The public interest arena is vast and varied. Because it is Seattle University School of Law’s mission to educate leaders for a just and humane world, we believe that incorporating a public interest component into your career is essential. The alumni featured in this section have forged their own paths, pursuing inspiring legal work and bettering the world around them. If you are inspired by an SU alumni working in public interest, please let us know at email@example.com.
Class of 2002
When the 2005 hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast, I was living in Seattle and practicing public interest law. I grew up in New Orleans so learned about the horror of the hurricanes, the breached levees, and the botched evacuation with particular disbelief, sadness, and anger. As New Orleans opened back up and my family prepared to return, I was unable to think about anything else. I knew that it was time to move back home after a few weeks of volunteering in Southwest Louisiana, experiencing the wrath of Hurricane Rita in the hectic shelter where I was posted, and hearing countless heartbreaking stories from displaced residents during the first weeks after Hurricane Katrina.
I joined Oxfam America in the international humanitarian aid agency’s first domestic emergency response program. With a focus on rural Louisiana, I took a break from court rules and litigation to work on policy and advocacy in Louisiana’s southern parishes. Along Louisiana’s coast, I worked with shrimpers, fishers, farmers, and community groups. The barriers to rebuilding and livelihood recovery continue to be tremendous for these people and places, as some were hit hard by both hurricanes.
I’m now a staff attorney with the Katrina Clinic at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. The Katrina Clinic's mission is to provide information, communicate on behalf of, and give legal assistance to individuals on hurricane related legal issues. Law students from Loyola and around the country volunteer with the clinic; students receive training and attorney supervision as they provide direct assistance to clients. My own legal practice focuses on hurricane-related individual cases such as housing and contractor fraud and on impact litigation. Our impact cases include challenges of local jurisdictions’ ordinances to prohibit the placement of FEMA trailers at a time when most people still have no other housing options and FEMA’s due process failures in its termination of rental assistance and recoupment of assistance grants already made.
After law school, I worked with the juvenile unit at Legal Aid of Cambodia, a non-governmental organization in Phnom Penh. I learned a tremendous amount from the human rights advocates there who focus on legal services, both civil and criminal, for Cambodia’s poor. I was drawn to learn more about global human rights issues for juveniles having interned with Columbia Legal Services (Seattle) Street Youth Legal Advocate Program during most of law school. At CLS, I was able to work directly with individual clients on a variety of legal issues—I learned real life lawyering skills that I still rely on today and saw the tremendous, positive impact that dedicated lawyers have. During law school I was also involved in creating the Seattle Journal for Social Justice. Setting up the SJSJ journal was an opportunity to work with law students on establishing a legal journal around social justice discussion—to raise questions about systemic injustice and promote practical ideas for action.
In Louisiana, rebuilding entire communities is a slow process that has been made slower and even blocked by systemic barriers. I see the problems in the Gulf Coast as amongst the most pressing human rights issues of our time and am grateful to be in Louisiana at such a critical time. I am continually inspired working with clients, colleagues, students, and community advocates who maintain hope through serious challenges and are dedicated to fighting for equity even when the wins are few and far between.
Class of 2006
I am currently the Attorney for Native American Projects at Seattle University School of Law. In this position, I oversees the summer Indian Estate Planning Project where second and third year law students work under the direction of experienced attorneys to provide will drafting and other estate planning services for tribal communities throughout Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. I am also the Director of Seattle University School of Law's Study Law in Alaska Program, and I teach the Alaska Native Law class for that Program. Additionally, I will manage an Indian Estate Planning Project with law students and a paralegal to provide will drafting and other estate planning services for tribal members of the Spokane and Colville Indian communities.
I am the first person in my family to attend college. While my family has always offered their unwavering support, I made a deliberate and thoughtful decision to attend law school. Throughout my time growing up in Fairbanks, Alaska, I traveled to many of the Alaska Native villages throughout the state, most often for my high school basketball games. I also spent a year after graduating from the University of Notre Dame volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
One of the greatest reasons I decided to obtain a legal education was to acquire the tools and resources necessary to work with, and on behalf of, Indian people. Despite the many long hours and thousands of dollars spent working toward a law degree, I recognize that a chance to attend law school is not only an amazing opportunity but also a tremendous responsibility.
