Higher calling: Campbell Moot Court winner eyes career in appellate law

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

The daughter of a workers’ compensation attorney, Johannah Walker was initially reluctant to follow her father into the law.

“As a kid determined to ‘forge my own path,’ that was a non-starter,” she says.

But a class in International Human Rights Law in her sophomore year at the University of Oklahoma, followed by a summer studying in Ghana, piqued her interest.

“I got to experience for the first time what it was like to live in a different legal system, what it was like to consider that system the norm,” she says

A recent graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, where she was the Senior Day speaker, Walker participated in moot court and oral advocacy competitions, and found that what she loved most was also the thing she most dreaded – the unknown.

“Generally, you can prepare in such a way that you more or less anticipate every question that will be asked. But sometimes you miss something or have a judge who wants to see how you react to a curveball,” she says. “The terrifying thing is that you might not know the answer to an unexpected question, but the most rewarding part is when you do.”

 Clearly she nailed the skills— she was this year’s winner of the prestigious Henry M. Campbell Moot Court Competition, the oldest and most prestigious of the various Law School competitions. She entered this year with one goal in mind: encouraging more students of color—particularly black students—to participate, and help them succeed.

 “Last year, I was one of two black students who participated, and the only one who advanced past the first round. The year before, two black students participated but neither advanced,” she says. “I felt if I could encourage more black students to participate, and then moot with them in preparation for oral arguments, that would be a good use of my time.” Walker notes there is still a lot of work to be done in encouraging students of color to participate in competitions, and perhaps in making competition judges aware of implicit biases.

“But I thought it was awesome to have two people of color in the final round,” she says. “Hopefully, that was encouraging to other students of color.”   

As a student attorney in the Child Welfare Appellate Clinic, Walker enjoyed listening to her client and helping her tell her story.

“I didn’t know much about the child welfare system before working with the clinic,” she says. “I quickly learned just how easy it is for low-income, minority parents to get pulled into the system, and how hard it is for them to get out of it.

“In the case I worked on, it felt our client had been ushered through the whole trial process without ever really being listened to or having her needs addressed. Writing a brief that really told her story, and then advocating for that story in front of three judges was a great experience.”

Serving as a Notes Editor on the Journal of Law Reform, this year Walker helped five 2L students work through each of their 30 to 35-page pieces on an area where the law should change.
“I like getting to help super smart people put their ideas on paper,” she says. “It was really neat to watch a group of my peers think so creatively about where the law should go, and to get to be a part of that process.”

A member of the executive board of the Black Law Students Association, Walker calls BLSA “a haven of understanding—a group of people you can go to after maybe something questionable was said in class. And you don’t have to explain why it was questionable, because they just get it,” she says. “The freedom from having to explain or justify your feelings in predominantly white spaces is huge.

“I think another reason BLSA is so special is that everyone takes ownership for making sure BLSA continues to serve that purpose. There’s a collective realization that the black students who came before us did that for us—and a joint sense of responsibility to continue paying that forward.”

Her 1L summer, Walker interned at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.

“It was amazing to be a part of an organization with such deep historical ties to the civil rights movement,” she says. “I was part of the Educational Opportunities Project, but they also had projects for Voting Rights, Fair Housing, and Criminal Justice Reform. This exposed me to a lot of different types of civil rights work that I otherwise did not know a whole lot about.”

 Her 2L summer was spent at the international law firm of Hogan Lovells, also in D.C.

“I really enjoyed how fast-paced everything was, and felt I had a little more wiggle room to try out work from a bunch of different groups,” she says. “I also liked how big it was—there were 60 summer associates, and a little over 500 practicing attorneys. I learned so much through the projects I was on, but also through all of the amazing people I got to meet.”

The nation’s capital was a new experience for Walker.  “Both summers were really fun in the sense that they gave me some time to learn about the city and just enjoy being in a new environment,” she says. “I loved the work I did both summers, but they were definitely different experiences.”

 Walker has enjoyed her MLaw experience. “I feel like a lot of people come into law school with the mindset that if they can just survive three terrible years, they will come out on the other side, getting to pursue the career they want,” she says. “And yes, law school was hard, but going to Michigan never felt like something I just needed to ‘get through.’ And that’s because the people—the students, professors, administrators—all made it a place that I wanted to be, a place I’m really going to miss.”    

Walker took several Constitution-based courses, and is interested in appellate work.

“My main focus was taking classes that sounded interesting with professors I believed would push me to think more critically about the law,” she says. “I don’t know specifically what I want my legal career to look like, but I want to find it fulfilling. My biggest goal is to make sure I’m being thoughtful at each stage so I don’t one day look up and realize I’ve spent 10 years doing work I don’t find all that meaningful.”

Walker earned her undergrad degree in psychology, summa cum laude, and notes that the field intersects with the law in several ways—from the concept of “framing” and how it is often used to influence jurors, to the “fundamental misattribution error” and how it intersects with an attorney’s relationship with colleagues or opposing counsel.

“In fact, several of my law classes stressed the importance of integrating the knowledge brought to bear by the social sciences into criminal proceedings,” she says. “Hopefully, being mindful of this area will allow me to be a more effective advocate.”   

The native of Fort Smith, Ark., who will head to Sacramento in September to work for Judge John A. Mendez on the Eastern District of California, is staying in Ann Arbor while she studies for the bar exam.

“I really like that the town is built around the University—It creates a very tight-knit community, where people feel very strongly about their ties to the school,” she says. “I think that makes for a fun experience while we’re here, but also lends itself to a really strong alumni network.”

 In her free time, Walker enjoys cooking, running, playing guitar, and playing soccer.

“I played in an outdoor league with some of my closest friends each fall,” she says. “The past 2 years, I also played in an indoor league on a joint student-professor team—it was a lot of fun!”

 

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