By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Washington Leadership Institute (WLI) is an effort to recruit, train, and develop young lawyers from traditionally underrepresented communities. In 2004, then Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) President Ronald Ward pushed for the creation of a collaborative leadership program for attorneys. The focus would be providing key insights, training, and an opportunity to hear from established leaders of the Washington State Bar, including judges and attorneys.
One of the concerns with attorneys of color and those from underrepresented communities is a lack of mentors and a feeling of isolation in the practice of law. The WSBA Board of Governors recognized a need for diversity within the state’s legal profession and communities throughout the state. In May 2003, the WSBA Board of Governors formally recognized that many newly admitted attorneys, and attorneys who have been in practice for less than 10 years, particularly those who come from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, women, and those from traditionally underrepresented groups, were not recruited or made aware of leadership opportunities. WLI seeks to alleviate this by providing educational sessions, mentoring younger lawyers, and instilling in them a sense of service and dedication to the practice of law. These year-long programs include the free service offered by an esteemed faculty of attorneys, members of the judiciary, and political leaders.
WLI is co-chaired by James Williams, a partner at the law firm of Perkins Coie, and Justice Mary I. Yu of the Washington State Supreme Court. Williams stated that the board overseeing WLI is very active and there are many willing volunteers. Yet, there have been issues with continuing the flow of funding for the program.
“It was a struggle to get funding in 2012 when the bar thought of closing the program down,” said Williams. But the University of Washington Law School stepped up to raise money and house WLI, where the sessions take place. The WSBA still includes WLI as a “line item” on its budget, as many of the bar leaders find value in its work.
Even with those that may question the WSBA’s funding of the program, which caters to minorities and underrepresented populations, Yu argues for the value for the overall legal community. “There’s always going to be legitimate concerns about how membership dues are going to be spent,” said Yu. “People may pick a fight about one or two programs and ask, ‘How does this program benefit me?’ I would say those people are far and few. WSBA supports the program because they see the fruits of the program.” She cites the alumni that have risen to the top of the legal community from all over the state as successes that have benefited the bar association as a whole.
“It’s a modest investment in dollars by the state bar,” explained Williams of the real value of the program. “It’s the volunteer hours you get from the board.”
Yu added, “We have an amazing board. Unlike anything else, it’s an actual investment in young lawyers for the future, for anyone that cares for the development of the profession.
The reality is too many lawyers leave the profession, especially women of color.” Both Yu and Williams see the value in paying forward their talents to the next generation.
“Every time we start a new class, I get rejuvenated,” said Williams of the annual start of a WLI program. “When I see these young lawyers apply for the program, and affect their lives and navigating difficulties of the practices, I get that energy.”
“You have a purpose and you are lifting them to the next level because these are the people that will succeed you.”
Since its inception in 2004, WLI has evolved into making a conscious effort to balance out the classes of fellows to include people from all over the state of Washington. For some of the fellows, it’s the first time they have had any interaction with the bar, according to Williams.
Jean Kang recently completed the WLI Institute in 2017 and now serves as one of the Board of Governors. She learned of the program from one of her mentors, King County Superior Court Judge Sean O’Donnell.
“I wanted to help and promote attorneys of color,” explained Kang, an attorney at Smith Freed and Eberhard in Seattle. “It’s a very rigorous application process,” Kang indicated. She notes that the advisory board goes through every application, and evaluates community service, connections, and resume. Applicant have to demonstrate how they are unique and how they have displayed leadership skills.
The WLI program chooses a small class of fellows each year. It is a demanding program, requiring a time commitment from those who choose to participate. Kang recalls that she had to speak with her law partner at the time since it would sometimes take away time during the work day. Yet, she remained on top of her responsibilities with her law practice.
For Kang, she had to work evenings and weekends and she has no regrets.
“I’d do it all over again.”
WLI fellows receive free tuition with all travel, lodging, and meals covered. The program gives the fellows exposure to legal practice and industry leaders, one-on-one interaction with judges, and mentorship from bar leaders. It also provides the fellows a chance to network with each other.
“It’s about the connection we make. I cannot talk enough about that,” reiterated Kang. “[WLI] is not just to meet leaders and trailblazers, it’s also the other fellows you are working with.
You end up supporting and promoting each other and share struggles and stories with others.” She added, “This program really enforces support and empowerment.”
Another valuable aspect of the program is that it teaches its fellows how to be leaders in the legal community.
“There’s so many attorneys of color, but you rarely see them in positions of power or leadership,” said Kang. “There’s a lot of implicit bias. The fact is that the legal profession is led by older white men.”
As a Korean American female lawyer, Kang recognizes that while diversity is slowly changing the landscape of the legal profession, it is still a long process. But for her part, she is helping to change it. She was recently elected to the Washington State Board of Governors.
“You need to be at the table if you want to be heard,” explained Kang of her decision to run.
“I feel like it’s my duty.”
For more information on the Washington Leadership Institute, go to
The WLI will be honored at the Top Contributors awards dinner on Dec. 7 at House of Hong Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m.
Jason can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.