The First Impressions program is not only the most unique service opportunity available to legal professionals in San Joaquin County, but perhaps its most rewarding. Spearheaded until this year by Judge Barbara Kronlund, the First Impressions has brought judges, lawyers, and court staff into fifth-grade classrooms at San Joaquin County elementary schools for several years. The professionals identify who's who in the courtroom, explain how the jury system works, distinguish the differences between criminal and civil cases, and get the children engaged in crafting arguments and evaluating evidence.
The aim of the program is to give grade-schoolers a positive first impression of the legal system, expand their civic education, and inspire some to eventual careers in the courts, the legal community, and law enforcement.
Expanding from a single classroom in the program's inaugural year, participation has blossomed into seventeen classrooms that are anticipated to host programs during the school year that just commenced. Among the elementary schools expected to participate this year are Stockton's San Joaquin Elementary, Tully C. Knoles, Mabel Barron, John R. Williams, St. Luke's, and Stockton Collegiate International, as well as Tracy's South/West Park Elementary.
The program involves four visits to the classroom at the participating school during the lunch hour, from 12:15 p.m. to 1:15 p.m., and a final morning field trip to the Stockton Courthouse for the big event: a mock trial put on by the students themselves in a participating judge's courtroom.
The students try the case of the People v. the Big Bad Wolf, who stands accused on two counts of murder and one count of attempted murder of some unfortunate little pigs. With real attorneys and judges serving as coaches, the students themselves assume the roles of judge, bailiff, clerk, prosecutors, defense attorneys, witnesses, and jurors. They conduct direct and cross-examinations, introduce evidence, present arguments, and deliberate with a level of sophistication that is frequently surprising to observers.
(Despite what may appear at first to be an open-and- shut case, your author humbly brags that out of his three turns coaching defense counsel so far, two have resulted in acquittals.)
It is difficult to overstate the value of the program to the students, many of whom have gone on to participate in high school mock trial competitions or chosen an educational path toward a legal career because of the program. A teacher shared with Judge Kronlund a letter that one of his former students had written to him, telling him that her dream of becoming a lawyer began with her field trip to court for First Impressions. Judge Kronlund also recounted how the principal at one of the participating schools pulled her aside to share that a student with poor grades and behavioral problems had experienced a sudden turnaround because of her experience with the program. As program coordinator Paula Turocy observed, "even one day in class can impact someone's career trajectory."
With the explosion of interest from local educators, the San Joaquin County Bar Foundation has taken on responsibility for administration of the program. As of this writing, eight judges and 28 attorneys have volunteered for at least one program this school year, though participation in more than one program is welcome. Ideally, each of the seventeen classes will have four or five members of the legal community helping out. If you are interested in participating, please contact Ms. Turocy at the San Joaquin County Bar Foundation via e-mail (preferred) at or (209) 948-0125.