No joking

Here are some young people who are all business

Issue: "Don't have a cow," Aug. 11, 2001

Did you hear the joke about the 22 lawyers who kept getting their tongues tangled in cross-examination because so many of them were wearing braces on their teeth? Or are you instead one of those people who wince every time they hear a lawyer joke, worried about the damage to society that comes when a once-great profession is reduced to ribaldry? Well, actually, the joke about the 22 lawyers isn't for real. But maybe you should have spent a little time this summer, as I was privileged to do, at one of more than two dozen training sessions for young people sponsored by TeenPact, a visionary organization seeking to equip Christian high-schoolers (and a few collegians) with a practical working knowledge of how things happen in our society on the legal, political, and judicial fronts. The participants were so young that a number of them were indeed wearing braces. But they weren't there to joke around. Tim Echols launched TeenPact in 1994 when he decided that some of the Christian young people he knew needed to go beyond stuffy textbooks and classroom lectures about how government works. He designed a weeklong program in Atlanta, Ga., and 18 young people showed up to learn by doing. They interviewed legislators, other elected officials, and lobbyists. They learned how to identify particular bills and read them. They studied parliamentary debate. They did it all from the perspective of a biblical worldview. That first experiment in Georgia has now been replicated in 27 different state capitals-and TeenPact has a specific plan to do pretty much the same thing in all the remaining states over the next five years. For example, Maryland, Michigan, Wisconsin, New York, and West Virginia are on the agenda for 2002. In 2003, TeenPact is targeting Missouri, Alaska, Kansas, Montana, and Washington. "Graduates" of that basic TeenPact week in each of the state capitals are later welcomed to higher-level seminars focusing on the judicial process, on how things happen in Washington, D.C., and an introduction to the United Nations. I visited part of the judicial program, whose students had put in an average of 20-30 hours of advance preparation before they arrived at a retreat center not far from the University of Georgia's law school. Each student had been given a description of a typical case (injuries from a drunk driving incident) making its way through the appellate court system. Each student had been required to write a brief as if he or she were actually representing either the appellant or the appellee in the case. And then each student had to present oral arguments before a judge-first arguing one side of the case, and then the other side in a subsequent hearing. Students with top performances moved on to an opportunity later in the week to argue the cases in the chambers of the Georgia Supreme Court in Atlanta. Formal debate is a primary component of TeenPact's approach. Participants learn the strategic and practical value of verbal and oratorical prowess. They learn to think on their feet, and how to respond quickly (but never sharply!) to a badgering judge. Judges fill in formal scoring sheets that rate participants on the research they have done, on the organization of their arguments, on their performance in answering questions, and on their demeanor and presence-including such details as speech, grammar, pronunciation, voice quality, eye contact, and tone. It's not a setting for the fainthearted or easily offended. For now, at least, TeenPact works almost exclusively with homeschooling families. From this outsider's perspective, that is both an advantage and a drawback. It's advantageous in that it gives the effort an admirable and helpful homogeneity. It's a drawback in that it enhances a kind of self-sufficiency and separateness that could easily leave other participants feeling like intruders. But non-homeschoolers are welcome to apply; write TeenPact, Box 9, Jefferson, GA 30549, or go to And if a little self-identity is what's needed to make a good program like this one work, more power to them. The young men and women I saw were an impressive group. If even a handful of them enter the ranks of those who shape our nation's future policies, those lawyer jokes will become fewer and farther between.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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