Black History Month Roundtable: James B. O’Neal, Legal Outreach, Inc.

The Law Preview Lawyer Roundtable Series gives you a look into the minds of diverse lawyers from across the country. Get advice on everything from your 1L year to how to leverage a mentorship opportunity in law school, and throughout your legal career.

In celebration of Black History Month, we’re highlighting seven accomplished African American lawyers in this month’s edition of the Law Preview Lawyer Roundtable Series. Check out the interview below!

James B. O’Neal
Legal Outreach, Inc.
Attended Harvard Law School

About James

In 1982, Legal Outreach Co-Founder and Executive Director, James O’Neal, graduated from Harvard Law School and came to New York as Harvard’s first Public Interest Law Fellowship recipient. Determined to serve at-risk teens, he taught law to students in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and the South Bronx. In the classroom, O’Neal discovered that he could sustain interest and develop skills by discussing legal issues prevalent in their communities, including child abuse and neglect, domestic violence, and police use of force. O’Neal then designed and wrote four innovative law-related curricula which continue to serve as the foundation of the organization’s work in New York City’s middle schools. For almost 35 years, Legal Outreach has used the appeal of the law as a vehicle for motivating urban teens to strive for academic success.

Knowing what you know now about the legal profession, what advice would you give to students (particularly young men and women of color) who are about to begin their 1L year?

Now more than ever, you have to know why a law degree is important to you and how it will help you achieve your career and professional goals. Gone are the days where you can wait to figure it out. With a tight job market, you must be focused, directed and, most of all, proactive. Even during your 1L year, start to establish contacts and connections with those who are presently doing the type of work that is of interest to you. Those who do so will eventually see a payoff on their investment of time.

In what is clearly a very impressive legal career to date, list one job, a specific project or a case you that you are most proud of, and describe why. If you can’t pick just one, it’s okay to list a few!

I’m most proud of the fact that I have been able to create a non-profit organization that is “new and different” based upon the needs of the constituency I desired to serve coming out of law school. A quote that I “now” live by is the following: Whether you think you can or can’t — you’re right! Though I entered law school with the intent of engaging in public service, I remember wondering whether one person can actually make a difference. After all, if it hasn’t been done, maybe it can’t be done. Perhaps the best way to serve is just to lend a hand through pro bono opportunities. For some, that will be the path. For others who are truly passionate about a particular issue, remember that all things are possible for those who believe!

Giving back is important. Provide one organization (legal or otherwise) you have volunteered with and what made that experience so meaningful to you.

During my fellowship year, after graduating from law school, I volunteered to teach a “law class” at a high school in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It was the most informative, volunteer experience I’d ever had. Over the course of a year, I was able to discern, firsthand, the missing links and elements in the lives of my students that stunted their growth and development and prevented them from actively pursuing their dreams. What I learned through this volunteer service activity enabled me to develop a program that fills the educational and social gaps in the lives of urban students from underserved communities. But for the opportunity to serve at the ground level, Legal Outreach may never have come into existence.

We all need to ask for help at some point. Did you ever ask someone to mentor or sponsor you as a law student or early-stage attorney (or have you served as a mentor)? If so, given your experience, what is your best advice for leveraging that type of relationship?

“Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened.” Being willing to seek advice from elders who have come before you is essential to one’s success. Never think that you know it all. Build upon the foundations that have already been laid or else you are bound to make mistakes that could have been avoided. When you ask for help, be specific about what you would like the person to do. Everyone is busy. The more specific your request, the more likely you are to hear “yes.”

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