Julia Wilson’s Journey from Dancer to CEO of OneJustice

Julia Wilson is a Stanford Law alumna and mover and shaker in the Public Interest sector. I spoke to her about how she got her position as CEO and what the prospects are for the future in the legal aid. One experience with a lawyer and her life took a different turn. Inspired by the entire public interest sector, Julia knew there was power in the law to help others, especially persons with disabilities. Julia’s awareness of her own privileges and inequalities within the legal aid sphere was beyond refreshing to hear. Julia is confident, intelligent, dedicated and a bad ass.

Julia was a speaker at the 2018 Ms. JD Conference; I hope her story motivates you to use the tools you have to help others, the way it has resonated with me.

Talk to us about why you entered the legal field?

I went to law-school specifically to become a public interest lawyer, and I actually never entertained any other career. In part, because I never planned on being a lawyer, while I was at UCLA in undergrad I was very active in the women's studies department, and they had this jurisprudence class that was taught by a law school professor who was also from the law school, and I loved it. I loved speaking about the law, and it felt like a really good examination of power, privilege, and feminism.

The professor took me aside at the end of the class and suggested that I should consider law school. But after graduation, I was in creative arts, so I danced for about five years after undergrad.  But in the end, I was injured and hurt, and honestly, dancing did not provide a steady income. So, I really didn't know what I wanted to next, and then I went back to that professor, and asked WHY do you think I should go to law school?

Through her, I volunteered for a year at California Women's Law Center in LA, and in two weeks I was hooked. I was doing all this amazing policy work around domestic violence centers accessibility to those with disabilities. It was great.

Explain how your position as CEO of OneJustice?

I had opportunities to work in three areas that were formative to my career path, 1) a civil justice and legal aid, where I spent both of my summers working in legal aid organizations, it was a really inspiring and meaningful place to do the work and 2) in the disabilities rights community and 3) work in the public benefits area which felt like a system that significantly over regulates and disempowers people who have lower incomes.

When I was in law-school, welfare reform was coming down, and we were all watching as welfare reform de-regulated many public benefits programs in California to the county level.  These county systems were already not empowering places, and they had no idea how to work with people with disabilities. So, I proposed a project that would work at the intersection of disabilities rights and welfare reform, making sure that the new welfare work programs were accessible to those who had disabilities such as mental health conditions or undiagnosed learning disabilities and also for people who were caring for family members with disabilities.

So I had this great idea for a project, and Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County was willing to sponsor me for the post-graduate fellowship programs.  I went through the application process, but I was not selected for any of them. So, I was in my third year of law school, and I didn't have a job or any way to get a job. Wonderfully, the Legal Aid Society basically said that if I were able to raise funds to cover my salary, they would support me and allow me to launch a pilot version of the project.

So, I started writing grant applications, and ultimately I got enough money from three different law foundations at the law school to cover just my salary. Legal Aid took me in, and I was able to start a tiny little pilot version of the project. On my first day, I immediately turned around and applied for fellowships again – and then I was selected by Latham & Watkins for a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellowship, which was an amazing experience.

After the end of my fellowship, I was able to stay at Legal Aid as a staff attorney working with kids with disabilities, then I become a directing attorney, and eventually, I became their first ever pro bono coordinator. As much as I loved working with my clients, problem-solving and making the legal system more responsive to them, I was also interested in making policy change.

So, when a job opened up at the Legal Aid Association of California, I was able to make an impact on the entire legal aid system by advocating for more funding for the entire legal aid network in the state, as well as working on providing training for legal aid staff attorneys and building a statewide network.  Then 11 years ago, I became the CEO of I OneJustice, working to bring life-changing legal help to those in need by transforming the civil legal aid system.  We try to dig into the thorny question of how can all segments of the legal profession work together to make our civil justice system fulfill its promise to America and its citizens?

Why have you been at OneJustice for 11 years?

