Political passion: MLaw student worked for Obama administration

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

A first-generation American and daughter of Iranian immigrants, Donya Khadem learned from her mother at a young age that there are few better ways to use her education than as a tool to help communities who didn’t have that chance.    

“That’s what draws me to pro bono work,” said Khadem, recently honored as Outstanding 1L for Pro Bono at the University of Michigan Law School. “I’m super grateful for this award — so many students at MLaw spend time each year doing meaningful pro bono in the community, and to be recognized among them is an honor.”    

During undergraduate studies  at the University of Wisconsin, where she earned her degree, Phi Beta Kappa, in legal studies and political science, Khadem volunteered as an intake volunteer, interpreter and translator at the law school’s Immigrant Justice Clinic and at the Madison Office of the State Public Defender.

She quickly noticed how challenging it was for detainees to navigate the court system and fight deportation orders without good legal aid.    

Her studies included 10 months in the nation’s capital, first as an immigration intern at the White House Domestic Policy Council and then at the White House
Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, housed in the Department of Education.    

“Those experiences were incredible, most importantly because of the incredible women lawyers and policy makers I learned from,” she said. “My mentors were some of President Obama’s closest advisers, and from them I learned what the true meaning of public service is. Their dedication, to this day, is one of the things that motivates me in my own work.”

After graduation, Khadem spent nine months working for the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) in D.C., where her portfolio included family, removal, and humanitarian immigration policies.

Then, she spent a year as special assistant to the general counsel with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.      

“AILA in particular further confirmed my interest in law school,” she said. “DHS, and specifically my boss Steve Bunnell, then general counsel of the entire agency, taught me about leadership. He and Secretary Jeh Johnson are two of the best leaders I’ve ever watched in action —they ensured our team of appointees and career employees came to work in a motivating and challenging environment daily.”   

At MLaw, Khadem has continued her passion for pro bono, and values opportunities to step out of the classroom and use what she’s learning to make a positive change.

“It’s the reason I came to law school,” she said.

Khadem joined the law school’s pro bono board spearheaded by Prof. Amy Sankaran.

“As lawyers, I think it’s our job to get out into the community and do some good, especially when we are at a law school so close to Detroit, that has a lot of need for legal services,” Khadem said. “Also, learning from Professor Sankaran is itself a huge part of why I love the board.”   

A particularly meaningful pro bono experience was the spring LawBreaks trip to the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, to volunteer for a project run by the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, American Immigration Council, Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, and American Immigration Lawyers Association, collectively known as CARA.

“We met with hundreds of detained women and children fleeing horrible violence and seeking asylum,” she said. “We prepared these women for their credible fear interviews, so if they passed, they could be released to pursue their claims in court. This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but also the thing I’m most proud of being a part of.”   

“As I saw in undergrad through my volunteering,” Khadem added, “a lawyer has a toolbox that can be used so many ways, and when it’s being used to do legal aid work, you really hold that client’s fate in your hand. That’s empowering and a responsibility I take seriously.”    

Khadem found her work as a student attorney on MLaw’s Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) to be an invaluable learning experience.

“One aspect I’ve really enjoyed is working with clients who speak Farsi,” she said. “I grew up speaking Farsi with my parents. It’s been great to use a part of my identity to do pro bono.”   

Khadem also is co-director of the Michigan Immigration and Labor Law Association.

“MILLA is a student organization full of very dedicated law students, and we focus a lot on developing and managing awesome labor and immigration related pro bono opportunities,” she said. “Some of the projects we hope to continue next school year include naturalization clinics.”   

She has worked as a student attorney in the MLaw Civil-Criminal Litigation Clinic and Unemployment Insurance Clinic, getting a first-hand look at the work of litigators, and an opportunity to engage in legal aid work.

“In both clinics, student attorneys are first chair of their cases, which means our professors guide us, but stand back and allow us to stand up on our own two feet in court,” she said. “In both clinics I had the opportunity to practice oral advocacy in front of a judge, and refine my legal writing. Most importantly, we built strong relationships with our clients, and I learned a lot about the kind of lawyer-advocate I am.   

“A big highlight was learning from the clinical professors,” Khadem said. “Clinical professors are awesome because they serve both as teachers and professional mentors. They help us develop our lawyer identities.”   

Another highlight was winning the 1L Oral Advocacy Competition.

“I loved my experiences because of all the people I had the opportunity to meet and learn from,” she said. “Starting in the semifinals round, practicing litigators came
to campus to moot us, and as the rounds progressed, so many upperclassmen volunteered to do so as well. I was floored by the support and by the number of upperclassmen who took time out of their busy schedules to help prepare us.”

The experience “really epitomized the Michigan difference, “ Khadem said, “and that’s why I’m serving on the OAC board next year — I want to give back and encourage incoming 1Ls to try oral advocacy.”   

The Milwaukee native’s goal is to become an appellate litigator, an interest sparked while watching attorneys be mooted for oral arguments while working for the Obama Administration in DC.

“OAC helped confirm my interest in oral advocacy, and this fall I’ll be taking Professor Caminker’s Appellate Advocacy course, which will allow me to learn more about appellate brief writing,” Khadem said. “Litigation excites me because it allows you to explore many areas of law!”   

Khadem, whose leisure time interests include yoga, and poetry and short story readings, is enjoying her experience as a Wolverine law student.

“What I love most is the people,” she said. “First it’s my incredible, hardworking classmates. Not only do we have such a welcoming community, but I’m also impressed daily by each of my classmates. I’m honored to be classrooms with them. Second, it’s the faculty. So many of my professors are mentors to us. They’re so accessible, and I always feel supported in whatever I do.”

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