The case for studying law in middle school

How Sneha Durairaj and Tom Dulski found the inspiration for Legally Ours.

Ashoka
Ashoka
May 18, 2020 · 6 min read
Sneha Durairaj and Tom Dulski founded Legally Ours, one of the 2019 T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge grand prize winners.

By Sarah Holcomb

neha Durairaj always wanted to be a lawyer. When she was eight years old, she slipped her dad a folded-up sheet of notebook paper and asked for an autograph — only to unfold it and triumphantly reveal a contract that doubled her weekly allowance.

Over a decade later, the Boston-based college student was standing on stage at T-Mobile’s headquarters in Bellevue, Washington in February 2020, recounting the story to a rapt audience and a panel of T-Mobile executives and expert guests. That’s when she revealed her new idea, “Legally Ours” — a free 8-week after school program designed to equip middle school students to understand the law — and introduced her partner for the project, Tom Dulski.

Together, Sneha and Tom are looking to transform how young people engage with the law. Usually an inaccessible subject, the law seems reserved for people in the legal profession, not ordinary citizens — much less middle school students.

The two are asking: if the law shapes our everyday life (including life for teens and pre-teens), then shouldn’t everyone have the chance to become well versed in it?

Sometimes Sneha introduces Legally Ours by recalling a Lyft ride conversation last year. When her driver heard that Sneha wanted to be a corporate attorney, he said he admires lawyers for knowing their rights and being able to stand up for them. That got Sneha thinking.

“I just remember thinking in the moment that’s a skill that everybody should develop, not just lawyers,” she said. “If you understand the law, then that’s what will enable you to enact change.”

Sneha and Tom want people to know how law impacts our daily lives more than we realize. An ordinary conversation on a street corner, for example, is actually a verbal contract — contracts don’t have to be written in order to be legally binding. “It’s just these little things,” they explain.

Most of us — middle school students included — instinctively tap “I agree” to download a new app on our phones. Instead, we should be asking “what does that mean?” Sneha says.

The goal of Legally Ours: make the law fun and accessible. As they develop and finalize the curriculum, Sneha and Tom are designing learning activities to illustrate how we all interact with the law every day. They’re setting up contracts with Boston-area middle schools to start the program’s first pilot semester in January 2021. The after-school classes, which will include guest speakers, will meet for 1-2 hours each week.

The program won’t just focus on learning, but action. An important component: writing letters to local representatives or senators about issues students care about. Letters from middle school students are more likely to impress representatives, Tom explains.

Sneha and Tom think that offering pre-teens and young teens a chance to learn about the law — and how to use it — will open new pathways for making a difference. After all, they experienced the power of changemaking when they were in middle school themselves.

For both Sneha and Tom, age 14 marked a year of discovery. At 14, aspiring lawyer Sneha wrote and presented a bill through the Youth in Government program at the Washington state capitol in Olympia, where she met her representative and watched her governor sign a bill into law.

Even though she was young and not yet an American citizen, “I felt heard, truly heard,” she remembers.

As a boy scout, 14-year-old Tom began to feel that his voice mattered as he helped lead a program to reduce emissions at his school. He saw the power of education to create immediate impact — cutting two tons of emissions at the school in a month — and change the way that students, leaders of the future, think about environmental issues.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the team decided to create Legally Ours specifically for middle school students, ages 11–14.

“The middle schoolers that we teach now at Legally Ours in 20 years are going to be the leaders who are not afraid to speak truth to power,” Sneha explains. “These are the ones who are going to be able to hold corporations accountable, they’ll be able to demand more from their politicians, and they’ll be able to be changemakers across every profession.”

Sneha and Tom also recognized that while high school students enjoy a wide range of opportunities, middle schoolers are “less represented,” Sneha said, and “we just really felt it had to start young.”

Sneha speaks with the pace and precision of a practiced lawyer. She’s fine-tuned her fast-talking, get-things-done approach through a daunting weekday routine; the corporate finance and accounting major spends 14–16 hour days working multiple law firm jobs, as a paralegal and accounts manager, on top of taking college courses.

As the COO of Legally Ours, Tom, whom Sneha met in high school at the Model United Nations, serves as her reliable and more relaxed counterpart. A business administration major, he’s a loyal team player, thought partner, and the manager of the organization’s behind-the-scenes work. Sneha, the CEO, is on the front lines of connection-building, reaching out to school principals and leveraging her network in the legal industry.

Set on entering the legal profession while an undergraduate, Sneha had to apply to over 100 jobs before she heard back, revealing just how hard it is to access the field, even for an aspiring lawyer. Her own struggle to break into the legal profession as a young person testified to a much bigger problem — one that she hopes Legally Ours will help solve by helping students to become literate in the law from an earlier age.

Now Sneha and Tom have $10,000 courtesy of the T-Mobile Foundation to help them do it — plus support from T-Mobile staff who will contribute a year of support, advocacy and advice to the cause. The prize will help the Legally Ours team ensure the program is free for participants, Sneha and Tom say. They also hope the funding will help them secure passionate, high-caliber guest speakers.

Following the Changemaker Lab in February, Sneha made an online announcement of her own, explaining that she will be stepping away from her law firm jobs to focus on Legally Ours. It’s more than a personal milestone, but a symbol of the team’s dedication to supporting the next generation.

As we caught up after the award announcement, I asked Sneha to make her best case for why changemakers need to understand the law. She smiled and didn’t waste a second.

“If you don’t understand your rights, you don’t know when you’re giving them up. That’s why it’s really important to understand the law. So that you know what you have and you’re able to use it and speak up for what you believe in.”

Sneha Durairaj and Tom Dulski won the grand prize in the 2019 T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge Friends and Family Challenge for their project, Legally Ours. Learn more about the 2019 T-Mobile Changemaker Challenge and view other winning projects here.

Changemakers

Ideas for a world in which everyone contributes