The Black Student Law Association held “Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.” — a panel for Black History Month featuring Black legal professionals Monday at the Black Cultural Center in the Red Gym.
The event was attended by many, including aspiring Black pre-law students, and featured panelists who answered questions and spoke about navigating the legal world as Black people.
The event featured five panelists from the community —
Chalisa Sims graduated from UW law school in 2021 and currently works at a Burns Bair LLP in Madison practicing insurance law. She went to the University of California-Berkeley for her undergraduate degree and then completed her Masters in public health at Boston University.
Sims spoke about the benefits of waiting to go to law school, including being able to find yourself and gain real-world experience.
UW Law School 2L and President of the Black Law Students Association Toni Houston was another panelist. She went to law school right after graduating from UW and currently works at the Wisconsin Innocence Project.
John Givens, another panelist, has worked in the criminal justice field for the past 40 years and currently works for Circles of Support, a JustDane initiative that helps people transition back into the community after release from prison.
“My passion is working with juveniles aged 14 to 17,” Givens said. “They are just misguided kids who need some direction.”
Lecturer and doctoral candidate at the UW Law School Tinashe Hofisi was another member of the panel.
Joseph McDonald, Founder of the McDonald Legal Practice, was another member of Monday’s panel. He founded the practice in 2021 after graduating from UW in 2020 with both a Juris Doctorate and a Master of Public Health degree. He described his practice as 50% criminal defense cases, 30% civil rights cases and 20% personal injury cases.
McDonald spoke on what it is like for him to navigate the legal world as a Black man.
“During the pandemic when no one was getting their hair cut, I had to ask myself, ‘If I get braids, will I hurt my client’s chance of winning?’” McDonald said.
The panelists also discussed how they individually stay motivated to keep pursuing law as a career.
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For Sims, that meant defining what you can’t and won’t do early on in a career. She said she learned very quickly in law school that she wasn’t interested in family law or criminal defense. But, she found through her classes that she had an interest in education and constitutional law.
McDonald said you have to stop measuring your goodness by your outcomes because you can’t always help them.
“I know where my capabilities and capacities lie and I am comfortable with that,” McDonald said. “You get to a point where you say, ‘This is what I can do, and that’s enough.’”
Sims, Houston and McDonald all spoke about the importance of pursuing what you are passionate about in undergrad. Most of the time, your specific degree doesn’t matter, what matters is the network you build, Sims said.
Upcoming events for Black History Month can be found on the BHM website.