If relationships could be described in mathematical terms, Shira Katz Scanlon might be defined as a mentor squared.
A member of the adjunct faculty who leads the Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Seminar, Katz Scanlon works with current students who teach Philadelphia teens about the relevance of the constitution in their lives and groom them for high-school moot court competitions.
Katz Scanlon, ’09, knows the terrain well, since she served as a Marshall-Brennan fellow during both her 2L and 3L years. She knows the anxiety of entering an urban classroom filled with teens who initially “don’t care what you have to say” and the subsequent satisfaction of hearing teens who had might not have ever intended to go to college announce that law school might actually figure into their dreams.
In the seminar, Katz Scanlon makes sure that her protégés understand constitutional issues from free speech to search-and-seizure clearly enough to explain them to high school students and she arranges for them to attend a boot camp that provides them with teaching techniques.
Katz Scanlon, a partner in the Voorhees, N.J. family law firm, Martine & Katz Scanlon, P.A., said it’s important for law schools to gain this kind of experience.
“Most lawyers have to explain some legal principles to someone who’s not familiar. That’s a really valuable skill to learn,” she said. “My practice has a lot of client contact. I work with a population that doesn’t have the vocabulary that I do.”
Over the course of the year-long seminar, Katz Scanlon has a chance to watch her students gain confidence.
Reflection papers Katz Scanlon assigns at the start of the seminar typically capture the nervousness and apprehension of law students who have never taught anything, much less legal issues. Reflections students provide in subsequent assignments “almost universally” convey a startling sense of surprise.
“The students will say, ‘They really cared what I had to say: I can’t believe it,’” Katz Scanlon said. “It is gratifying.”
Equally fulfilling, Katz Scanlon added, is the knowledge that the Marshall-Brennan seminar serves both as an important form of civic education and as a pipeline project with potential to diversify the legal profession.
“That’s not a happy accident,” she said of the American University-launched Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project, which Professor Gwen Roseman Stern brought to Philadelphia in 2007.
One of many reasons Katz Scanlon feels passionate about the program is its power to interest disadvantaged teens in legal careers or simply college enrollment.
“It’s such a touching thing to have made an impact on even one student, but we know that it’s more than that,” she said.
Leading the seminar, Katz Scanlon largely receives those awards vicariously through the fellows who work and develop relationships with the teens.
But each year, at the end of the regional competition, Katz Scanlon relishes the moment when she meets with all of the teens who advanced to the national competition, their law-student fellows and their parents.
“I say ‘This team is the law school. This team is Drexel. You have to represent Philly. You are my kids,’” she said. “They look at me like I’m a crazy person.”
Badia Weeks, the poised 16-year-old who won the 2017 National Marshall-Brennan Moot Court Competition is precisely the kind of person who makes Katz Scanlon want to “kvell” about her own students as well as their mentees.
“She was earnest and authentic,” Katz Scanlon said. “She was so excited to have advanced as far as she did.”
A member of the inaugural class, Katz Scanlon feels a special kinship with the succeeding classes of law students who enter the program. She takes particular pride in the fact that so many of the law students she teaches in the seminar also succeed on the Trial Team, the Moot Court Board and the Drexel Law Review, building the school’s reputation.
“Most of the Class of 2009 is passionate about the law school itself,” she said. “We’re invested in it.”