Tiered Community Mentoring: 'one open door led to another'

Issue November 2013 By Christina P. O'Neil

Loren Forbes had wanted to be a lawyer since the age of 17, but then life got in the way. Fortunately, he got what he calls a "second chance" to pursue his calling.

Forbes is an active participant in the Tiered Community Mentoring Program (TCM), now in its fifth year.

Created by Chief Justice Angela M. Ordoñez of the Probate and Family Court, the Boston-based program, offered in partnership with the Massachusetts Bar Association, gives urban students at the high school, undergraduate and law school levels an awareness of what a career in the law can offer them. It provides information, guidance and real-life experience, which allows them to make informed decisions about their own careers.

Forbes isn't a traditional student. A 35-year-old African-American and Long Island, N.Y., native, he moved to Boston a few years ago. An earlier attempt at higher education stalled, and a back injury curtailed his ability to do manual-labor jobs. But there was something about his ability to work through difficult situations that has apparently served him well.

"I had a bunch of jobs I hated, but I showed up," he says. "I worked at it, [and figured that] as long as I can work at it, I have a shot."

He returned to school at the age of 31, attending Roxbury Community College (RCC), and subsequently graduating summa cum laude from UMass Boston last summer, having amassed enough law-class contacts to pave the way for admission to Suffolk University Law School. When interviewed for this article, he was six weeks into his first semester at Suffolk Law. He hopes to concentrate in criminal justice and civil rights.

"You have to want it," he says of the opportunity. "It was a very humbling experience. I was going for life-experience changes and one open door led to another." He participated in the TCM program as a mentee from RCC, to UMass Boston, to Suffolk Law and now is a member of the TCM Committee, appointed by Ordoñez. He is beginning to mentor a new member of the TCM program, an African-American like himself.

Of civil rights, Forbes observes, the struggle didn't end in the 1960s. "The fight still continues. I've seen a lot of injustices. I've been the guy on the bottom. I didn't know my rights, and had nobody to teach them. I played by the rules; it's just that the little guy doesn't get the fair shake." But knowledge is power. "I've been that guy, so I can relate more."

He cites Carol F. Liebman, a professor at RCC who has been active in the TCM program since its inception, for bringing him into the program. He caught her attention as a student in her constitutional law class because of his attentiveness and interest.

Rekindling the wish

"He had to earn everything he's gotten so far," Liebman says. Forbes was a liberal arts major at RCC, but clearly became interested in the fine points presented in her constitutional law class. "He said he had dreamed of being a lawyer and had given up, and the course had rekindled his wish," she says. "He never missed a class; he read every word I assigned and then some. … He has a wonderful, logical way of thinking; he is intuitive about the law and a very hard worker." Forbes participated in a second RCC course that Liebman taught - criminal court process - and went on to graduate from RCC with high honors.

Forbes calls Liebman a role model, in part, because she, too, didn't get to law school until well past the traditional student age. "It's never too late," he says. "You're foolish if you have a shot and don't take advantage of it." He counts a retired airline pilot as one of his law school classmates. "In today's economy, nobody's a typical college age student. It's a comfort to find people like you," he says.

What it takes

Forbes' attorney mentor is Richard Gedeon, an African-American attorney, who advised Forbes on how to deal with the law school environment, advice Gedeon sums up as: "Don't worry about everybody else. Do your best and what works for you."

Gedeon, an attorney at Carney & Bassil PC, is also a TCM Committee member. He sees the role of mentor as someone who can answer questions and give background so that mentees can understand where they're going. "We have to be able to talk to these students and give them real life answers. Sometimes things happen to make them believe that they're not going to make it. When I meet new mentees, I see myself," he says. The students at RCC, many from the inner city, are often not only fighting through the academic process, but through life. "When I became part of this, [it became an opportunity to] show them they don't have to quit, things will get better as long as they put work into it. Things will get better as long as they put it into the pot."

As someone whose age was closer to Gedeon's, Forbes' challenges were more complex and more urgent. "He understands that he's in a position where he has to make it work. He feels he's wasted enough time with his life and now wants to get everything together," Gedeon says. "I understand the urgency in him to set a path to get him to a level where he wanted to be."

Gedeon says of Forbes: "He's done such a great job. He has what it takes to be a law student. It wasn't just based on grades, but on life experience. He has dealt with adversity, and is focused on what he wants to do. Those are combinations you can't teach anybody. He has done a great job utilizing contacts, and understanding where he wants to go."

Humanizing the profession

The TCM program has helped bridge the gap for inner-city students, Gedeon says. The program gives mentees a chance to have simple, non-intimidating conversations with judges, lawyers and politicians that they normally only get to see on television. "My first conversation with the mentee is to ask what they are looking for in the program, and to be there so they can ask questions," Gedeon says.

He recalls giving Forbes a police report and asking him what he thought the defendant's choices were. "He gave good ideas and I [told] him what happened [with the case]," says Gedeon. "Being able to do that gives him an idea of what I do on a daily basis."

Attorneys may seem overly smart to novice mentees, he says, but Gedeon tells them that the advantage comes in knowing where to get the information. "That kind of humanizes lawyers for them," he says. "When I first get a case I don't know anything about it. I have to consult law on the case. To mentees, [this gives the message that] this person is like me; he's not only like me but teaching me how he got to where he is."

Gedeon notes that sometimes mentees can be intimidated by mentors. "They see the lofty position of mentor and influence, and that seems to scare them a little," he says. "Being a mentor, you let down walls, you are a person like they are, sit and talk to them on a level that they understand, and I think that's very important."

Most important is that mentees understand that the profession is a process. "Many times when dealing with people in society, it's not what you know but who you know," Gedeon says. "Loren has used that very well," establishing friendships with both Liebman and Ordoñez. "One of the other students would have been afraid to make a joke in front of these two, but he has cultivated his relationships."

Forbes is aware that he's one of Liebman's first students to go through the TCM program. "So that means a little bit extra to me," he says. "It's not just about me, but about others. … Sometimes you need a bigger purpose and I feel like they've given me my bigger purpose."