Public Service Voices
An Advocate for the Underrepresented: Lori Isley of Columbia Legal Services
"A life’s journey is not only determined by drive, intelligence, and chance, but it is also formed by the opportunities made possible by the sacrifice of others. I could not continue a journey true to myself and true to those who provided me with opportunity, without working to provide opportunities for others" - Lori Jordan Isley
For 18-years Lori Jordan Isley has excelled in her career as a public service attorney. She has worn numerous advocacy hats and she is currently the managing attorney at Columbia Legal Services (CLS) – Yakima where she represents the economically underprivileged ranging from individual clients fighting for basic needs to a class of more than 600 farm workers in ground-breaking class action litigation. She participates in farm worker outreach, contributes to legislative advocacy, and serves as a mentor to young attorneys and law students. Ms. Isley is best described as a relentless advocate for the underprivileged, a strong and giving leader, and a keeper of the spirit of selfless service.
Early in her education Ms. Isley switched her major from computer science to political science. She then dedicated herself to earning a degree in law and becoming part of a sustainable organized effort to empower underrepresented people. As an attorney, Ms. Isley has done just that and is equipped with not only the legal tools necessary to help others, but a life’s journey that connects her to her clients. She comes from a large family, second generation Irish on her mother’s side. Her forbears did the work familiar to many immigrants; working in mines, as janitors, cleaning and serving food, and taking in laundry to make ends meet. She knows what hard work is and witnessed selfless sacrifice in her own home. Her grandfather was an immigrant from Ireland who proudly shared his birth date with the celebration of our nation’s Independence Day. Along with Ms. Isley’s parents, he instilled in their family a profound work ethic, value of education, and gratitude for opportunity. Their family legacy is that of sacrifice and opportunity – the legacy of an American family – making it possible for their children and grandchildren to become educated and enjoy a better life.
Knowing the challenges her grandparents faced in life without a college education, Ms. Isley’s choices were greatly influenced by her family background. She possesses a deep-rooted belief that one should always give back to the community. Ms. Isley believes that if an individual has the opportunity to get an education, it is great to be able to use it in service of others. She has done just that by utilizing her career as an advocate to open doors of opportunity for others, and by using her legal training to bring a voice to the many who are silenced by poverty and oppression.
During Ms. Isley’s first grueling year of law school she began to lose perspective and questioned her decision to pursue a legal career. She discussed this with her father, who reminded her that those who face severe economic challenges needed her heart and logic to voice the injustices they suffer. This talk gave her a new resolve to continue with law school. Northeastern School of Law was a good fit for Ms. Isley. Northeastern offered students the opportunity gain practical skills by the end of the first year of law school. At the conclusion of the first year, students begin working in clerkship-type positions in law firms in rotations of three months. During these “co-op” experiences, Ms. Isley worked for various law organizations and found her passion in fighting for the poor.
Ms. Isley’s first co-op placement was with California Legal Rural Association (CRLA) in Salinas, California. During her time at CRLA, she was introduced to the practice of public interest law and, impact litigation, by working on a housing class action. Her stay at CRLA laid a foundation for what later became her career with a similar community in a similar city, where her focus has turned to class action lawsuits aimed at benefiting low-wage workers.
Following CRLA, Ms. Isley worked for a Federal District Court Magistrate, where she read attorney memoranda, wrote memos to inform judicial opinions, and experienced the courtroom from the inside. As an advocate today, these are the skills she taps into as what she described as being an ambassador or a diplomat working to resolve issues for low income people within our legal system.
As she continued her legal studies, she felt she found a home working for civil legal services, and so she decided that working in the criminal area for her next legal adventure would help her to figure out if she was correct in her preference. This next co-op experience, working for a criminal defenders organization in Alaska, provided exactly the experience she had hoped to have. During her stay in Alaska, Ms. Isley was able to participate in trial work. She second-chaired a criminal jury trial and worked closely with the attorney. This attorney involved her in jury selection soliciting her opinion and strategically using her skill to benefit the client. Ms. Isley was also able to be part of the trial itself in addition to its preparation. From observing the attorney’s skill in using her as a law student, she gained perspective that has positively influenced her work with law students today. After this experience she was certain that, while there is great need for indigent representation in criminal matters as well as civil, she could best use her talents to address poverty from the civil side of things.
Back in her preferred legal field, Ms. Isley’s final co-op was working with DNA – Legal Services on the Navajo Reservation. At the reservation Ms. Isley walked into a local grocery store and was the only white person present. She then understood for the first time in her life what it was like not to be in the majority. This experience strengthened her resolve to represent all persons in need, and Ms. Isley worked hard to gain the trust and respect of the Navajo people in order to advocate on their behalf. Overall, this opportunity provided a foundation for what later became her career in the Yakima Valley working with different groups, cultures, and in different languages.
In retrospect, each of Ms. Isley’s experiences in law school was a stepping stone along the path to the career in which she excels today. She works for the good of those in need. She is an example of zealous advocacy for low-income people: fighting for payment of wages earned, adequate housing, access to healthcare, equal opportunity to receive an education and dignified treatment. When asked what she sees as the solution to the restriction on resources in the face of daunting need, Ms. Isley gives a very simple response: end poverty.
Ms. Isley is a unique gift to the clients she represents, the attorneys she mentors, and the community she calls home. As her journey continues, she challenges advocates dedicated to justice – those like herself – to continually ask: “Is what we’re doing getting at the underlying issue – poverty?” It is for this reason she believes her public service is two-fold: engaging in legal battles on behalf of the less fortunate and opening doors of opportunity for others so that they might find their voice and continue the fight for justice.