The young woman was hunkered down at a small corner desk in a back office filled with stacked boxes.
The boxes were brimming with folders, the folders full of files. Dressed with professional modesty on a casual Friday afternoon, she sat quietly, intently entering data into a laptop.
Alondra Alvarran, 16, was finishing her first week at her new summer job at a Huntington Beach law firm. It's the first job she's ever had.
"It's not every day you get the opportunity as a 16-year-old to work at a law firm," said Alondra, a senior at Valley High School in Santa Ana. She is among scores of Orange County students working in the legal profession this summer through Project SELF, or Summer Employment in Law Firms.
Developed by the Orange County Bar Assn. in 1995, Project SELF was designed to offer students from lower- and middle-income families experience in the legal profession. After a stringent application process, 68 of the more than 100 applicants this year were placed with law firms throughout the county in summer internships that pay $10 an hour.
"We wanted to expose (students) to a professional environment," said Donna Williams, an office administrator who chairs Project SELF in Orange County.
Alondra, who is helping out at the offices of Plager Schack LLP, a relatively small firm in Huntington Beach dealing primarily in intellectual property rights, said she has long been working toward this moment.
"As a sophomore I started building up my resume so that I could apply for it this year," Alondra said of the program. "When I got it, I was probably more excited than if I actually even graduated. That's what it felt like. I was proud."
Alondra said she's most interested in international business and commerce. She knows the legal experience will be helpful.
Indeed, Williams said the program is intended to let students "know there were other kinds of opportunities that could be available to them, especially in law firms, and that there were jobs other than being a lawyer."
"At first I thought I don't know if they want us to volunteer to take an intern," explains Rachel Alm, office administrator and intern supervisor at Plager Shack. "We're not like one of these big fancy Irvine firms in these big, high towers. We don't have any kind of ocean view or anything like that. Then I thought if we don't offer to do it, that's one less student that doesn't get this opportunity."
Added Mark Plager, the firm's senior partner: "From the standpoint of the internship, we have jobs that need to be done, we were looking to hire, and one of the problems is finding a quality person. The students they're looking to place meet those qualifications. They're quality people, they're motivated people. It fit very nicely."
Alondra has spent her first week on the job cataloguing the boxes full of files and knows she'll be doing a lot more of it. But she doesn't mind. She is happy to tackle whatever is placed before her.
"That's fine for me," Alondra said. "I like being busy. When they told me, 'Here's some more boxes,' I'm like, 'Thank you.'"
"Nowadays you have to have experience before you hit the workforce, you have to have some exposure," noted Plager as his firm participates in the SELF program for the first time. "If you can help someone while they help us, it works well for both of us. It's a nice, symbiotic relationship."