Thursday, May 30, 2019

Haitian Immigrant Turned Lawyer Gives Back to the Community

When Dolina Lordeus Lascaze was a teenager, she and her family emigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. They settled in an underserved community near Miami, Florida, where she attended middle and high school. Born in a poor country and moving to a community with few resources, Dolina had never been exposed to anyone in the legal profession outside of television.

Despite that beginning, Dolina went on to attend University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law and is now an attorney with Allstate in Miami. In 2011, when Allstate adopted Street Law’s Legal Diversity Pipeline Program—which encourages students of color to enter the legal profession—Dolina was one of the first to volunteer. She was motivated to expose students with backgrounds like hers to different areas of the law and demonstrate that people like them can overcome challenges and succeed as attorneys. Dolina says, “As a lawyer, I want to show [students] that there are opportunities available to them in the legal profession. I want them to know it is not an unreachable dream and they should not limit themselves to their surroundings.”

The Allstate Miami office initially carried out the Pipeline Program at Dolina’s alma mater, Miami Central High School. For the last five years, they have partnered with Miami Carol City High School, whose Center of Legal and Public Affairs has a law magnet program. After several years of volunteering, Dolina stepped up to serve as a Pipeline Program leader. She also serves as an advisor with Allstate Tampa’s Pipeline Program.

“The students never cease to amaze me with their intelligence and creativity, and they always inspire me with their passion.”

Dolina Lascaze

Allstate’s Pipeline Program typically begins with a series of lessons on practical law taught by volunteer legal professionals at the high school, followed by a Legal Careers Conference where students put their new knowledge and skills to work in interactive workshops and activities. As Dolina discovered, few students are familiar with the process of becoming an attorney and the amount of commitment it requires. “Our group of lawyers go through the process of applying to law school with the students and discuss the difference between the cost of a public law school and a private law school,” she says. “Many students are shocked at the cost. We discuss scholarships, grants, and loans. These discussions provide an academic and financial framework for the students as they graduate [from] high school, attend college and, hopefully, law school. These discussions put the path of a legal career in perspective.”

An important component of the program is having students practice skills typically used by lawyers. Dolina observes, “I am always amazed at how comfortable some of the students are in a courtroom…. Some lawyers practice law for years and get nervous [in] court, however, most of the students are able to formulate opening statements, closing arguments, and direct or cross examinations that are very effective. I get very excited seeing them [huddled in] corners, practicing for their presentation.”

This learning stays with the students after the program’s end. Asiah Wolfolk-Manning, the program’s partner teacher (also an attorney) at Miami Carol City High School, reports that multiple former students have returned to her classroom to serve as judges for the school’s annual mock trial competition and to speak to students about what to expect as they prepare to enter college.

But it’s not just the students that learn new things. Dolina recounts that volunteers were somewhat surprised at the degree of knowledge students had of criminal law. “Many of them know someone who has been through the criminal system,” she explains, adding that the attorneys use this foundation to develop the students’ understanding. “We go through civil litigation and explain to them different areas of civil law and how civil litigation affects their day-to-day lives.”

Some learnings are unexpected. During initial classroom sessions, students are assigned a problem and a role so they can prepare for the Legal Careers Conference activities. With the help of attorneys and other volunteers, students excitedly prepare for their trial presentations. On conference day one year, Dolina and others were disappointed to see that some of the students who really stood out during classroom prep time did not attend the conference. Later, during the debrief with Ms. Wolfolk-Manning, the teacher revealed that some students were concerned that they did not have the proper attire, and they did not want to appear in street clothes or a school uniform when other students were dressed in suits.

“This broke our hearts,” related Dolina. “Sometimes we forget how little things can have such big effect on other people. We were so concerned about trial preparation and did not think that maybe some students would feel pressure to dress a certain way.” After that, she says, they learned to put less emphasis on appearance and clothing.

Dolina and her fellow volunteers report that they have gained multiple professional benefits through participation. “Participating in the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program keeps me connected to my past and my community. Sharing my achievements as an attorney demonstrates that it is attainable for them too. It sparks an interest and motivation that can positively change the course of their lives. That is very rewarding and gives me a sense of purpose.” She adds, “The preparation necessary to help the students reinforces, refreshes, and sharpens my trial skills.”

Allstate benefits too. The company, which emphasizes service to the community, believes that the Pipeline Program fosters teamwork among the volunteer attorneys, paralegals, and administrative assistants. The program is rejuvenating to individual employees and creates goodwill towards Allstate. During the program, volunteers share with students the benefits of being insured by the firm, hoping that participants will remember Allstate’s community service orientation when they become consumers or employees in the future.

“Taking a couple of hours per month during the school year to expose the students to the legal profession enriches the students’ lives and provides our company and colleagues an opportunity to give back to the community.”

Dolina Lascaze

Dolina knows that bringing more diversity to the legal profession won’t happen overnight, but she remains energized. “[Regularly], I attend conferences specialized to a specific area of law. As a minority, I’m constantly reminded there are not many African Americans in the room, and even fewer African American women. I participate in this [Pipeline] Program in the hope that another student will realize that this career is accessible to them as well and will want to follow the path I have followed. Having participated in Street Law for several years, there are students that I met who are now in college and on their way to law school. I believe the Street Law Program helped, motivated and showed these students that coming from an underserved community is not an impediment to reaching their goals. I am hopeful that this Program will increase the number of minorities in the legal profession.”

Learn more about the Legal Diversity Pipeline Program.