Akilah Lane JD '09

Fighting for Civil Rights: A Q&A with Akilah Lane JD ’09, Staff Attorney with ACLU Montana in Helena, MT

By Elizabeth Kelley Gillogly B.A. ’93

Akilah Lane became keenly aware of social justice issues as a child growing up in California with her mother and two siblings. She says she chose to go to law school to “seek meaningful change for communities who have been historically marginalized,” and she chose Santa Clara Law because of its diversity as well as the strength of its social justice and human rights programs. While at Santa Clara Law, Akilah was an intern at the San Jose Public Defender’s Office and also served on the boards of the Black Law Student Association and the student chapter of the ACLU. She also received a Public Interest and Social Justice Grant to intern at the Mental Health Advocacy Project of the Silicon Valley Law Foundation. She was honored with the Outstanding Graduate Award when she graduated in 2009. 

Please tell us a bit about your background and experience before you came to Santa Clara Law.

I was born in Vallejo, Calif., and spent the first half of my childhood there with my Mom and two younger siblings. We lived in a very rough neighborhood and we lacked resources and local family support (all of my Mother’s family lived in another state). My younger brother had Down’s Syndrome and my younger sister had a myriad of learning disabilities and mental health issues. Although many struggles remained, at 9, we moved to Tacoma and gained access to better schools and more family support. At the end of high school, due to my younger sister’s gang affiliations, it became too dangerous for me to live at home and I was very lucky to have a friend who let me move in with her and her disabled Mother. With the help of my aunt and uncle, I took the SATs and applied to a few universities.

I ended up attending and graduating from Willamette University, where I majored in Politics. While at Willamette, I had the opportunity to spend a year studying abroad in Nantes, Frances. In between undergraduate and law school, I spent a year working in Montana.

What inspired and motivated you to go to law school?

My many life experiences motivated me to seek meaningful change for communities who have been historically marginalized. I went to law school with the sole goal of pursuing a career in social justice—hoping to someday be a civil rights attorney.

Why did you choose Santa Clara? 

I chose Santa Clara specifically because it was rated the top school for diversity (at the time) and had a robust social justice and human rights course offering. Living in a very homogenous place like Montana, deciding to go to law school made it imperative to me that I find a place to go to law school where I could feel a sense of belonging and being understood. I also wanted access to programs and courses that were in line with my heart’s passion—which Santa Clara offered.

What was your favorite class (or professor, or both!) in law school and why?

Honestly, the professors were a huge part of what was so great about my experience at SCU. I had so many fantastic professors and took a ton of incredible courses that it would be impossible to choose just one—so I will highlight a few. Michelle Oberman and her seminar on Reproductive Health Issues. Beth Van Schaack and her course on International Criminal Law. Professor Lia Epperson and her course on Race and the Law.  Professor Joondeph and his Supreme Court Seminar (a really fun and challenging course). The Wright’s Social Justice Workshop and Statutory Interpretation course (I was extremely heartbroken to hear of Nancy’s passing). Business Organization with Professor Yosifon (I really loved how he incorporated philosophical questions into this course). Evidence is a beast of a course, but Professor Gillingham was vibrant and hilarious. I never took a class from Professor Gulasakrem, but he was one of my favorite people on campus.

What was the most surprising part of your law school experience?

One of the most surprising parts of my law school experience was how supported I felt by staff and faculty, especially after 1L year. Going into law school, I was terrified and completely prepared to work as hard as I could and to do so alone. I ended up working my butt off and also learning that there was room for honesty, vulnerability, and learning beyond bar courses, while forging some life-long bonds.

What about your law school experience are you the most grateful for?

I am grateful for all of it. I learned a new language, new tools, a new view for approaching and understanding many of the issues that I am passionate about—which allows me to do the rewarding and fulfilling work of fighting for civil rights.

How is your education/experience from Santa Clara Law helping you in your current position?

My education from Santa Clara Law is helping me in my current position in many ways. Many of my former classmates reached out to me with congratulations and offers of support when I joined the legal team of ACLU MT. In preparation for a project I was working on, Erika Rivera JD ‘07 spent 3 hours on a Sunday sharing her experiences as an immigration attorney with me and sending me helpful resources to aid me in understanding the many facets of immigration law and the immigrant experience. I am still connected to and supported by my former law professors and other faculty from the law school (special shout out to former Dean Leach and Dean Susan Erwin!). Since I have returned to practicing law, Professor Oberman, Professor Van Schaack, and former Dean Cynthia Mertens have provided me professional recommendations and listening ears, and they continue to offer meaningful support. I have listened to interviews and sought out scholarly articles written by SCU professors to support research and understanding of legal issues that arise.

What are some of the most challenging parts of your current work? What parts are the most fun?

I am new to impact litigation and it is very different from direct services, so I am just learning a different approach and strategy to my legal practice. There is much, much, much to constantly learn, and that can feel challenging and overwhelming at times, but ultimately I feel grateful for the opportunity to develop new skills and learn new areas of law.

The most fun part of my current work is getting to work with the best possible little legal team. I cannot overemphasize how lucky I feel to work in an encouraging environment where I feel supported and able to fully be myself- silly jokes and all. It is also exhilarating to work on a variety of different issues that feel truly and deeply important to me and collaborate with many different organizations on these issues.

What would you say to someone considering attending Santa Clara Law?

I would say go check it out! Take the time to think about what you want out of a law school experience and what you hope to accomplish afterwards. Then look at the course offerings and see how they fit into your future goals or align with your personal interests and passions. Law school can be grueling and isolating at times—even under the best of circumstances—but I can assure you that at Santa Clara University there are staff and faculty who are committed to both your personal and professional growth and who actually care about your well-being.

What do you do in your spare time for fun and relaxation?

Good question! That has shifted during Covid Times. I love spending time dancing, reading, and exploring with my two children. I value connecting with others and hearing people share their stories in their own words. I enjoy interacting with people who make me laugh and watching funny movies. I love to run and I also like to sit on my floor and eat candy!