How the Women of Color Legal Education Fund is supporting new lawyers from historically excluded and underrepresented communities in the Yakima Valley
BY BREE BLACK HORSE
The Yakima Chapter of Washington Women Lawyers (WWL) is dedicated to furthering full integration of women in the legal profession and believes it is critical that the profession reflect the diversity of Washington and of the Yakima Valley region. Toward that end, the WWL Yakima Chapter recently established the Women of Color Legal Education Fund mentorship program to support women of color with ties to the Yakima Valley region who seek to join the legal profession. That support includes facilitating professional development, encouraging academic achievement, and providing direct financial support. Co-founded by Keally Cieslik of Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and me, and entering its second full year of programming and financial support, the Women of Color Legal Education Fund is vital to achieving the full integration of lawyers from historically excluded and underrepresented communities in our legal system. Mentorship has been instrumental in the development of my legal career, and I am honored to have the opportunity to serve the next generation of legal professionals in the Yakima Valley.
The WWL Yakima Chapter founded the Women of Color Legal Education Fund in response to the concerning lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession locally as well as at the state and national level. The American Bar Association (ABA) found in 202011 www.americanbar.org/groups/young_lawyers/about/initiatives/men-of-color/lawyer-demographics/. that nearly all people of color are underrepresented in the legal profession compared with their presence in the U.S. population. For example, 5 percent of all lawyers are African American, 5 percent are Hispanic, 2 percent are Asian, and less than one-half of 1 percent are Native American. According to the ABA, white men and women remain overrepresented in the legal profession, and in 2012 the WSBA reported that racially diverse members represent 12 percent of its membership.
The Women of Color Legal Education Fund responds not only to the concerning lack of racial diversity of our system’s legal advocates, but also, and directly, to the lack of attorneys in the Yakima Valley Region. Yakima County is experiencing a critical shortage of legal professionals in every aspect of the legal system. Postings for multiple open positions in every sector of the legal industry appear regularly in the Yakima County Bar Association newsletter and other job listing sources. Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Brusic, Yakima County Department of Assigned Counsel Director Paul Kelley, and other public officials have publicly addressed the urgent issue of too few attorneys and what that means for the community at large. The Women of Color Legal Education Fund represents an investment in the Yakima Valley region, with the goal of benefiting the entire community by substantially increasing the number of women of color who serve as advocates in all aspects of our legal system.
The Women of Color Legal Education Fund provides two mentorship opportunities that include a component of financial support: The Pre-Law Scholar program is designed to support women of color with ties to the Yakima Valley who hope to attend law school or enroll in the WSBA APR 6 (Law Clerk) Program. The Pre-Law Scholar grant award may be used to pay for LSAT preparation and study materials, LSAT exam costs, Law School Admissions Council fees, and law school application fees, as well as living and child-care expenses associated with preparing to apply to law school. The Pre-Law Scholar program curriculum includes assigning as mentors women of color who are already in the legal profession, LSAT preparation assistance, workshops on drafting personal statements and obtaining letters of recommendation, and supportive social activities.
Mentorship has been instrumental in the
development of my legal career, and I am honored
to have the opportunity to serve the next generation
of legal professionals in the Yakima Valley.
For women of color with ties to the Yakima Valley who are currently attending law school or are enrolled in the WSBA APR 6 Program, the Law Scholar Program provides support in the form of grant awards that may be used for law school tuition and fees, course-related expenses, internship- and externship-related expenses, and necessary living expenses. The Law Scholar program curriculum, like the Pre-Law Scholar Program, assigns women of color who are already in the legal profession as mentors, and also provides academic advice, access to externship and internship opportunities, interview preparation assistance, résumé review, and other professional development.
Through a generous seed grant from The Share Fund, a Seattle-based philanthropic organization, and a partnership with the Yakima Valley Community Foundation, the Women of Color Legal Education Fund selected its inaugural class of Pre-Law and Law Scholars in 2022. A selection committee composed entirely of women of color attorneys who practice in the Yakima Valley awarded a total of $21,000 in grants to 19 Pre-Law and Law Scholars. The 2022 class of Pre-Law and Law Scholars was comprised of Latinx and Indigenous women, including Yakama Nation tribal members and First Nations peoples. All of the 2022 Scholars represent the first in their families to seek to join the legal profession, many are the proud children of immigrant farmworkers, and several maintain Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status.
The WWL Yakima Chapter honored the 2022 Women of Color Legal Education Fund Pre-Law and Law Scholars at a celebratory reception in August 2022. Over 50 members of the local Yakima Bar, judiciary, and community attended to support and recognize these scholars. Yakima County Superior Court Judge Sonia Rodriguez True and Yakama Nation elder and treaty-rights advocate “Punia” Kipp Richard Ramsey served as keynote speakers, recognizing in their remarks the groundbreaking work and importance of the Women of Color Legal Education Fund.
Perhaps in part as a result of the work to date by the Women of Color Legal Education Fund and the innovative The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) Program at Heritage University, the number of eligible applicants from whom the 2023 Law Scholars were recently selected more than quadrupled from 2022. In May, the Women of Color Legal Education Fund awarded a total of $20,000 to the following seven recipients: Autumn Adams (Yakama Nation, Arizona State University School of Law), Nayomi Mendez Andrade (University of Washington School of Law), Nettie Dionne (Yakama Nation, APR 6 Law Clerk), Gloria Guizar (Seattle University School of Law), Esmeralda Knoll (Seattle University School of Law), Joana Morales (Seattle University School of Law), and Janet Moran (Seattle University School of Law).
The Women of Color Legal Education Fund is a volunteer-run initiative served primarily by women of color who currently practice law in the Yakima Valley and the dedicated staff of the Yakima Valley Community Foundation. To make a charitable contribution to the Women of Color Legal Education Fund, donors may go to the Yakima Valley Community Foundation website, https://yakimavalleycf.org/, or mail a check directly to Yakima Valley Community Foundation, 316 E. Yakima Avenue, Ste. 201, Yakima, WA 98901, with a note in the memo that the contribution is for the Women of Color Legal Education Fund.
The programming and financial assistance provided by the Women of Color Legal Education Fund is an effective response to the concerning lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the legal profession at the state and national level. Ensuring that students from historically underrepresented communities are supported financially and mentored by legal professionals with similar backgrounds, starting at the very beginning of their legal education, is imperative to achieving an equitable and inclusive justice system.
. . .
LEARN MORE > The Washington Women Lawyers (WWL) Yakima Women of Color Legal Education Fund aims to support women of color from the Yakima Valley who seek to join the legal profession. Learn more at www.wwl.org/page-1770431.