When I consider my role working with native peoples, I approach it from a perspective best articulated by an Aboriginal woman named Lilla Watson: "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." Whether I am on the Pine Ridge, Swinomish, or Upper Skagit Indian Reservations or living and working with the indigenous people of Guatemala and Mexico, I recognize that I am always a guest in the homes of Indian people, and my presence in their homes and on their lands is only possible with their invitation.
Seattle University School of Law empowered me to pursue opportunities that allowed me to gain direct and relevant experience working with Indian people. At the end of my 1L year, I worked as a clerk for the Northwest Intertribal Court System through the Access to Justice Institute. I spent the summer after my 2L year working with elders in the Swinomish and Upper Skagit Indian communities drafting wills and providing estate-planning services through what is now the Institute for Indian Estate Planning and Probate, housed at Seattle University School of Law.
I credit my continued interest and desire to pursue this work to Seattle University's rigorous academics and commitment to social justice through practical education that prepares its graduates for work and service in the law through justice.
During the time I lived on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I drove a school bus route in the mornings that brought children to school from all across the reservation. As the sun glistened off the morning frost that blanketed the beautiful hills of South Dakota, I quickly learned that life in Pine Ridge was not as pristine as the scenery I viewed from the driver's seat of the school bus. While returning the bus keys after one of my last morning school bus routes, one of the elders in the community asked if I was returning to Pine Ridge the following year. I regrettably told him I was leaving, but my life had been forever changed by the generosity of the Lakota people. I expected these words to be the end of our conversation, but instead, he said that he was sorry to see me go. He said that I respected their people and I did not force my ways on them or try to be one of them. He then told me something else I have never forgotten: that I was welcome back in Pine Ridge anytime.
While my home is now in the Pacific Northwest, I believe that the heartbeat of the Lakota people in Pine Ridge beats with the heartbeat of the people here, whether at Swinomish, Squaxin Island, Nez Perce, and so many others. In many ways, I believe Seattle University continues to provide me with the tools necessary to fulfill my commitment to pursue my current work, and has thereby symbolically allowed me to "go back" to Pine Ridge.
Class of 2007
Years before I took the LSAT and applied to law school, I would casually mention to family, friends, and professors that I was interested in going to law school but that I “didn’t want to be a lawyer.” I never envisioned myself in the traditional practice of law—I had no interest in being in a firm (small or large), and I knew the people I would serve wouldn’t be the typical client. I wanted to work with those who most needed legal representation, but who did not have access to the justice system. I had never known a lawyer who did that kind of work, but I knew these jobs had to exist. What good was the justice system and the rule of law unless they were accessible to all people? It is hard to believe that those early days of dreaming about being an advocate have actually come to fruition.
In the three years after undergraduate school at the University of Washington and prior to starting law school at Seattle University, I worked with youth in foster care, both as a residential counselor in a therapeutic group home for adolescent boys and as a program coordinator for an after-school learn-to-snowboard program that served at-risk and underserved youth. My experiences at the group home were by far the most life-changing and influential experiences of my life. At age 22, I was essentially a parent to children whose lives were very different from my own and very different from anyone I had ever met. They had experienced severe abuse and neglect throughout most of their young lives, and at ages 12 and 13 had “blown out” of every foster care placement because of their high behavioral and mental health needs.
In the year or so that I worked as a residential counselor, something became very clear to me—I wasn’t necessarily born to be a social worker because I was too frustrated with agency policies and legislative mandates that simply didn’t seem to work for those of us working “on the ground.” Instead, I realized, I was meant to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves, and to change the very laws and policies I found so frustrating. And so, a year and half after leaving my job as a counselor, I began law school at Seattle U.
