave the shelter, her caseworker asked her if she wanted someone to come with her to look for an apartment. Suzanne shook her head and pulled out photocopied handouts from her Street Law course about what to look for in an apartment, how to read a lease and what to ask the landlord. She felt prepared for the task, not only with knowledge, but also with skills she developed through relevant classroom practice.


It is not easy for all young people to make a smooth and successful transition into adulthood. When faced with difficult circumstances, some young people drop out of school, abuse drugs, participate in criminal activity, become violent toward others, or physically harm themselves. News reports regularly highlight the “problems” with American youths—from school shootings to bullying, to high rates of drug use. The picture painted is bleak. Unfortunately, many young people do not see themselves as valuable in their communities. 

However, the reality is that most youth, even those facing incredible difficulty, can succeed. In the face of adversity, the majority of young people go on to become productive workers, parents, neighbors, and community members (Bernard 1991). But why do some succeed where others do not?

Decades of work and research in prevention, intervention, and life skills training have made one fact eminently clear: there is no single answer. Research into what makes youth successful has taken many forms. “Successful” young people are identified variously as those who do well in school, find employment, avoid delinquency and drug addiction, find their way out of poverty, or go on to raise children of their own who are successful. No matter how success is measured, studies show that youths are more likely to succeed if they have practical knowledge, cognitive and social skills, and meaningful opportunities in and connections to their communities.

In this article we review a variety of research with a focus on the major studies related to resiliency, prevention (violence, substance abuse, and delinquency), and employment. We also explain the thinking behind Street Law programs and how they relate to these key research findings and participate in the work of helping youth make successful transitions. Our hope is that others will find these connections useful and see potential for new and unique programming. We look forward to furthering our model of collaboration with youth-serving organizations to continue developing successful and active young participants in a democracy.

What is “Street Law”?

Street Law began in 1972 when law students at Georgetown University decided to bring law out of the courtrooms and into the underserved public school classrooms of Washington, DC. Over the past 45 years, Street Law has become both an international organization and an educational philosophy. The core concepts behind the Street Law programs are threefold:

  1. Knowledge: teach young people practical information about law, democracy, and human rights.
  2. Skills: using innovative and participatory instructional strategies develop the skills young people need in order to use this knowledge in their community and in their lives.
  3. Community Resources: deepen young people’s commitment to their communities through meaningful partnerships with caring adults and involvement in community activities.

Based on these core goals, Street Law, Inc. has helped educators set up programs in every U.S. state and numerous countries worldwide. Through major educational partnerships with government agencies, nonprofit organizations, judges, lawyers, educators, and communities across the globe, Street Law’s programs have reached millions of young people in a multitude of settings—public and private schools, community centers, juvenile justice facilities, hospitals, teen-parent programs, police agencies, etc. Programs provide lessons and activities that focus on the elimination of risks for violence, delinquency, and conflict, and help develop basic civic skills.

Street Law operates its Legal Life Skills Program* to specifically address the unique needs of disadvantaged young people who are transitioning to adulthood (e.g., youth in foster care, young people in the juvenile justice system, homeless and runaway youth, etc.). As young people move from childhood into a world where they are expected to be independent, this program aims to  strengthen their knowledge, skills, and confidence through learning activities that teach them about everyday law, give them opportunities to hone important life skills including leadership skills, and connect them to community resources and caring adults.

(* Street Law's Legal Life Skills Program serves vulnerable adult populations, in addition to disadvantaged youth.)


Society is full of rules—laws—that order our civic lives. Without knowledge of these rules, navigating successfully through life is impossible. For example, if a young person does not understand what the text of a lease means, she may not be able to avoid violating its provisions or may not know that she is entitled to a safe and secure home.

As identified by Project Competence, a 20-year longitudinal study, one of the key characteristics of youth who succeed in the face of adversity is that they learn “to follow the rules and, later, the laws of society” (Masten, 2000). The Department of Labor’s SCANS 2000 commission surveyed leaders of industry, employers, employees, educators, and the public in order to identify what young people need in order to be successful in the dynamic, high-performance workplace. Central among these was an understanding of social and organizational systems (SCANS, 1992). Both of these studies suggest that knowledge of rules and laws are central to success.

Street Law’s civic education programs have been shown to increase students’ knowledge about the law and legal systems (Giese, 1997; Clawson & Sheldon, 1998). These programs cover a wide variety of legal knowledge, with a focus on the practical information that young people need to know in everyday life. The idea is not to create lawyers, but to teach “preventative law,” which can help young people solve or avoid legal problems as they arise.

Street Law lesson topics include housing, employment, financial literacy, consumer law, criminal law, the juvenile justice system, police procedures, sexual assault, gun laws, family law, and many more. These subjects are not only important, but also engaging—teachers and youth workers report that students who do not attend to any other subject often become interested, active learners when the topic is the law. Studies link Street Law to improved classroom participation, attendance and enthusiasm for school (Johnson, 1992).

In addition to essential legal knowledge, Street Law programs also teach young people where rules and laws come from, how they can be changed, and why they are essential to society. This understanding helps young people see the system of rules as necessary, useful, and just, rather than unnecessary, alien, and unfair. As bonding theory (Hirschi, 1969) suggests, comprehension of the importance of law can lead to greater rule adherence among youth. Formal evaluations as well as anecdotal reports from teachers and administrators show that Street Law programs increase understanding and belief in laws, increase bonding to school and system officials, and decrease incidence of rule-breaking (Hunter & Turner, 1982; SPEC, 1998). This alone is incredibly valuable.


