This is the twelfth installment of our Alumni Spotlight series, which features interviews with former IRAP students who have become strong advocates and leaders in their fields of practice.
Meet Yekaterina Reyzis, former Director and member of the IRAP chapter at University of Michigan, and current Associate at Orrick.
The views expressed here are entirely her own.
How did you become involved with IRAP and how did IRAP impact your law school experience?
I learned about IRAP during my first few weeks of law school and immediately submitted an application to join the chapter as a student attorney. I applied because IRAP’s mission aligned with my personal experience as a refugee from another country and my professional experience working in the human trafficking arena and international legal policy. In the four years between college and law school, I grew accustomed to working directly with clients in vulnerable populations and I was eager to get my feet wet outside of the classroom with client representation. Rather than helping clients find legal services and passing the baton, IRAP felt like an ideal opportunity to take action. My first case involved a client who faced egregious circumstances in her country and was denied refugee status in the US. The legal issues were difficult, but the client’s resilience and optimism were remarkable, even when all of her options were exhausted. Ultimately, she risked her life on a dangerous journey to seek refuge in a different country and now, many years later, has found a new home. Working with IRAP on this case in my first year of law school taught me practical legal skills, but most importantly, I gained patience, diligence, and the ability to work with a team on a case with sparse solutions. This experience prepared me to take on leadership roles within IRAP in my next two years, and inspired me to continue working with and fighting for this population in my career. I was proud to share my membership in IRAP with my friends in law school and the same is true today.
IRAP has a unique model of partnering law students with pro bono lawyers — please describe your experience working with attorneys on urgent refugee resettlement cases.
IRAP is unique in that it supports students in tackling enormous legal issues from start to finish. In my experience, my IRAP chapter worked with local attorneys in various practices that came together for a common purpose: helping refugees. Some had a personal connection to the refugee population, and others had an interest or prior work experience, but we shared a common passion for this work. My advising attorney taught me how and when to consider attorney-client privilege issues, advised me on how to communicate with the government, and served as a second pair of eyes for my client’s forms and applications. IRAP’s pro bono network is as wide-reaching as it is diverse, and I found it was an important building block in learning how to work with senior attorneys that has served me well in my post-law school career.
What have you been doing since you graduated from University of Michigan?
Since graduating from Michigan, I joined a law firm in San Francisco and practice employment law. As part of my practice, I dedicate hours to pro bono work every month, which I focus on refugee and asylum issues. I am currently preparing an asylum applicant for an upcoming merits hearing in immigration court in San Francisco, and assist our other asylum clients with issues including applying for benefits, obtaining drivers’ licenses, translating communications with immigration officials, and the like. I also assist international non-profit organizations with legal research and drafting for refugee, asylum, and human trafficking issues.
In what ways has your involvement with IRAP in law school impacted your career?
IRAP exposed me to some of the most difficult and the most rewarding aspects of being an attorney. The most difficult aspect is not having control. A client may have reasons to not be able to or want to take your advice, no matter how great, well intentioned, or “right” it may be. And you have to work with that and help the client regardless. There are aspects of managing relationships with clients that are not exactly addressed in law school, but are so important in practice. IRAP taught me to roll with the punches and not blame myself for the outcome when it is not what I hoped or expected.
On the flip side, working with IRAP clients is immeasurably rewarding. IRAP clients face some of the toughest and most uphill legal battles imaginable in this country. Importantly, their experience, and often the outcome of their applications for refugee/asylum status or other legal proceedings are tainted by severe bias in today’s political climate. Law students learn how our legal system is meant to function, and IRAP teaches them how the system actually functions, and how to navigate it for clients who fall through its cracks. No matter the outcome, our role as student attorneys was to make our clients feel like we were fighting for them every step of the way. And we were. Our efforts didn’t always lead to victory, but the wealth of expertise IRAP offered was second-to-none and we made clients feel like they were worth the effort, even when our institutions failed them.
All that is to say, IRAP impacted my career in every way. It taught me compassion, diligence, disappointment, practicality, victory, and the many feelings that come with a personal investment in each client’s difficult case. It also introduced me to amazing students who were willing to go the extra mile for these cases, and to whom I looked up to in law school and will continue to revere in the course of my career. IRAP was truly a unique and highly rewarding experience.
At a time when refugees are more politicized than ever, how do you engage with the issue on a personal level?
I can’t be the first to say that the politicization of this issue in recent years is the best of times and the worst of times (in no particular order). On rainy days, the metaphorically and/or literally, I get bogged down by the headlines and feel helpless, frustrated, and angry at how this country, the same one my parents still naively idealize as the land of the free, treats refugees. And on days like today, when I reflect on working with IRAP and collect all the tiny victories that I’ve accumulated on this front in my career, I feel good. Strong. Resilient. Powerful. When a sad headline seeps under my skin, I think of the good stuff, which lives all around me but tends to fade to the background.
For example, I am lucky to live and work in a sanctuary city and surround myself with friends and colleagues who share my views on the importance of assisting refugees like me in this country. As a new attorney, I have the space to dedicate a significant amount of time to pro bono work, where I can sharpen the legal tools I gained from IRAP. And I’m teaching myself to take pride in what I can control: if I can’t play a big role, I can make sure that the role I do play is a darn good one.