Seattle University couldn’t have been a better fit to prepare me for the things I wanted to do and the population I wanted to work with. Early in my first semester, I got involved with the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF), and I met with professors that worked in the Youth Advocacy Clinic. Toward the end of my first year, I secured an internship the King County Dependency CASA Program (Court Appointed Special Advocates), and I was awarded a PILF grant to spend the summer working in dependency court with volunteers that represent the child’s best interest in abuse and neglect proceedings. During my second year of law school, I served as President of PILF and as a staff member of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; and in my third year, I was an Article Editor for SJSJ and began the long process of applying for my “dream job”—a Fellowship with Columbia Legal Services (CLS) working on a project to help reform the foster care system in Washington State. My journey had come full circle, but I quickly realized the journey was really just beginning.
After graduating from SU in May 2007 and studying for the bar exam through July, I began working at CLS in September ‘07. CLS is a not for profit organization that employs lawyers and legal workers who provide legal assistance to low-income and special needs people and organizations in Washington. My Fellowship project was selected as one of 54 in the nation by Equal Justice Works. For my two-year Fellowship, I’ll work to secure better legal representation for children in their abuse and neglect proceedings, and I will work with a team of lawyers who are in the third year of a seven-year settlement agreement with the Department of Social Health Services to improve foster care.
Each day since my Fellowship began I have felt excited about the work I am doing and the advocacy I undertake on behalf of a very vulnerable population of people. Even the smallest project illustrates how much change needs to occur and, in turn, how every action I take is a step toward systemic change and, ultimately, social justice. I would have to say the most exciting part of my job with CLS is simply being here—it’s hard to believe that all the long hours of studying, the over-committed law school calendar full of public interest activities, and the financial, emotional, and personal sacrifices that I made have finally paid off.
Most importantly, I cannot imagine I would be here without the support of Seattle U. In my short time being a lawyer, I can’t say enough how proud I am to have graduated from a law school where focusing on social justice and the greater good is the rule, not the exception. From the very beginning, I found it easy to approach members of the faculty to ask for advice and guidance on how to get my foot in the public interest doorway. When Kellye Testy became Dean, it became even clearer that I was in a good place if I wanted to enter the public interest legal community. I always felt supported in my goals, and I was never told “you know you could get a great job that made more money.” My mentors knew the financial sacrifice I was willing to make (because most of them had done the same), and never advised me otherwise. I think too often in the legal profession, those who “know better” or who are “older and wiser” look back and think “if only I had done it this way, I might have been able to do more things in my own life.” But at Seattle U, the social justice culture permeates every class, every activity, and every student and faculty member—the school community realizes that students will be most happy in life doing what they love and pursuing opportunities that fulfill them.
When asked why I do what I’m doing, especially in light of the fact that fellow graduates are (literally) making 3 times the salary I’m making, I respond that I can’t imagine not doing this. At the 2007 Equal Justice Works Leadership Conference, Stephen Bright (a prolific and inspirational death penalty attorney who started the Southern Center for Human Rights) spoke to a small group of new Fellows and AmeriCorps attorneys. It was a room filled with eager, new advocates who were all beginning their legal careers in public interest law. There were few dry eyes in the room when he finished speaking, mostly because he validated what many of the new lawyers in the room felt: it was okay to be scared of what we were about to undertake because of the immediate impact our actions would have on the lives of vulnerable citizens. But, Mr. Bright reminded us that despite our fear we must fight on behalf of our clients and our community. He reminded us that “Our lives are not our own; they belong to those who need us desperately.”
Seattle University School of Law embodied all the things I wanted and needed in a law school education. SU not only challenged me academically (especially legal writing!), but personally. The mission statement permeates the law school campus, and as you begin to “think like a lawyer” you can’t help but also think: How does this law or policy affect our most vulnerable citizens? Whose rights are being overlooked or undervalued? Whose voice isn’t being heard? Who doesn’t have access to the justice system because of where they live, how much money they make, what country they were born in, or how old or young they are? Ultimately, Seattle U was like every other law school in the country: it taught me to think like a lawyer. Most importantly, and perhaps unlike many law schools in the country, Seattle U taught me to think like a lawyer who thinks about others. Although my journey has just begun and I am reminded on a daily basis how little I really do know, Seattle U empowered and prepared me to be a confident advocate who was ready to enter the legal community. And now, nearly six years after I began working as a counselor for the most vulnerable foster children in Washington State, I can finally repay the debt to those children for making a tremendous difference in my life.