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Return to My Roots

By Kari Santos | Oct. 2, 2014

Law Office Management

Oct. 2, 2014

Return to My Roots

An attorney rediscovers her first love, reproductive rights advocacy.

As a native of the Deep South and a product of East Coast schools, I'm often asked what brought me to California. "The weather," I say. "I hate the cold. I hate the heat. And I detest humidity." But that's not the whole story. I came to San Francisco in 2006 right after graduating from law school because I didn't get my dream job as a reproductive rights litigator, and I resigned myself to working for big law.

At the time, entry-level jobs in reproductive rights were few and far between. I applied for the two impact litigation fellowships that existed in New York, but was beaten out by candidates with more experience. I was told to work, clerk, and reapply. But I was eager to start earning a paycheck and loath to make another temporary move. And though impact litigation was my reason for going to law school, I had grown disillusioned with it after the federal and state "partial-birth" abortion bans.

Working as a corporate litigator wasn't all bad. I had terrific mentors, and did as much pro bono work as my firm let me. I represented disadvantaged clients, many of them women and children who were survivors of abuse and other psychological trauma.

At one point I represented a man who was trying to obtain a green card under a special provision of the Violence Against Women Act. In a physically and psychologically abusive marriage, the man sought to free himself from his wife (a U.S. citizen) by obtaining legal resident status. In the process of collecting materials for his application, he confessed he was extremely depressed and sometimes suicidal, largely from the shame he felt as a man victimized by a woman. During the hours I interviewed him, my job was to be his lawyer. I had to be reserved, noncommittal, and focused on the immediate goal of changing his immigration status. I wished I could do more for him.

I did, of course, feel fulfilled by the pro bono work, but overall I longed to take a broader approach; I wanted to spend all my time tackling systemic oppression. Earlier, I'd pictured myself amplifying the voices of vulnerable women and girls in the courts. But here I was, mostly doing document review on subprime mortgages.

Then in 2010, the Oakland-based organization Law Students for Reproductive Justice (LSRJ) came knocking at the right moment. I had worked with the group - then called Law Students for Choice - in its fledgling form in law school, so it was a serendipitous reunion.

"What is reproductive justice?" I asked during my interview with Jill Adams, then the executive director. As she explained that reproductive justice encompasses more than just legal rights, and that it examines the conditions and context within which people exercise those rights, a shiver ran up my spine. Yes.

Right then and there, I realized why I'd felt so disconnected from the reproductive rights path before: I am a reproductive justice advocate, not just a rights lawyer.

And so, since 2010 I've served as the director of academic and professional programs at LSRJ, where I develop academic opportunities and hands-on experiences for budding legal advocates. I launched the Reproductive Justice Fellowship Program, which places newly minted lawyers with nonprofits in Washington, D.C., working to advance federal policy.

For me, the most gratifying part is the intensive mentoring I provide to the fellows throughout the year. Working with young lawyers keeps me engaged with the finer points of jurisprudence while letting me dream big, ambitious dreams about the next generation of legal advocates who will fight for reproductive justice.

As the U.S. Supreme Court's recent Hobby Lobby decision demonstrates, advocates cannot rely solely on the courts and must look to legislative and political means to secure access to needed services. I love being able to provide entry points into this work that weren't available when I was a recent law school graduate. Looking back I believe that all along, my circuitous route was leading me to my rightful vocation.

Mariko Miki is the director of academic and professional programs at Law Students for Reproductive Justice in Oakland.


Kari Santos

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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