ASK N NDN: How To Be A Successful Native Lawyer
Gyasi Ross and Gabe Galanda are two of Indian country’s biggest names in the field of law. Though they have some differences in beliefs, they’re great friends who met in their law career infancy nearly two decades ago.
In March, they debated on Al-Jazeera America TV regarding tribal disenrollment, which is a topic Galanda (Round Valley Indian Tribes) has worked extensively in with the Nooksack Tribe of Washington.
“He’s a formidable adversary, and I am too,” Ross says. “So we went at it. But people don’t realize we’re text messaging before, during and after about things.”
Ross and Galanda – who graduated from Columbia University and University of Arizona, respectively – shared some deep truths regarding what it takes to make it in today’s world of law.
Do you see a need for more Native lawyers out there? Why?
Galanda: Yes. There’s definitely an increasing need for lawyers, especially Native lawyers in Indian country. And that is because tribal legal needs are only expanding. And by tribal legal needs, I mean not only the needs of tribal governments or businesses, but also tribal members.
Ross: I see a need for more Native everything. We’re vastly underrepresented in almost every single field. … It would be nice to have more Native lawyers who are grounded within our [tribal] communities.
Are there scholarships available for Native students out there?
Galanda: Yes. They seem plentiful to me, but it takes a bit of effort to obtain them. A high school student should start locally and then pursue them through colleges or universities. … My sense is that the Gates scholarships, and Cobell scholarships, and other tribal scholarships there’s even more money for aspiring Native law students these days.
Ross: I have about $60,000 in debt that says I don’t know a whole lot about scholarships [laughing]. But I do know of programs. I went through the Free Law Summer Institute for Native students going into law. It acquaints you with the rigors of law school. It gives you a whole semester of law school preparation. That program was invaluable for me.
Should a student focus on an area of interest with their undergraduate major and minor?
Galanda: It depends on whether the student knows they want to go to law school. If they’re still exploring whether law suits them, then it might make sense to take some pre-law classes in undergrad. I enjoyed English literature and it was therefore no coincidence that my grades soared. And when it was time for me to apply for law schools, I had a 3.7 GPA and it became somewhat easier to get into a law school or a law school of my preference.
Ross: No. 1, you gotta write as much as possible because being a lawyer is all about writing. You’re telling a story and being the best storyteller usually wins. … Two: Have the confidence to assert who you are and where you come from. [It’s] your greatest weapon. Because those folks in admissions or scholarships, they’ve heard everyone’s story. But they’ve never heard your story before because our people haven’t been there.
What are some tips on picking a school?
Galanda: The student should start by focusing on what he or she wants to study by way of law. Most people presume that a Native law student would want to study Indian law. But that’s not necessarily the case. … If you feel inclined to study something else, they might just aspire for the very best law school they can get into. I would urge any Native looking to go into law school to shoot for the stars. Try Harvard. Try Stanford. Try Michigan. Don’t underestimate yourself.
Ross: I did what any kid with low self-esteem would do. … I applied to 26 law schools and thought, “Maybe I don’t get into any.” I ended up getting into almost all of them. But my process was extremely unscientific.
How important are internships?
Galanda: They can be important in terms of getting into a preferred law school. I’ve seen students spend their summers interning with law firms, tribal legal firms or courthouses or other jobs that would expose them to the legal practice. That’s particularly helpful. I think law school admission folks would look for summer work in the legal setting favorably. It would suggest they’ve already got a head start on their learning with real world experience.
Ross: Sometimes they can be a life changing experience for people. They find their purpose. Sometimes it’s important to find out what you don’t want to do. I worked for the Ho-Chunk Tribe and it was an amazing experience. They treated me like family. I worked for NCAI and got to meet Native people on their home turf. That experience was creating that network and learning about humility and respect for the people I’m serving. I looked at it as: I’m building a skillset and relationships that will hopefully help all of that.
What are some keys to earning the degree?
Galanda: The first year of law school is crucial. It’s not the be all, and all of the student’s legal career or law school career. But it’s crucial in terms of what can be accomplished thereafter in law school. It’s crucial you get the best grades possible. Because by the end of the first year you will now be positioned to have your first summer internship, which could play a part in your legal career.
Ross: A couple of things. It’s over very shortly. Sometimes it sucks. … It’s like workouts. During the midst of working out I have to remind myself, this is a short period of time, just like life in general. What am I going to do to maximize this [life]? Two: I can seriously change my family’s economic fortune and that’s big. I come from a community with 74 percent unemployment. I instantly became the long pockets in my family.
What does it take to pass the bar examination?
Galanda: I believe one should sacrifice what amounts to an entire summer – or it could be winter – to get ready for a bar exam. It’s a very stressful process. It’s an arduous examinations, which means two days or more. My advice is to do everything you possibly can so that on a very stressful day at the end of summer you have no regrets.
Ross: Understand there’s a formula to it. The bar exam favors form over substance. Everything comes down to writing in a particular fashion. Call it IRAC: Issue, Rule, Application, Conclusion. It doesn’t matter if you have the most brilliant response. If you write in that fashion you’re gonna do well.
Could you offer any preparation tips for landing your first job?
Galanda: As cliche as it is, it’s true that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The first impression may be in the form of a cover letter or resume, which may be transmitted by internet or mail. Those documents can’t be mistaken. It must be very dynamic and grab someone’s attention and make the writer of the letter stand out. Your resume must be very polished in its appearance. And if you’re lucky to get an interview, then your first impression is one to make in person: Well dressed, well rested and poised to put your best foot forward. And in that moment you have to be yourself … You can’t come off as disingenuous or phony.
Ross: This sounds like a cop out, but the market has changed so much since I was in school. I graduated 13 years ago. I don’t even know what I would do now. But I really didn’t play the game the way a lot of people played the game. I’m an ideologist and idealist who’s willing to be broke for something I think would be important.
What are some truths to your story you would share with a crowd full of students?
Galanda: I’d say you have to want it. And you have to want it real badly, meaning law school is not easy. The legal profession is not easy. The entire legal walk of life is a pretty arduous and stressful one. And there has to be some fortitude and resilience in you, especially if you’re Native.
Ross: You are uniquely qualified. … [Natives] have the ability to do [law] in ways that other students simply can’t. We are the best storytellers in the world. I say that as a matter of fact. … Realize that ancestral skill and don’t let it fade away.
Cary Rosenbaum (Colville) is a correspondent and columnist for ICTMN. He can be contacted via Twitter:@caryrosenbaum
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