Washington Leadership Institute honored for decade of impact

What does it mean to be a leader? Is it the ability to build a team? The willingness to work alongside staff, or instead the skill to delegate effectively? Perhaps it's about fostering individual growth, or maybe it’s all the above?

For 15 years, the Washington Leadership Institute (WLI) has been begging the question of the state’s next great legal minds, facilitating discussion and helping influence emerging leaders who today practice across the Pacific Northwest. In honor of its legacy of lasting impact, the WLI was awarded the Legal Foundation of Washington President's Award at the Charles A. Goldmark Award Luncheon Feb. 15.

It is the latest recognition of an organization as committed to serving underrepresented communities as it is to creating a legal community that reflects the full diversity of the Evergreen State.

“There are assets to every type of leadership behavior,” said WLI Program Coordinator Dawn Bell, “but you can’t be a great leader without being involved in the community.

“The goal is diversifying to get leadership in remote areas of Washington and to help the fellows focus on working together not only among peers, but society as well.”

WLI is a leadership development program created by the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) in 2004 and transferred to the University of Washington School of Law in 2012. The WLI Board of Directors includes some of Washington's biggest movers and shakers, including major law school deans, sitting justices and many of state’s top attorneys.

Each year, the WLI Board selects practicing attorneys for fellowships in the program, which comprises three components: professional development sessions; a collaborative community service project; and a one-year commitment following completion of the program to participate as part of the WSBA or other law-related organization in a bar- or community-oriented activity.

“Those skills I learned in WLI helped me take the next step.”

Kim Tran, Employment Law Counsel, Microsoft

Founded at the behest of then-WSBA President Ronald Ward, the program is designed to recruit, train and develop traditionally underrepresented attorneys from diverse cultural and geographic backgrounds.

Program alumna Kim Tran, class of 2005, is the in-house employment law counsel for Microsoft. She said even just comprehending the attributes of great leadership helped shape her career.

“What I didn’t anticipate was the real value of having dedicated time to think through different types of leadership,” Tran said. “Those skills I learned in WLI helped me take the next step.” Tran went on to become the first woman of color to lead the King County Bar Association.

A Community of Service

The development program is coupled with a foundational commitment to public service, and over the years the classes have put together service projects that yielded lasting impacts.

Each year, the fellows’ focus naturally drifts to the most top-of-mind issues facing society today: asylum laws, women’s rights, immigration policy. For example:

The 2017 class identified a need to “combat anti-Muslim rhetoric” and launched a viral social campaign designed to “change the narrative #FiveMinutes at a time.”

In 2014, the fellows produced a comprehensive guide to provide young people with disabilities information and resources to help them understand and exercise their legal rights.

In 2009, the class faced a split decision, so the fellows ended up producing two projects — a legal roadmap for adolescents turning 18, and a public-facing overview of Washington’s readily available legal resources.

The projects are in no way meant to be one-offs.

“With this kind of service, we really want to focus on sustainability and longevity,” Bell said.

The initial projects often lead to the realization of even bigger community service initiatives that originated in the program.

“A lot of fellows ended up following through on a lot of different ideas that percolated through LI,” Tran said.

Enduring Connections

In 15 years, 170 attorneys have participated in WLI; in that time, more leaders (three) were inspired by the curriculum enough to change jobs than those who did not complete the program (two).

The fellows are an intentionally diverse mix of attorneys, which Bell said aligns with WLI’s practical goal of establishing elite legal leaders in the more remote places of Washington outside the I-5 corridor.

The result is an enduring community with fingers in every part of the state.

Class of 2008 alumna and Pend Oreille County Prosecuting Attorney Dolly Hunt said that while she was a deputy prosecutor, one of the judges she worked with encouraged her to apply for the program.

Hunt said that in what is a relatively small statewide legal community, interacting with like-minded attorneys from across the state allowed her to forge lasting professional relationships that remain to this day.

“These days, it’s pretty rare to find someone who does not have a connection to WLI,” Hunt said.

“For me, it was all about that sense of connection. It really encourages you that no matter where you’re from or how far out you are, you can still really make a difference.”

Learn more about the Washington Leadership Institute and how to apply.