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Genzie Bonadies, a class of 2013 alumna, discusses her path to her current position, and how some of the lessons she has learned, early on, have really opened up her way of thinking of what it means to practice public interest law.

Genzie Bonadies’13, is an Associate Counsel for the Legal Mobilization Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, where she works specifically with the Voting Rights Project and the Educational Opportunities Project. She has a broad array of job responsibilities across these substantive areas, engaging in civil litigation, policy work, and community-education efforts. To name just three focuses of her job over this past year: she has drafted legal briefs related to vote dilution, discrimination in higher education, and appropriate remedies; she has designed and facilitated trainings for parents on how to advocate for their children’s educational needs; and she has collaborated with several state and national coalitions to advance voting reforms such as promoting online voter registration and better language access.

Bonadies reflects on her work at the Lawyers’ Committee

Bonadies’s work in voting and education has taught her the power of well-designed and well-coordinated advocacy efforts to change administrative practices, observing “you can make pretty substantial change through cooperation with the administration and with election officials.” Bonadies has been most surprised by her newfound affinity for impact litigation work. Prior to joining the Lawyers’ Committee, Bonadies felt most drawn to direct services work because her time at the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB) showed her direct services could greatly lift both individuals and communities and, in contrast, she had fewer clear, tangible examples of how litigation could be effectively used as a tool for social change. Over the past year, Bonadies has witnessed firsthand how well-crafted litigation can likewise result in significant advancements for community-based interests. For example, she has seen how replacing discriminatory electoral schemes with more equitable systems can result in significantly greater success for minority candidates seeking public office. She likewise has learned that she has a much stronger interest in legal writing now that it involves causes she energetically supports, drawing a contrast with many of her writing assignments in law school which bore no connection to social causes she supports.

How did Bonadies find her way to the Lawyers’ Committee?

Bonadies reflected that her path to the Lawyers’ Committee has not been a direct one. Bonadies drew her initial inspiration to attend law school from her work as an AmeriCorps teacher in Phoenix, where she recognized that students were facing barriers that she could not solve through her work in the classroom. Her students’ parents frequently asked her legal questions that she could not answer, and it became clear that “the instability that their parents were facing had very tangible effects on my students’ ability to learn.” Prompted by these experiences, Bonadies arrived at HLS intending to study education law. However, Bonadies soon found herself most interested in community-based lawyering and this interest led her to the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau (HLAB). Although HLAB did not focus on education law per say, Bonadies quickly discovered direct services required educational tools and resources to better orient indigent communities to the legal systems that structure their lives. HLAB also provided invaluable training in litigation, providing ample opportunity for oral arguments, depositions, and negotiations. Building on her work at HLAB, Bonadies developed a post-graduate fellowship focused on housing and employment law through the Public Service Venture Fund. Based at Centro Legal de la Raza (“Centro Legal”) in Oakland, California, Bonadies learned critical skills from Centro Legal’s experienced attorneys and the organization’s tiered service model which included clinics, limited-scope services, and direct representation. Moreover, Bonadies’s fellowship enabled her to continue her interest in education by strengthening Centro Legal’s partnerships with local schools to better inform students and their parents of their legal rights and available remedies.

Bonadies greatly enjoyed her work at Centro Legal, but her personal life presented a geographic challenge. She had always envisioned working where she grew up: California’s East Bay. But her partner was a Navy JAG who was assigned to work in Washington, D.C. Bonadies ultimately decided to relocate to be closer to her partner. Her first instinct was to look search for an organization that could replicate Centro Legal, but she quickly learned that duplicating experiences would not be feasible since each location presents its own network of public service organizations. She decided to embrace D.C.’s array of options for public service attorneys, and broadened the scope of her search accordingly to include more positions involving policy and coalition-based work. As part of this process, she set up informational interviews with D.C. attorneys, including several who she met through her supervisors at Centro Legal. Bonadies emphasized the importance of those interviews, which “connected me to the right buzzwords, the right issues driving each organization, the right people to talk to.” When she heard about the job at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, she saw an opportunity to combine her long-standing interest in education with an interest in voting rights she had developed in law school as a research assistant for Professor Lani Guinier.

Conscious that this job was quite different from her legal services background, Bonadies spent a significant amount of time writing and re-writing her cover letter. This careful drafting process helped her articulate the connections between voting rights and her past work. The application and interview process also resulted in a shift of her understanding of her own expertise. “To an organization’s eyes, I’m just a new attorney,” she said. “While I felt as if I was really specialized in something one year out of law school, I now think they had a different viewpoint: they saw me as a young attorney who needed training in any subject matter, but who had potential.” Affirming the transferability of her skills in housing and employment law, the Lawyers’ Committee offered Bonadies the position and she gladly accepted.

Speaking about a year into this work, Bonadies noted that the new environment required some adjustment and entailed “a very steep learning curve.” Fortunately, her new job has also presented her with talented and generous mentors. Along the way, she has developed additional skills and interests, including the new-found appreciation for impact litigation work mentioned above. Overall, she explained, “one of the best, most empowering lessons I have learned is that I can change locations and change subject areas. It’s freeing to know that I can pivot towards new practices when needed or desired.”

Written by Erin Kelley, OPIA Summer Fellow 2015