The conference room of one of Maryland's largest law firms was bustling with activity: People milled around a bank of computers creating graphics with an animation program, researching data on library CD-ROMs, reviewing accident reconstruction videotapes.
But these weren't attorneys preparing for a big case. They were elementary school students learning the ins and outs of the legal profession.
The 40 fifth- and sixth-graders from Patapsco Elementary School are members of the Law Club, a program the Cherry Hill school designed with Piper & Marbury LLP to encourage students to stay in school, attend college and join the professional work force.
Since October, the students and attorneys have met monthly at the law firm's downtown offices for dinner and mock trials based on fairy tale characters or interactive seminars. Last week, the law firm sponsored a seminar on the importance of computer-generated visual arts in the courtroom.
"It's a good opportunity to bring the kids downtown and let them see an office setting," said Jeffrey D. Herschman, a Piper & Marbury partner. "We hope to send the message that if they stay in school, these are the opportunities they will have in life."
Three years ago, the firm was matched with Patapsco Elementary School by the Maryland Business Round-table for Education, a private group organized to improve the educational performance of city schools.
There were nine partnerships between businesses and schools when the program began in 1993, and there are currently 37 active partnerships, said Robert E. Anastasi, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable Foundation, which funds the venture.
"We expanded slowly because the only models we had were adopt-a-school programs where a business would contribute money and be thanked in the PTA newsletter," Anastasi said. "That's fine, but we wanted more involvement.
"With [the Business Roundtable] partnerships, the companies really get to understand the school and its needs and then anything can happen," Anastasi said, adding that Piper & Marbury has been especially successful at working with the school.
The law firm's involvement with the school began with Herschman sitting on its improvement team. Last year, school officials decided they wanted more than management advice, and the Law Club was formed, said assistant principal Lydia Foster.
The program made its debut in October with Piper & Marbury lawyers putting the Big Bad Wolf on trial for destroying the homes of the Three Little Pigs. The firm's attorneys served as witnesses and the judge, and the students acted as jurors, debating whether the wolf was guilty.
There have also been mock trials based on the story of Scrooge and another based on the book Sounder, in which a father steals a ham to feed his family. The students were divided into prosecution and defense, and some served as witnesses.
Robert I.H. Hammerman, chief judge of the Baltimore City Court, presided over the trial that ended with a split verdict -- probation with restitution to the owner.
The activities encourage critical thinking, writing and presentation skills and emphasize the value of education, said Tabitha Jones, a sixth-grade teacher who chaperones the students on the field trips to the law firm.
"The Law Club helps the students relate what they learn in school to the real world," she said.
Activities such as writing depositions also help them prepare for the Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), part of which requires persuasive writing, said language arts teacher Ann Custis.
There is also fun to be had.
After watching an animated version of a car crash, the students voted on whether the white or blue car was at fault. Then they fiddled with software programs such as Powerpoint, Microsoft Word and Poser, an animation program.
"I like learning about technology and what lawyers do to solve cases," said Antonio Beasley, 11.
The Law Club has even nurtured some budding attorneys.
"I wanted to be a nurse or a doctor," said Shawnrica Stokes, 11. "But now maybe I should be a lawyer so I can have a big office and work on a computer."
Pub Date: 2/06/98