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Grads get great opportunity to see big cases up close as supreme court clerks

By Nisha Ajmani Wade '02

Fresh out of law school, two PLU graduates are now serving as clerks for state supreme courts that are dealing with cases involving some of the most pressing issues in the country.

Chris Wyant ’01 and Nikki (Schneider ’99 ’00) Fisher each assist a justice by researching issues and drafting memos and opinions for other judges to read. Working on both criminal and civil cases, they are each serving one-year terms.

Susan Adair Dwyer-Shick, professor of political science and pre-law advisor, said clerking puts them at the center of things. “They’ve got a front row seat,” she said. “They have the opportunity to work with people who touch our lives, with issues that touch our lives.”

Wyant and Fisher both said they have seen some interesting cases. While they are not permitted to talk about the specifics, Wyant, who clerks for Justice Susan Owens at the Washington State Supreme Court, worked on the case concerning Washington’s hotly contested governor’s race last winter. “It was very exciting,” he said. “I was glad to be here when it happened.”

Nikki (Schneider ’99, ’01) Nikki Fisher will join a Boston law firm after her year as a clerk with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Photo courtesy Nikki Fisher.

This spring, the court will hear arguments over legalizing same-sex marriage.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, where Fisher clerks for Justice Roderick L. Ireland, also has dealt with same-sex marriage and cases related to education and sentencing guidelines.

Dwyer-Shick said this is the first time two alums have clerked at state supreme courts at the same time. “It’s highly competitive,” she said. “To get a judicial clerkship at any level, federal or state, you have to have good grades and good references.”

And the hard work paid off. Wyant said clerking provides the opportunity to learn the basic skills needed to be a lawyer. “Clerking is such a unique experience,” he said. “I see a lot of cases and really get to work on them.”

Both Wyant and Fisher said the job teaches them how to write and argue effectively through reading others’ work, writing briefs and watching oral arguments in court.

Working so closely with a judge also lets them see things from the inside, including how the process works, how the court decides to take cases and how the judges think and decide on a case.

“You find out what works and what doesn’t by watching,” Fisher said. “It gives you the opportunity to really examine the law.”

Officially becoming lawyers last year after passing the bar exam, both Wyant and Fisher plan to go into litigation. Wyant was asked to return as a clerk to the Federal District Court in Seattle, where he interned as a student. After that, he plans to work at a law firm. Fisher, whose longtime goals include becoming a judge herself, already has a job lined up at Bingham McCutchen LLP, a national law firm, in Boston.

Fisher said she always planned to go to law school. “I enjoyed the whole litigation process and was fascinated by the constitution,” she said. Majoring in political science and education at PLU, she later graduated from New England School of Law (Mass.).

Fisher said PLU played a big role in getting her where she is today. “PLU helped me build my confidence and people skills,” she said. “I am a more well-rounded person, able to adapt to every situation.”

Wyant, who graduated from Seattle University School of Law, started out at PLU as a business major, but later switched to political science – sparking an interest in law. “My time at PLU and in the political science department was a really significant influence in the decision to go to law school,” he said.

Wyant returned to campus in the fall to share his experiences about law school and clerking at an event arranged by the Legal Studies Club. “Sometimes you just get really lucky and find a job that suits your interests and personality,” Wyant said. “I found it in law.”


Trip to Romania changed their lives; now they’re changing lives

By Steve Hansen

Jeni Gregory ’95 and Ely Smith ’70 were part of a 10-person team that traveled with a large humanitarian organization to Romania three years ago, providing assistance to some of the estimated 135,000 orphaned children there.

The trip went well. However, upon leaving, the group felt like there was more to be done, that personally, they had more to offer. So, seven of them, including Gregory and Smith, found a way: They formed their own humanitarian organization, World Change for Children, based in University Place, Wash.

It’s run by volunteers who also have jobs. Gregory works for the Tacoma-based Metropolitan Development Council, where she coordinates mental health services for the homeless. (She’s also a Ph.D candidate.) She spoke at PLU’s symposium Pathways to Peace in January.

Smith is semi-retired after working in for-profit and nonprofit sectors for more than 30 years. She still does income taxes during the tax season. They both sit on the World Change for Children Board of Directors. Their hearts lie in helping these orphaned children after seeing firsthand the needs.

Jeni Gregory ’95 shares a smile with two sisters – the elder with full-blown AIDS – at a hospital in Romania. Part of World Change for Children’s mission is to simply build relationships with children who are ailing.

“For these children, you only have to be,” said Smith, in a Zen-like description of her work. “To them, you just are.”

The nonprofit has sent 19 teams overseas, mostly to Eastern European countries, since its inception in October of 2002. Though relatively small, the organization continues to grow. Its efforts range from a delicate combination of providing assistance in the form of medical supplies, paint or clean mattresses, to the simple act of holding the hand of an ailing child at his or her bedside. Gregory calls this “being versus doing,” and it is what she thinks makes World Change for Children such a special organization.

Smith and Gregory elaborate on this idea by focusing on three key principles that guide the organization: exchange, honesty and leaving a light footprint.

All three are related to the same idea, that those who hope to be “the great white missionary” will disappoint. Those who are willing to meet the children on their terms, embrace their culture and cater to their needs – no matter how small – will find great joy.

They tell the story of a recent trip to Romania, where one of World Change’s teams took on the task of remodeling some rooms of a large hospital that was, effectively, an AIDS hospice. The rooms were unkempt and dreary. The World Change team set to work, asking the children what color they’d like their room to be. They all requested an unsightly pink, a hue of Pepto Bismol that Gregory found almost intolerable. Yet they painted the room that color anyway.

The children loved it. And the area doctor later told them why. “That shade of pink is a birthday pink,” said Gregory. “To them, that color says ‘This is life,’ It says to the children, ‘You’re not going to die here.’ ”

These are the small victories of which World Change concerns itself – simple measures that show children that they are loved.

There is no shortage of work in which World Change for Children team members are willing to get involved. Gregory traveled with a team to Afghanistan last year, and both Smith and Gregory plan to head back to Romania this year – this time with a container of donated medical supplies for Romanian hospitals and orphanages worth nearly a quarter of a million dollars.

How does a relatively new organization like World Change for Children assemble its growing volunteer base and impressive shipment of goods? A lot of smaller donations mostly, and a list of volunteers who, once involved, stick with the program and bring others in. It all comes down to putting beliefs into practice, suggest Gregory and Smith, and such efforts will bear fruit.

“We’re not a faith-based organization” said Gregory, “but it doesn’t mean that God isn’t using us.”

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© Scene 2005  •  Pacific Lutheran University  •  Spring 2005

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