On a cool spring afternoon in the Caspersen Student Center, Brenna Phillips ’24 reflected on her choice to attend Harvard Law School. The decision meant she would be walking in “the footsteps of giants,” said the California native who worried at the time about leaving her own mark.

“I didn’t want to come to Harvard just to get a degree and leave,” said Phillips. “I wanted to make a difference here and invest in the community.”

For the past three years Phillips has invested in Harvard’s community and others beyond the campus’ gates, taking part in myriad extracurricular activities, and a range of academic endeavors focused on helping all children gain access to education.

During her time at Harvard, Phillips has been a bartender at the student center pub; a set and graphic designer and a producer for Harvard Law School Parody; chief of staff of the Harvard Black Law Students Association; a 1L section president; a member of HLS Lambda; and an Affinity Group Council Leader. And that’s just outside of class.

Academically, she has been deeply involved with the Education Law Clinic’s Impact Litigation and the Youth Advocacy & Policy Lab, helping further the work of a statewide education reform campaign in Kentucky. She conducted research for Lecturer on Law Diane L. Rosenfeld LL.M. ’96 around domestic violence and violence against women, and was a teaching assistant for Clinical Professor Michael Gregory ’04, supporting his Lawyering for Justice In the United States and Art of Social Change courses.

Phillips jokes that she can do anything “if you lower your expectations.” But her own expectations are exceptionally high, which means she gets things done. “I’m not afraid to fail but I don’t like to fail,” said Phillips, who has designed the Parody logo the past three years and can now add woodworking with a circular saw to her resume thanks to her work helping build a set for the most recent show. “I think I’m always willing to try new things and to keep going until I feel like I’ve delivered something that is up to my standards.”

It seems clear Phillips’ drive is inherited. Her father is a longtime litigator for a boutique firm in Los Angeles, her mother is an assistant superintendent of human resources for a school district in Redlands, California, and her brother is a linebacker for the Miami Dolphins. But she never felt pressured growing up. Today she considers her joint passions in law and education a reflection of the example set by her parents, and her own experiences. Diagnosed with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, in the fourth grade, Phillips thinks some of her early decisions and behaviors could have “led her down a difficult path” were it not for the support of her family, and a caring school system.

“As I got older, I started to feel this obligation to ensure that students like myself who have ADHD or are one of the only Black students at their school or just a student with any type of marginalized identity didn’t fall through the cracks.”

“As I got older, I started to feel this obligation to ensure that students like myself who have ADHD or are one of the only Black students at their school or just a student with any type of marginalized identity didn’t fall through the cracks because they were misunderstood or under-supported by the system itself,” said Phillips. “I realized I wanted to change the system to ensure that that didn’t happen.”

Initially, she planned to teach and was on course for a master’s in education. Then she spent the summer before her senior year in college doing “mundane work” at her father’s law office sorting through deposition transcripts and organizing interrogatories, and she loved it. “I realized every piece of evidence in discovery was like a piece of the litigation story puzzle. And it was like a scavenger hunt, trying to find the best piece of evidence or the most useful thing in your defense or in your argument.” She also spent time in the courtroom watching lawyers make their case. “That was invigorating,” said Phillips, “and it made me realize it was something I could see myself doing.”

So, she switched gears, took the LSAT, and moved to Amsterdam to fulfill the requirements of a Fulbright Scholar award she’d received after completing her undergraduate degree. Phillips spent the next several months studying the Dutch education system, and traveling across Europe. In March of 2020, as she readied to return to the United States, the Covid-19 lockdown stranded her in Germany for six weeks. While waiting to head home, she wrote the children’s picture book “Little B Learns: About Social Distancing,” to help the young daughter of a friend she was staying with better cope with the pandemic’s restrictions. She hopes one day to parlay that work into a series of children’s stories, she said, “to help teach kids how to think about difficult challenges.”

After deferring law school to avoid spending her first year remotely due to COVID, Phillips worked as the pro bono coordinator at her father’s law office, Larson LLP. At Larson, she created a fellowship program that pairs underprivileged law school students with lawyers from the firm, and looked forward to exploring how she could combine her passion for education with the law at Harvard.

“Initially I thought being a teacher was the way I was going to help change the lives of the students on a day-to-day basis, and while that is still a passion of mine, working at Larson, and also studying certain cases my senior year in college, helped me realize that a lot of large-scale reform around education was done in the courts,” said Phillips, referencing the landmark Supreme Court decisions Brown v. Board of Education that ruled racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, and Tinker v. Des Moines that upheld public school students’ First Amendment rights.

“And now with my time at Harvard, I really see that this big change around greater access to education and equality in the classroom is happening in the courtroom,” Phillips added, “and I want to be a part of that change.”

After graduation she will join Kirkland & Ellis in New York City. She spent the past two summers working in the firm’s Los Angeles office where she felt seen and “invested in as an individual, as a Black woman, and as a queer woman,” and is hoping to build on the skills she gained from Harvard’s litigation clinic. “I think Kirkland is going to train and support me to be the best litigator I can be.” Unsurprisingly, Phillips also plans to continue with pro bono work at the firm and take every chance she can both in and out of the office to keep creating community and supporting education for all.

“New York is one of the best places in the country to work on public education reform, and any opportunities or time I have outside of work, I really want to try to give to the community that I’m living in,” she said, “and continue changing and bettering the education system as much as I can.”

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