SANTA ANA — On most days, the hallways of Orange County Superior Court are filled with men and women dressed in pressed slacks and shined shoes. The click of heels and whir of rolling briefcases are the 11-story legal tower's soundtrack.
Thursday was no exception. A group from law firms in Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and other pats of Orange County bounced from courtroom to courtroom in their finest.
The only difference to the norm? This group of 28 would-be lawyers were still in high school.
As part of Project SELF, which reaches out to low-income minority students and provides them with summer internships at law firms, the students visited the courthouse and watched the proceedings.
The Orange County Bar Foundation's Associate Director Nancy Garcia said the students have a skill set for the working world when they leave the program.
"They seem to become more focused on pursuing a college path and researching career and profession options," she said. "They enter Project SELF as high school students and leave as college-bound students with a vision for a bright and successful future."
Thursday morning, the students watched defendants enter pleas before judges in felony, misdemeanor and traffic cases.
Juan Lopez, 16, who will be a senior in the fall, interns at the Minyard Morris family law firm in Newport. Every morning he takes the bus from his Santa Ana home, arriving 30 minutes early.
"Ever since I can remember I liked the idea of being a lawyer and fighting for people's rights," Lopez said. "I like the whole idea of how they fight for people … They don't give up, no matter what challenges they face."
His parents are also happy with his involvement in the 17-year-old program.
"They feel proud of me because I told them ever since I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer," Lopez said.
Later, Lopez and 26 of his peers — playing roles such as the judge, jury members and prosecutors — partook in a law school tradition: the mock trial.
Lopez served as alternate juror No. 13. Another intern played the judge and sat at the bench, while others filled in as defendant, prosecutor and defense attorney. Large white signs marked each position so the students could learn the terminology.
The mock case centered on a young woman accused of growing marijuana behind her Trabuco Canyon home.
After reading from scripts that swore in jurors and cross-examined witnesses, the bailiff escorted jurors into their deliberation room.
Those who remained in the courtroom opined on whose case was stronger: the defendant who said she was just tending her garden and didn't know about the plants, or the prosecution who said her water was flowing over to the plants. The room was evenly divided, the prosecutor confident in the strength of her case.
Jurors sided with the defendant and voted not guilty.