LAW SCHOOL CLINIC SERVES UP VITAL EXPERIENCE
There are the lessons you learn in school and the lessons you learn in the real world. Kayla Watson ’19 (JD) was able to learn a real-world certainty before leaving the University of San Diego with her law degree in hand. While she credits the Center for Public Interest Law for helping her achieve a leg up on the complexities of making positive change in the real world, she credits her upbringing for her urge to use the law to do just that.
“I grew up in a really small town in Northern California, and I saw the way different systems affected people’s livelihoods and the way they had to work within these systems,” she explains.
Watson took a few years off school after she earned her undergraduate degree from UC Santa Cruz. While her language studies degree might seem an ill-fitting first act, she found that the logic problems she studied to help diagnose speech issues were good practice for the LSAT.
“It was actually really helpful for law school in kind of a strange way,” she recalls. “It got me thinking in that analytical way.”
Watson’s background funneled her toward public policy work in ways she couldn’t have predicted. For example, seeing how generational poverty and drug use played out in her community and reading about for-profit colleges — and the real people impacted by their proliferation — in the news.
“I like thinking about things from a legal perspective, but I also realize that there’s a lot of things that intersect with it. That’s what the law classes at USD really helped me with.”
Watson was the first recipient of the Julianne D. Fellmeth Public Interest Law Scholarship, which enabled her to work on a multiyear project in USD’s Center for Public Interest Law (CPIL). While she recalls hearing about the active alumni networking and scholarship opportunities at USD when she was assessing her options, those weren’t driving factors in her choice of law schools. Now, though, she understands why they’re important.
“I’m really thankful for those opportunities to learn from different people,” she says. “A lot of the people I meet are people who went to the USD School of Law, and they’re working hard to give back to the school and the students. It’s a really nice community to be a part of.”
Law school brought Watson’s passions into focus, helping her see what she could do about the law to bring about meaningful change for real people.
Her public interest work at USD “really showed me that for any policy change, you have to think, ‘OK, is there media support?’ because that gets people interested in what you’re doing. That and questions like, ‘What’s your legal approach and your political approach?’ It’s about very multipronged solutions.” For her work at CPIL, Watson chose to work toward getting a California database of professional licensees more front and center with the public.
And why not? She had attended meetings of the California Medical Board during her second year in law school, hearing from people whose loved ones had been hurt or even died after receiving care from doctors whose disciplinary records weren’t easily accessible. Watson aimed to link up the existing database information to services like Yelp or Google, where people are actually visiting to seek information on doctors.
“So we’re just trying to get consumers access to the information — and it proved to be a lot,” she says with a rueful laugh. “It sounds really simple, link it up, no big deal.” But when doctors’ associations pushed back, she learned it wasn’t that easy.
“It was definitely a learning curve because you realize, ‘Oh wow, I’m very naive about how it works.’ In my head, I thought, ‘They’ll want to do the right thing and this is obviously the right thing to do.’ So it’s an interesting learning curve.”
She credits CPIL Director Bridget Gramme with aiding her throughout the project, from tips about reaching out to the media to talking with lawmakers. “To have someone support you and guide you through all that — it’s definitely unique to USD and to the USD School of Law.
It’s pretty cool.”
When it comes to public interest law, Watson is clear-eyed. “A lot of people who want to do this get burnt out by the reality of it,” she says. Her edge is that she’s already experienced that jolt of reality stemming from competing interests. She’s up for the challenge of finding creative ways to move forward despite those sticky situations.
And that’s a real-world lesson, well learned. — Kelly Knufken