By Sheila Pursglove
Sarah Jane Forman, an assistant professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, originally planned on a career as a filmmaker, earning a bachelor’s degree in film and video studies at the University of Michigan.
“I actually worked in film production for several years before I realized it was not for me,” she says. “I still love film and art but I wanted to be more hands-on in my service to others. Interestingly enough, the ability to tell a story well is also a part of good lawyering so my film background has come in handy.”
Forman then followed a different script, and earned her law degree from Boston College Law School.
“I was working in the legal department of an environmental nonprofit, The Rainforest Alliance, when I decided to go to law school,” she says. “I thought I wanted to practice environmental law but at law school I realized that I really enjoyed oral advocacy and trial practice.
“I was also very inspired by several of my professors at law school who did criminal defense work. My professors encouraged me to apply to the public defender and I was very fortunate to be placed in their juvenile unit. My time there was the most satisfying legal work I’ve ever done. I eventually went into private practice, but did not find it nearly as fulfilling.”
Forman, who clerked at the Nature Conservancy, worked in private criminal defense practice, in the Environmental Justice division of the Environmental Protection Agency. Before coming to UDM, she was a faculty fellow at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis where she taught the Criminal Justice Clinic and a juvenile justice seminar.
A fellow with the National Juvenile Justice Network’s 2011-12 Youth Justice Leadership Institute, Forman joined the UDM faculty this fall, where she teaches a juvenile justice course and serves as director of the Youth Justice Clinic.
“I’m so excited about this opportunity at UDM to start up a legal clinic that will have a direct and positive impact on the lives of youth who are caught up in the justice system,” she says. “I enjoy being an advocate for kids who have been let down in so many ways by the system. I take great satisfaction in being a person these young people can rely on and who they can see working hard for them.
“Most of our clients are considered the ‘bad kids’ by society. I get to connect with them on a human level and treat them with dignity and respect, maybe for the first time in their lives. By treating them with respect, they, in turn, give me respect and we develop a trusting attorney-client relationship that I think is critical to this kind of work.” Third-year law students working in her clinic learn skills such as research, writing, analysis, oral advocacy, interviewing, and client counseling; and gain substantive knowledge in juvenile justice, education law, criminal procedure, Michigan court procedure and positive youth development. The clinic also prepares students for reflective, client-centered law practice, fosters a sense of professional identity and purpose by exposing them to social justice lawyering and develops their ability to resolve legal problems effectively and responsibly.
Forman, who also serves on the UDM Admissions Committee, enjoys sharing her expertise with law students.
“I think there is an immense responsibility in legal education,” she says. “I take my responsibilities very seriously. I try to do all that I can to prepare my students for the demands of the legal profession while also helping them develop a professional identity that is based in excellent client representation and social justice.
“Teaching a legal clinic is very rewarding because I get to witness the transformation from student to lawyer. When the students first start out they are understandably nervous and uncertain of themselves. As the semester progresses, I can see their understanding of the law and their confidence in their own abilities growing. By the end of the semester, I’m always so proud of how much they have learned and how well they carry themselves in court.
“I love the diversity of the students at UDM, everyone brings a unique point of view to the classroom which enriches the discussion.” Forman’s research interests focus on the intersection of juvenile justice, criminal procedure and school policy. Her most recent article, “Countering Criminalization: Toward a Youth Development Approach to School Searches,” is in this fall’s The Scholar: St. Mary’s Law Review on Minority Issues, with a follow-up piece, “Ghetto Education,” forthcoming in the Washington University Journal of Law and Policy.
A member of the AALS Clinical Legal Education Section and the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, Forman is licensed to practice in Michigan, Massachusetts, and Missouri, where she serves on the board of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Vice President of St. John’s United Church of Christ in St. Louis, Forman also serves on the board of the city’s Griot Museum of Black History & Culture, which features an authentic slave cabin, a scale model section of a slave ship, life-size wax figures, art, artifacts and memorabilia, and more.
“The Griot is a wonderful resource for African-American history in St. Louis,” she says. “I got involved because I go to church with the deputy director. I’ve been very pleased with the amazing exhibits we’ve been able to bring the museum, but as with all non-profits funding is always a challenge in these tough economic times.”
Forman, a native of Belize in Central America, came to the United States at the age of 14 and lived with her grandparents in Detroit, her mother’s hometown. When her grandparents retired to Florida, she attended Cranbrook-Kingswood boarding school in Bloomfield Hills. Since then, she has lived in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C. and, most recently, St. Louis. “However, I consider the Detroit area my home in America because I have a lot of extended family here and my sisters all came up to live here after leaving Belize,” she says.
Forman’s husband works for Anheuser-Busch/In-Bev; the couple has a 3-year-old son, and a second child is due in early December. In her leisure time, Forman enjoys Bikram yoga, spending time with her son, cooking for her family, and watching all kinds of films.
By Sheila Pursglove