LaFonda Willis ’20 took home the UDC Law Legal Writing Program’s Terri LeClercq Award for best brief by a first-year law student and she has no plans to put down her pen just yet. The award-winning brief, which she used as her writing sample when applying for legal internships, helped her earn no less than five offers from sought-after summer placements including two federal agencies, Miami Public Defenders, a Miami-based private firm specializing in healthcare law and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau.
Willis refused to take one “yes” for an answer and negotiated with four of the five organizations to apportion her time between them. This winter, after closing out her final exams, Willis traveled to Detroit to intern for the Federal Defender’s Office for the city, where she performed legal research and drafted a variety of discovery-related documents in support of the firm’s litigation practice. This coming summer, Willis will divide her time between civil defense litigation at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau in Cambridge and regulatory investigations and affirmative civil litigation with the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection in Washington, D.C.
Willis has taken advantage of her law school experience to sample the full scope of practice opportunities the field of law has to offer. The golden thread running through her placements is the opportunity to tackle complex legal research and writing projects in order to best prepare for the writing-intensive work of litigation and regulatory compliance that she envisions for herself after law school. By seeking out placements in diverse organizations and practice areas, Willis has gained invaluable insight into a variety of practice settings best suited to her talents and interests. Willis is considering a number of different options for her first position after graduation, including post-graduate judicial clerkships, entry-level attorney positions with the D.C. and federal government and associate opportunities with a private firm focused on white-collar criminal defense or complex civil litigation.
The secret to Willis’ success, in her view, is a combination of skills, including networking, follow-through, faith and non-stop practice. Willis pursued writing-heavy placements early on in her law school career. This past summer, Willis interned with the Public Advocacy Division of the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, where she honed her legal writing skills drafting a variety of detailed research memoranda in support of the division’s affirmative civil litigation and enforcement practice. For example, for one assignment Willis analyzed the novel issue of whether the District may bring suit against individuals or companies attempting to influence national policy through the use of fake identities to submit fraudulent public comments to a federal agency headquartered in the District. In another assignment, Willis analyzed a potential issue of first impression, namely the District’s ability to bring suit under the D.C. False Claims Act against companies for submitting false claims in the housing context.
During the 2018-2019 academic year, on top of managing a full second-year course load, Willis supports first-year legal writing students in Lawyering Process I and II as a Writing Mentor. Willis also carved out the time during the Fall 2018 semester to volunteer on legal writing and other tasks in support of trial and appellate attorneys at the D.C. Office of the Federal Public Defender, the agency charged with representing indigent defendants accused of federal criminal offenses in the District of Columbia. This year, Willis will intern with Tzedek DC, a public interest center headquartered at the law school, whose mission draws on Jewish teachings to safeguard the legal rights of low-income D.C. residents in debt collection and consumer protection matters.
Willis likely benefits not just from her discipline and hard work, which she has in spades, but also her real-world experience overcoming insurmountable odds to make a difference in the community. Prior to joining UDC Law, Willis made her mark as an elementary and middle school teacher in the D.C. Public Schools system. Willis was so effective that she was promoted to administrator of a high-needs, low-performing K-8 campus, where she slashed infraction and out-of-school suspension rates by 80 percent. Willis built on her success disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline while leading the Education Committees of the NAACP and National African-American Drug Policy Coalition’s D.C. chapters, and in 2016 she launched the Institute for Equity and Excellence in Public Education, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for children at risk of interacting with the juvenile justice system.
With the completion of her J.D. in sight, Willis is well on her way to becoming a “Double Firebird,” having earned an M.A.T. from the University of the District of Columbia’s Center for Urban Education, where she was awarded the Dr. Paul Phillip Cooke Scholarship for her demonstrated commitment to diversity and excellence in urban education. Willis also holds an M.A. in criminal justice from the University of Toledo and an undergraduate degree in business administration from the University of Miami (FL). She also completed study abroad programs with both the University of Ghana in West Africa and University of Oxford.