It is absolutely the best job for me. I pinch myself every day that I get to do this work. I work with amazing people in the organization and on the board of directors. The legal aid leaders we support are amazing, thoughtful, and strategic people. I feel that we are able to have real impact and create change in the world

Were there any specific occurrences in your life that shaped you as an attorney?

I was definitely shaped by my volunteer experiences, particularly those working with people with mental health disabilities who were facing discrimination. I also had an amazing litigation internship at civil rights advocacy organization doing litigation against big institutions that were discriminating against people with disabilities. The skills I got and the mentorship that I received from those lawyers absolutely made me into the lawyer I am today. Although that now I am in management and basically done practicing law, I think those years of thinking critically and strategically and with an element of self-reflection about my role definitely continue to influence how I show up and who I am in the work.

Do you think that there is a correlation between the changing political climate and the number of new lawyers in the field?

I definitely think there is a “Trump Bump.” I hear from law schools that more students are applying to law school these days.  It does seem like there is a specific reaction from those who care about democracy, the rule of law, and criminal justice reform. Under the current administration, all of those systems are under attack. And if you want to be a part of the defense mechanism against those attacks, I can see that going to law school is a way to do it.

One area where I do have questions of curiosity and where OneJustice is doing some work is the question of what the larger legal aid sector is doing about race, equity and inclusion diversity in leadership.

There was a point in time before the Great Recession where the Legal Aid of California did a study on retention and recruitment which basically showed that the groups of newer attorneys were more diverse than the longer-term leadership. And my concern is that with the losses of funding during the recession, what was the impact on diversity as organizations were forced to eliminate positions, particularly those of newer attorneys. What impact does that have on our leadership? Are we unintentionally re-creating a system where we are a white-led movement?

I don't know the answer, but I think we should be intently looking at it. I have been in the legal aid field for 20 years, and I find that part of my personal learning and growth is to seek mentorship and co-create distributed leadership systems with people of color within our organization. And that is a practice that I am able to engage in, collectively, with the staff at OneJustice. The question is how do we then support that kind of work in the broader sector? I think it’s an open question and one that I hope we will start to talk about more.

It's bewildering to me sometimes that this sector, given that issues of race, systematic racism and white supremacy are front and center in issues of poverty and discrimination, and yet we aren’t necessarily comfortable talking frankly about them within our sector? I think that those of us who hold positional authority have an opportunity to open up these conversations and challenge ourselves to step out of the way.

What is the future outlook for OneJustice?

One of the most important things the OneJustice staff started last year was an equity and inclusion committee that works developing these important conversations and work within the organization, and then building a staff team with the expertise to bring training, consulting and coaching on diversity, equity, and inclusion to other legal aid organizations.

I am also excited about the work that we are doing to engage the private sector – law firms and corporate legal departments – in all kinds of immigration services, particularly in rural and isolated communities.   This work is particularly meaningful, particularly given the larger context around immigration policies under the federal administration.

Do you have any last thoughts or advice?

I guess I would say to women law students and newer lawyers, to try to hold the paradox that it is okay to be a BAD ASS, to be your whole self, and yet to also not be surprised the world is not always ready for women to show up as their whole selves.

I spent so much time at the front end of my career trying to conform to a set of expectations in my head, and increasingly I have decided that I am going to show up with my whole self. If it is too big or too brassy for someone else, I try to remember that their response that is their responsibility, not mine. As long as I show up with integrity and mindfulness, I’m less and less willing to alter who I am.

I am still sometimes taken aback when I run into moments of sexism. My day to day work world is very feminized.  We have a lot of women leaders in our organization, a lot of my CEO peers are women, and in fact, in the larger legal aid system, the majority of clients are women. It’s a very women-centric environment. There are moments when I step out of that environment, into the broader legal profession or areas relating to funding, and I am reminded that there is an imbalance of power that still exists. I experience a stray hand on my knee at a lunch meeting or some comments about my attire. It’s then I realize, oh right we’re not done with this.

I guess ultimately the balance is being able to hold that paradox – knowing that these issues still exist, while also still being determined to show up as my whole self, no matter what.

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