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LIC organization helps prep students for legal career path

Long Island City has become the new home for a nonprofit serving disadvantaged minority teens.

Legal Outreach recruits students in the eighth grade to take part in a summer legal orientation program to encourage them to pursue a career in the field. It then tutors them through high school to prepare them for a top-tier college.

More than half of the 265 students who went through the high school tutoring have gone on to top-tier colleges like Harvard, Yale and New York University since that portion of the program started in 1989. Some 99 percent of the students have graduated from high school.

The organization, which previously had offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, was co-founded in 1982 by James O’Neal, a Harvard Law graduate who started teaching law to students in Harlem, Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and the South Bronx.

It started recruiting students from Queens three years ago and opened up shop at a former factory at 36-14 35th St. last week.

“As the gray hairs on my head started to accumulate, I started to think we just needed one location that would work for everyone,” O’Neal said. “Long Island City seemed to be the perfect spot that was accessible to everyone really easily.”

The new headquarters will house the group’s administrative offices as well as 16 classrooms for tutoring students from all over the city.

“I think the first step for us is kind of bridging the gap for them as to the world from which they come and the world to which they aspire,” O’Neal said. “We provide them with a vision as to what they can do and help them develop a sense of confidence in their own ability.”

Legal Outreach’s target community is Jamaica and parts of Flushing. The program divides its 360 current spots equally between the four boroughs it serves.

“We get a ton of applications from Queens,” O’Neal said. “And my sense is that a part of that is because there are not as many academic enrichment programs being offered to students in the borough as there are in other places.”

To get the right mix of judges, lawyers and law students to teach eighth-graders during the summer programs, Legal Outreach partners with five law schools, 43 law firms, three government agencies, three public interest organizations, 16 judges and 130 attorney volunteers. They count newly anointed Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor among their past collaborators.

“We were privileged two years ago to have our Supreme Court justice actually serve in one of our mock trial competitions,” he said, though he noted the program does not intend to update its curriculum to incorporate an extended lesson on the Bronx-raised judge.

Though Legal Outreach actively recruits at certain middle schools, O’Neal said parents are welcome to send in applications on their own.

“If we find that kids really are enthusiastic about learning the law or about becoming lawyers, and if they have a work ethic, all the other problems can be overcome,” O’Neal said. “Even if they are behind academically, even if their skills are not up to par, we can make up the deficit there.”

For more information, visit legaloutreach.org.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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