Several layers of drama played out in courtrooms at the University of Minnesota Law School on two evenings earlier this month. Students staged mock murder trials in which the fictional plot involved a shooting during a dress rehearsal for a drama called Burr, itself a fictionalized variation on the popular Broadway show Hamilton.

But that all sounds complicated. The night's most important drama was simpler.

The students, a diverse group of middle-schoolers, were demonstrating newly acquired knowledge of the legal system — and with it the analytical skills, public speaking experience and self-confidence that could open the door to future achievements.

Judge Luis A. Bartolomei, a real-life Hennepin County district judge, presided in one of the courtrooms. Afterward, he talked to students, offering each of them detailed praise for their performances as would-be lawyers.

"I hope, I hope, that you do consider a career in law," he said to the group. "What I've seen here today is so promising. Give it some thought, will you please?"

The students — eighth-graders from St. Louis Park Middle School the first night, and seventh- and eighth-graders from Columbia Academy in Columbia Heights the second — were participants in UPLIFT Legal Institute for Teens, a nonprofit program founded by the Minneapolis legal firm Maslon. The six-month program starts in the fall with training programs and culminates in the mock trials.

On each night the students, divided into teams, staged the mock trials before Bartolomei and other judges in courtrooms in Walter F. Mondale Hall at the University of Minnesota.

A lesson in systemic bias

In the trials, which lasted just over an hour, students played prosecutors and defense attorneys and testified as witnesses. Family members in the audience doubled as jurors, and the judges themselves allotted points to one side or the other to determine the verdict.

The first night, the defendant was found not guilty in all three courtrooms. But the following night, the same fictional defendant, in a trial based on the same set of "facts," was convicted.

It was an unsettling reminder that a trial's outcome can depend on whoever happens to be in the courtroom. That's a problem that UPLIFT is designed to address.

Maslon lawyer Catherine Ahlin-Halverson, the firm's public interest counsel and executive director of UPLIFT, is working to open the courtroom door wider — that is, to make the legal system more accessible to diverse communities.

"Our court system contains the same systemic problems that all of our systems contain, in terms of inherent biases in the way the system is set up and the biases that we all carry," she said. "There's a lot of evidence at this point that outcomes for people of color are different when they go to court than they are for white people."

Ahlin-Halverson launched UPLIFT in 2017 to encourage "students who take opportunities and run with them," she said. So far, more than 150 students have participated.

"In my experience, kids aren't interested in turning down opportunities; they just have to know they're available to them and they are wanted in that space," she said.

UPLIFT is free and open to all eighth-graders at St. Louis Park Middle School and seventh- and eighth-graders at Columbia Academy, two schools selected because they have higher than average percentages of students of color and students who are on free- or reduced-price lunch.

Even in diverse schools, though, students in advanced and honors programs are often disproportionately white, Ahlin-Halverson said. So before the program even starts, lawyers visit social studies classes to "talk about the disparities in the justice system and why it's important that everybody use it well and access it." The method has proved successful in drawing applications from a wide range of students.

Law students and lawyers help train and coach the middle-schoolers, helping them prepare for the trials.

Composure under pressure

Not every student who participates in UPLIFT will go on to law school, of course, but participants can sharpen other skills that will help them in school and beyond.

But Yasemin Lara Pillay, one of the St. Louis Park students, said she has wanted to become a lawyer for a couple of years. Her family has encouraged her, and UPLIFT offered education in legal basics as well as resources and potential connections in the profession .

Pillay said UPLIFT gave her experience with "being able to keep your composure in high-pressure situations."

In words that echoed Ahlin-Halverson's goals, Pillay wants to be a lawyer for the chance "to help people in situations where they might be the underdog," she said. "Making a change is really important for me."

The program aims to reach middle-schoolers at a point in their lives where they may start developing visions of themselves in high school and beyond, Ahlin-Halverson said.

"We want to capture kids' imaginations for what they want to do in high school and who they're going to be — and hopefully their parents, their families too," she said. "I want families to know that we value their kids and we think they're really capable of whatever they want to pursue, and we're here to support them."

Without role models or adult encouragement, students may not realize how much they could achieve, Ahlin-Halverson said.

Yemaya Hanna, a U law student and UPLIFT coach, was the first in her family to pursue a career as a lawyer, she said, adding that she wished she'd had access to a program like UPLIFT when she was young.

"I did have a really strong family support system," Hanna said. "I'm grateful to have had parents who helped me, pushed me."

When the students gathered after the trials, Ahlin-Halverson told an anecdote from Michelle Obama's memoir, about having a high school counselor tell her she could never get into Princeton University. Obama did get into Princeton, graduated and went on to Harvard Law School.

The anecdote reminded Bartolomei of an experience he had in high school. He had moved from Puerto Rico three years earlier and was struggling to adapt, he said. A counselor called Bartolomei into his office and asked about his post-graduation plans. Bartolomei said he would be applying to the U.

"He said, 'I don't know [if] that's a good idea for you. I don't think you're going to make it through college,'" Bartolomei recalled the counselor saying. "I walked out of that meeting with my heart on the floor ... At the time, I didn't understand that he was wrong."

He chose to ignore the counselor's words and went on to graduate from the U and from the U's Law School.

That's why he's so encouraging to the students in UPLIFT mock trials. Their legal skills aren't perfect, of course, but he does not engage in nitpicky criticism.

"I'm not there training lawyers — I am trying a case with a group of middle-school kids," he said. "What I perceive the event is about is, 'Look at what you're doing — you're carrying out a trial in a courtroom, in a law school, in front of a judge.'"