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Meet Four Women Who Are Lawyering for Good

Lawyers get a bad rap. These fighters for justice will restore your faith in the profession. 

By Christina Chinnici and Susan Brenna

November 16, 2020

These attorneys are defending student rights, diversifying Capitol Hill, and protecting your right to work. Examine their career paths and day-to-day work, and it might shift your perspective on what's possible in the field.

Nkoyo-Ene Effiong

Effiong is a lawyer in private practice at The Effiong Firm LLC in Atlanta. The day she committed to pursuing law was when she realized that a corps member she was coaching was teaching at a school that had been zoned for construction only about a mile from a medium-security prison. Following law school, she worked for a large firm that exposed her to many facets of law and prepared her to open a private practice.

What do you do?

I run an education law firm where we advocate unapologetically for excellence, equity, and education justice alongside communities of color. We show up in two ways. We represent parents and students on anything from school discipline to special education, particularly working with parents who have children that are both of color and have disabilities. We’re seeing the intersection of how those two differences make it really difficult for parents to protect their children in school and help them get the resources and services they need—and that they are entitled to under the law.

On the other side, we work with future-forward, mission-driven organizations that care about equity, inclusion, and education justice by helping them build sustainable organizations that disrupt the status quo. We do some business formation, parent engagement strategy, stakeholder engagement, all trying to make sure they are building an organization that is not oppressive.

It’s one thing to say “Black lives matter.” It’s a very different thing to live that in the polices, practices and procedures of your work.

What does your daily work look like?

If it’s a special education matter, I might go with my parents to IEP meetings. We make sure schools are following the procedural requirements of the law so that (students) can actually receive a free public education. And if there are substantive violations, we advocate for a resolution.

For my business clients, it’s helping them form their organizations, develop their bylaws and prepare all their legal work.

What’s a misconception you’d like to correct?

Law is one tool in the toolkit and it’s not always the most effective or efficient tool to get a result. In my work with parents, when it is necessary, we do file complaints on behalf of our clients. If there is a quicker, less adversarial approach, we pursue that first.

Advice for someone considering your career?

Be introspective. What change do you want to make? Do you need a law degree to do it? The way that law school is set up, it funnels you to some of the big law firms that happen to be the big donors. Recognize that if you are going to go the public interest route in most law schools, you are going against the grain.

What brings you joy in your work?

I love that I am designing a practice where I can still educate others. I am figuring out how to create legal products that make the law and its protections more accessible to everyday families who need it.

Lauren Micek Vargas

Vargas has made her way in her career by doubling up on jobs. While in law school, she clerked at the Public Defender’s Office in Douglas County, Nebraska. While working as a juvenile/felony assistant public defender, she co-founded with Elizabeth Eynon-Kokrda the nonprofit Education Rights Counsel, which provides legal representation to Nebraska students and families and advocates for systemic educational change. In September, she was able to secure the funding to go fulltime as the counsel’s executive director.

You started out at the counsel representing individual students. What’s your daily work like now?

When we started about three years ago, the idea was to provide under-resourced families legal representation in regards to school-based problems to stop the school to prison pipeline, and to advocate for families and teachers who don’t know how to navigate the law.

We’ve grown in terms of our clients and advocacy. We’ve been able to train an army of advocates to not only make sure there is legal access to attorneys in the school system, but that we are breaking down systemic racism for individuals with disabilities and kids of color. That’s  influencing legislation, training attorneys to take cases for us so more attorneys are doing this type of work, and challenging what’s happening for our kids.

There are a hundred million things that come up in a day and situations that you have to have your hands on, and some of them are extremely important. But at the same time, if you are too reactionary, you can’t be focused on where you need to go next.

What’s a misconception you’d like to correct?

Not only is it legally complex to start a nonprofit, it’s also very difficult to set yourself apart from others. Initially I was naive to think that everyone would understand why this is important and needed. That is not the case. You really need to get your mission out there and be persevering.

What brings you joy in your work?

Having impact across the state, and being able to be an access point for information for individuals who we may not serve directly, but who look to us to help them self-advocate. So they can go to their school district and ask for what they need, especially now with COVID and remote learning.

What’s it like working virtually during the pandemic?

Nebraska has a large rural population, and Zoom has helped us get more access to more families. We’ve turned our message into a more virtual message. Of course we are conscious about what that means for families who are under-resourced and don’t have virtual access, but it’s mostly been a positive for our rural population because we have done so much more virtually then we did previously.

