Current Needs and PLSI Successes
Even with the extraordinary success of the program, PLSI has no intention of settling there. The world has changed significantly since the program’s first cohort arrived at the University of New Mexico School of Law, and the needs of the program changed with it. PLSI understands this reality and is continuously expanding its programming to fit the needs of current Native Americans in the legal field.
Presently, increasing the number of Native American attorneys and judges remains a priority for PLSI. The ABA data from 2022 shows 1.3 million lawyers are active across the nation. Of those who are active lawyers, “one-half of 1% (0.5%) were Native American in 2022—nearly unchanged from 0.6% a decade earlier.” (ABA Profile of the Legal Profession 2022, Lawyers by Race and Ethnicity, Am. Bar Ass’n (Sept. 15, 2023).) The federal, state, and Tribal benches are still overwhelmingly non-Native. Currently, there are only four active Native American judges who sit on the federal bench and only two Native American justices who sit on state supreme courts. There has never been a Native American federal circuit court judge appointed. Id. at 5.
The American justice system is a critical area of the legal profession, where Native American representation is lacking. Native Americans are subject to the American justice system but rarely see themselves represented on the decision-making side of it. Lawrence Baca, former deputy director of the Office of Tribal Justice at the Department of Justice, stresses the importance of “Indians and non-Indians alike that Native Americans are seen as a part of that system as lawyers and judges, as advocates and decision-makers alike.” (Lawrence Baca, Nat’l Native Am. Bar Ass’n, supra at 8.)
PLSI’s work in increasing the number of Native attorneys also extends to increasing the number of Native judges. Again, data on Native American judges and judicial clerks is sparse, but existing data shows a correlation between clerking for a judge and later becoming a judge. This does not mean all judicial clerks will go on to become judges, however, it is a pathway worth pursuing if the goal is to increase the number of Native American judges at all levels of the judiciary.
PLSI has seen notable success in expanding this pathway to the judiciary. In 2013, PLSI’s data showed only six judicial clerks since the first PLSI class graduated from law school in 1970. In response, PLSI established a judicial clerkship committee, published a judicial clerkship handbook, participated in the American Bar Association’s Judicial Clerkship Program, and now hosts panels and workshops on judicial clerkships. Since 2016, PLSI has seen 28 of its alumni accept judicial clerkships for 31 federal and state courts. In the upcoming 2024–25 clerkship year, five PLSI graduates will clerk on federal courts of appeal and two on state supreme courts.
Cutting a path for more Native judges is one of PLSI’s priorities, but the overall goal is to see more Native American lawyers in every area of the legal profession. While many PLSI students and alumni express the desire to work in Indian law and work for tribes, there is no requirement that PLSI graduates do so. The program encourages excellence in all legal and policy paths.
The future of Indian lawyering is bright despite the constant fight to stay visible. While it is important to continue identifying the current needs of Native Americans in the legal profession, it is equally important to consult studies like the NNABA’s Pursuit of Inclusion, still the only study of its kind, and pre-law programs like PLSI to help lead the way for more Native American participation in the legal field.
Upon reflection about the future of PLSI, Danielle Her Many Horses, current AILC Board president, said it best: “We’ve done an amazing job of prepping law students for law school and we’re going to continue doing that. The main mission now is to keep looking for new opportunities to help Indian law students as they become Indian practitioners in these different spaces where we generally haven’t been.”
Indeed, the mission now is to see Native Americans represented in every field, at every table, and on every bench both with Tribal and non-Tribal issues.
Learn more about PLSI and how you can help here: https://www.ailc-inc.org/plsi.
The author would like to thank Rodina Cave Parnall, executive director of the American Indian Law Center, Inc., for her help and guidance on this article.