3L Samuel Kohn advances Native American rights

This article originally appeared in The Weekly and is written by Katherine Krueger.

For one UW law student, a competitive summer clerkship program was the realization of a lifetime dream job to give back to his community.

Samuel Kohn, a third-year law student at Madison, put his formal schooling to the test working this summer at the Native American Rights Fund, the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit law firm that defends the rights of Indian tribes. The group’s attorneys focus on applying existing laws and treaties to guarantee national and state governments honor legal obligations to tribal groups, particularly in areas of land use and education.

For Kohn, the path to specializing in Native American law began early. He grew up on the Crow reservation near Billings, Montana and says he feels a pull to give back to the community that raised him.

“Being born and raised on a reservation, the community really gave me a lot—I have a duty to give back to them,” he said. “For me, the best way to give back is to become an attorney to protect the rights of the people on the reservation.”

He received his undergraduate degree in Native American Studies from Dartmouth College and, in the summer of 2008, Kohn was an intern for the White House Initiative on Tribal Colleges and Universities. He also served as an Indian Affairs Associate for the Senate Committee on Finance in 2010.

Kohn’s internship was not an average summer clerkship position, although he routinely did include significant amounts of research and writing to help attorneys with heavy caseloads. Kohn worked on cases that often involved the unique intersection between federal, state and tribal laws. He says these circumstances create challenges that do not exist in other fields of law practice, including simply fighting for the acknowledgement that there are three sovereign institutions constantly interacting.

Although this intersection created obstacles for the group’s small team of attorneys, Kohn says he feels that fighting for Native American groups’ rights makes him feel like the work he is doing is really making a difference.

“Fully articulating how legal duties and responsibilities, and tribes’ hopes and dreams play together is challenging but exceptionally rewarding,” he said.

Additionally, Kohn says the experience allowed him to understand the larger picture of Indian rights at work in complex projects, including cases he says are certain to shape the future of federal Indian law practice—an experience he calls “very humbling.”

His time at Wisconsin has also left him well prepared for the experience. Kohn has been involved with clinical programs at the Law School, which emphasize a “law-in-action” learning approach, including working closely with incarcerated prisoners through the Oxford Federal Project. Kohn credits the project, along with his faculty supervisor, Adam Stevenson, for allowing him to sharpen his skills and hit the ground running as a clerk for NARF.

Kohn says he was drawn to UW Law School because of its focus on encouraging diversity in the law profession and for the active student groups working on behalf of minority student groups. He has been involved with the Indigenous Law Students Association and Wunk Sheek.

When asked about the best part of his job, Kohn said the reward is in the work the organization does every day with clients and issues that often do not receive attention that is proportionate to their significance to the Native American communities they touch.

“The honest truth is that it feels good to be doing this stuff. It makes you excited to go to work in the morning,” Kohn said.

Submitted by Law School News on February 25, 2015

This article appears in the categories: Frank J. Remington Center, Wisconsin Innocence Project, Articles

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