Kemba Hendrix

Having spent time lawyering around the world with the U.S. Department of State, Hendrix now directs the U.S. House of Representatives Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a seven-person, bipartisan department created in March to help 435 House members hire. If there wasn’t a pandemic on, Hendrix would be hosting lots of coffees to scout aspirants largely seeking junior staff positions. But do not worry, she has other ways to find you.

What’s your charge in this job?

I’m working to bring diversity to House members’ staff, both Democratic and Republican. I’m working with members’ offices to bring in a staff that has the ability to support them from all the different perspectives America has to offer. The goal should be that if you’re a member, the people on staff who inform your policy decisions should share the ideas and perspectives and backgrounds of the communities you’re representing. That shouldn’t be a revolution in politics, but it kind of is.

There are 435 members who are hiring in 435 different ways. Our job is to demystify the process and help people who won’t give up on the American people get picked out of a pile of 500 or 1,000 resumes when almost everyone in the pile is qualified.

The traditional way to get a job on the Hill is to be politically connected. That is not most people in America. If you’re a kid from Donna, Texas, which is where I was a corps member, how do you make your way to this expensive city, where people hoard information as currency, and break in when you’ve had no connections or exposure? 

So how will you help?

A lot of my work is building relationships to connect job-seekers to people who can connect them with open roles. That’s building relationships with House staff, people who work for adjacent organizations, the different caucuses, and the different interest-specific partners who deal with issues of race and equity and inclusion. There are organizations that pay interns and fellows to come to the Hill from different backgrounds.  We’re helping them learn how to network, showing them where the job postings are, teaching them proper etiquette, doing a lot of programming and webinars.

Part of the job is expanding the sphere of where we look for staff, including the schools where jobs get posted. A lot of the D.C. (colleges and universities) have full-time liaisons whose job is to connect students to jobs on the Hill. That’s not Prairie View A&M or UT-Rio Grande Valley.

How will you see impact?

I’ll know I’ve had an impact if I can support people and remind them why they want to do this work and help them stay here and continue to do it—rather than getting lost to the private sector, where they can do something that’s way more lucrative but less helpful to people who need help.

What brings you joy in your work?

I get inspired by the young people who are coming to the Hill who are so energized and passionate.  They just want a chance. I remember being that young and idealistic and relentless. I didn’t have somebody who was with me, cheering me on and telling me I was going the right way. What’s exciting is watching people who can find and create a place for themselves with just a little more information.

Kameron Dawson

For the past year, Dawson has worked as a staff attorney in the southern office of A Better Balance, a national legal nonprofit organization that advocates across the country to legislate and enforce fair work-life standards, including paid sick days, family and medical leave, and pregnancy and disability accommodations. It also runs a free and confidential helpline for workers who have questions about their workplace rights or believe their employers are denying them their rights to work while caring for their families.

What do you do?

As a staff attorney, I work with legislators and advocates to research and draft bills that would give pregnancy accommodations, paid sick time, or paid family leave to caregivers. We take on cases against big companies that have harmful policies that don’t affect just parents, but their children. I also educate workers through webinars and presentations and answer calls from the helpline. Our work in the south is mostly around pregnancy accommodations. More often than not we hear from pregnant women who are facing discrimination and are placed on unpaid leave instead of being given a reasonable accommodation, like a small break or access to  a water bottle. Since the recent legislation with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, we’re also getting calls regarding emergency sick time or family leave.

I hear a lot from folks in states where I grew up, like Tennessee and Georgia, but also in rural areas across the south where there might not be a lot of lawyers to provide this guidance for free.

How did you get to your current position?

The first person to tell me that I could be an attorney was my second grade teacher. After finishing my time in the corps, I studied at the University of Tennessee College of Law. In my second and third year, I began taking practical courses and working as a student attorney in the clinic where you could help people in Knoxville. That’s where I got interested in employment law and helping people build financial stability for their families. After graduation, I heard about A Better Balance, where I’m surrounded by powerhouses who are passionate about advocating for families.

What’s a misconception you’d like to correct?

That when you start out as a lawyer you’re doing the grunt work and don’t have much leadership potential. The good thing about working in nonprofit advocacy is that new ideas are often welcomed. As an attorney, you work with the laws that exist, but you can also advocate for new laws or a different interpretation to help others.

What gives you joy in your work?

Helping workers speak for themselves and be part of the process of creating laws. In addition to our free and confidential helpline, we involve workers in the legislative process and empower them to share their experience with legislators and other workers. For example, we were able to help one worker talk to her employer and get the accommodations she needed. Afterwards, we provided her with some opportunities to share her experience, and she was so happy that she could help others by speaking out. That was encouraging to her to see you don’t have to be a lawyer to make change.