Successful adults must be armed not just with knowledge but also with the skills to use that knowledge. In a study of several schools in high-risk environments, Wehlage (1989) found that those schools that promoted problem solving, decision making, goal setting, planning, and helping others, had significantly higher graduation rates than did other schools with similar risk factors that did not promote these values. Violence, drug abuse, and delinquency prevention programs that focus on individual skills related to problem solving, moral reasoning, decision making, and self control show themselves to be highly effective (Elliot, 1998; Surgeon General, 2001). Youth facing adverse circumstances have increased resiliency when taught problem solving skills, including “the ability to think abstractly, reflectively, and flexibly and to be able to attempt alternate solutions for both cognitive and social problems” (Bernard 1991).  

Success in employment, as identified by the SCANS 2000 study, requires a variety of competencies and foundational skills including the ability to work as a team, negotiate to arrive at a decision, organize and evaluate information, communicate effectively, think creatively, listen to others, teach and help others, identify problems, and generate multiple solutions. All of these aspects are incredibly necessary to build leadership skills in young people. 

Evaluations show that effectively implemented Street Law programs improve participants’ skills in all these areas. (Clawson & Sheldon, 1998; SPEC, 1998; Caliber, 1998; Buzzell, 1994). Through multiple teaching strategies, Street Law programs infuse practice of these skills in every lesson. For example, working together in small groups to conduct a mock trial—with one group being prosecutors, another being defense attorneys, and a third being judges—students must agree on what they will do in each case. Cooperative small-group learning, identified as a key method for encouraging resiliency in youth (Bernard, 1991), builds the ability to organize and evaluate information (the case), plan, reason out moral problems, help others, work cooperatively as a team, listen to peers, and generate multiple solutions. Youth must use conflict resolution skills to reach consensus and response control and tolerance in order to participate respectfully in the discussion. The engaging, interactive activities allows students to practice their individual communication skills, decision making abilities, and flexible thinking. Young people must think abstractly and reflectively, communicate effectively, advocate a position, listen to others, and evaluate information.

In a self-governing society, where citizens are the expected decision-makers, young people need to learn how to make judgments about specific issues and be able to discuss their positions effectively. Internalization of skills to affect daily behavior requires more than just a lesson. Active engagement in practice is the best way for youths to adopt real behavior change. Skills become meaningful when students must reason out real-life problems that they can relate to their own lives. This is why Street Law programs focus on skill-based learning with legal content. Catalano et al. found, in their review of effective programs, that the combination offered by Street Law—specific knowledge, skills training, and applied learning—“may be the most effective way to prevent particular psychosocial problems” (2002).

Community Resources

Street Law instructors and resource people come from a variety of backgrounds—classroom teachers, social workers, probation officers, business people, lawyers and law students, and other varieties of interested people. Adult involvement allows students to see adult professionals in another role—a role that clearly demonstrates that the instructor or the resource person chose to offer their time and care to the participating students in a positive learning environment. Often the first question from the students is, “Why are you teaching us?” The question offers an important teaching moment, the opportunity to discuss the role of community adults in “rearing” youth and the youth’s importance to the community. As Deborah Meier has demonstrated, positive time to connect with trusted adults is among the most important elements of educational programs that produce successful young people (2002).

Inviting “community resources people” into the classroom is an important opportunity for youth to interact with positive adults. Instructors are encouraged to bring lawyers, law students, judges, social workers, police officers, consumer rights advocates, human resource managers, and government officials into their classrooms to provide additional legal content and procedure. This provides young people with positive adult models, accurate information about policies, and cooperative learning opportunities with people of different backgrounds and cultures and it creates connections for future support.

These connections with pro-social adults have been found to be a crucial characteristic of youth who are able to escape poverty and overcome adversity (Masten, 1997; Jarrett, 1995). As Bernard, a researcher of resilient young people, writes, “The formal and informal networks in which individuals develop their competencies and which provide links within the community are a source of strengths (i.e. health and resiliency)...” (1991).

Relevant Practice

We cannot expect our young people to be pushed out of the nest and immediately fly. Youth transitioning to adulthood need time and programs that attend to that transition. They need meaningful opportunities, like the interactive and supportive environment of a Street Law class, to practice what they have acquired. This opportunity for practice is essential in helping youth gain a sense of self-efficacy and hope for the future, which are keys to successful adulthood (Masten 1997; Bernard 1991). It is essential that programs allow time for students to practice their skills through role-play and group reporting. Effective programs teach knowledge and allow students to practice what they have learned regularly for significant blocks of time (Hunter and Turner, 1982).


In order for young people to be successful and view themselves as valuable members of society, they must be equipped with the legal knowledge and civic skills, as well as the confidence to use them. Street Law programs, particularly the Legal Life Skills Program, helps provide vulnerable young people with these tools and can be a key component in job-training programs and any life-skills programming. Street Law, Inc. can help connect professionals with specialized materials, training, and programs to create a practical legal education program for the youth with whom they work. Giving young people the tools they need to negotiate in the adult legal world is an important step in preparing active, engaged, and successful young adults who can meet the challenges of the future. 

To learn more about Street Law's Legal Life Skills Program, please contact Yolanda Johnson.



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  16. Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS). (1992), Learning a Living: A Blueprint for High Performance, A Scans report for America 2000, Washington, DC: US Department of Labor.
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