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Head of the Class

Hugh E. McKay rounded up 700 lawyers to help Cleveland’s public schools

Published in 2008 Ohio Super Lawyers magazine

It all started with a gut feeling.

With his term as president of the Cleveland Bar Association approaching, Hugh E. McKay began thinking about how to make an impact, and it didn’t take long for his thoughts to turn to the local public schools. Like many lawyers, he takes community service just as seriously as billable hours. But there are probably few peers who can rival McKay’s effort to found The 3Rs—Rights, Responsibilities, Realities.

This ongoing program resembles a full-scale invasion. Each month the Cleveland Bar Association sends about 700 lawyers into classrooms to help give the city’s ailing public schools a boost. In its second full year, 3Rs pairs volunteers with small groups of 10th-graders to talk about the law and the future. “A lot of these kids have never been singled out for anything other than negative feedback,” says McKay, partner-in-charge at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur’s Cleveland office. But 3Rs offers students positive, hands-on attention to help them pass the Ohio Graduation Test—a requirement to receive a diploma—and figure out what comes after high school.

McKay leaves his downtown office each month to work with students at South High School, where his role is as much mentor as it is teacher. Last year, for instance, one quiet student didn’t seem interested in the material. But, after three months in the program, he was saying, “I think it’s really cool to be a lawyer.” Small groups—typically one lawyer to five students—give volunteers the chance to build rapport and offer the students a positive look at the legal system. These sessions might cover everything from the Fourth Amendment to college.

McKay hopes to encourage minority students and others to enter the legal profession. “You can tell a lot of the kids would make tremendous lawyers or doctors or whatever they want to be,” he says. “We just need to get them through the system.” With that goal in mind, volunteers help foster young dreams in whatever form they take. One student expressed an interest in archaeology, so McKay brought him some magazines and helped him get to the natural history museum. It’s the kind of gesture that makes opportunities seem real, and these small moments are accompanied by practical advice on navigating everything from the SATs to financial aid.

When he’s not unraveling the mysteries of standardized tests, McKay specializes in commercial litigation for clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to mid-sized businesses. He has worked for Porter Wright Morris & Arthur since 1985, and his cases encompass everything from fights over real estate to contract disputes and antitrust issues. These days he often finds himself with his partner-in-charge hat on, talking with the firm’s lawyers about all kinds of concerns. He says this management role can often prove more challenging than his legal work.

McKay comes from a long line of lawyers. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all practiced, but it’s his mother who influenced his decision to found 3Rs. “My mom was a teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools at East High,” he says. “She inspired me long ago to believe in these kids.” The program engages kids in small groups—rather than lectures—and reaches out on a large scale. Volunteers with 3Rs work at 21 high schools in Cleveland, as well as Shaw High in East Cleveland.

One of the program’s core goals is improving the district’s passing rate for the Ohio Graduation Test, but McKay doesn’t know yet how the program has affected those numbers. This official report card, however, hasn’t been necessary for people to recognize the program’s impact. The American Bar Association awarded 3Rs the Community Outreach & Education Award last summer, and McKay went to pick up the award along with the chief executive of Cleveland schools.

Though McKay’s term as Cleveland Bar Association president ended in June, there’s a large team effort in place to ensure that 3Rs continues as a program. There’s a standing committee and McKay has heard glowing feedback from volunteers. “The only thing scary about the Cleveland schools is the dangerous misperception about these schools and kids being hopeless,” he says. “It is crucial that these kids know we believe in them and their futures.” McKay says he’s looking forward to volunteering the next 3Rs class, and it’s a safe bet that there are a handful of 10th-graders at South High looking forward to the same thing.

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