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By: Franklin Graves*
Candyce Phoenix knew she wanted to be a lawyer from a young age. Growing up, she attended a predominantly black public elementary school in Washington, D.C., but then in 4th grade, transferred to a predominantly white, upper- and middle-class private school. “I struggled for a long time with the differences between those two environments,” says Phoenix. “Why did students that went to my elementary school not have the same opportunities as the students who went to my middle and high schools?”
It was not until she was in high school that Phoenix was able to fully grasp and find the language to match her feelings and the social realities she experienced during her early childhood education. It was through her involvement in social justice initiatives and enrollment in AP U.S. History and AP Supreme Court courses that Phoenix understood how she could have an impact and make a change—attend law school and concentrate on civil rights law. Motivated and seeking change, Phoeniz earned her B.A. from Columbia University and her J.D. from Harvard Law School
Phoenix focused on civil rights-focused organizations from the start. Her previous volunteer, internship, and practical experience includes work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Center for the Study of Human Rights, and with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “I was drawn to the kinds of cases that are more in the nature of impact litigation,” say Phoenix. “How much bang for our buck can we get with one case? How can we change the lives of people across the country with just one case?”
Phoenix advises other young lawyers and law students that they too can become involved, regardless of how unattainable an organization may seem. “You can get in there, make a difference, and be a voice at the table,” she says, “but, it actually requires getting dirty with hands-on work.”
“I learned very early on in my career, that if you wanted to rock and roll outside the four walls of your office, you should get involved in the ABA,” Phoenix encourages. At first, her involvement was more of a practical tool to learn more about all the different areas of law and obtain a larger understanding of the legal profession. One of her recent goals with the YLD is to “de-mystify” and break down the barriers of entry into the larger ABA organization. As an YLD leader, Phoenix helped with the white papers program which implements content convergence, i.e., panels are turned into written materials that can be circulated and used beyond the initial scope of a conference. She also developed a similar program for the circulation of briefs from YLD committee meetings that summarize and share information that is presented during committee calls. Phoenix continues to work on fostering collaboration and partnerships between YLD committees for helping young lawyers find ways to get involved.
“As a YLD Scholar, I hope to make the Division more accessible for people that cannot come to events and build bridges across organizations,” she says. “It’s easy to feel intimidated as a young lawyer, and the YLD is a fantastic opportunity to build up your own confident, professional profile, and leadership skills.” Phoenix is a former Co-Chair of the YLD’s Minorities in the Profession Committee. She currently serves as a Co-Chair for the YLD’s Women in the Profession Committee and a Liaison to Special Committees & Commissions.
Phoenix started her legal career by participating in the U.S. Department of Labor’s Honors Program, a two-year rotational educational program for young lawyers looking to get an understanding of the different work involved within the Department. Afterwards, she spent two and a half years in a permanent placement as a general counsel to the Department, advising on Freedom of Information Act issues, appropriations, and the Department’s own employment law issues. Currently, Phoenix works as a member of the employment litigation team for the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice.
Young lawyers interested in following Phoenix’s path to leadership within the YLD should consider applying for the YLD Scholarship Program. The deadline has been extended until Friday, April 15, 2017, for applicants looking to serve a one-year term starting September 1, 2017.
*Franklin Graves is an Associate Editor of The Affiliate, an in-house attorney in Nashville, TN, and a Young Lawyer Fellow with the ABA’s Section of Intellectual Property Law; e-mail Franklin.