This story originally appeared in Lawyer, Spring 2021.
As a little girl, Fé LopezGaetke, the daughter of Mexican American farmworkers in rural Eastern Washington, wanted to be president. Despite the long odds, there was no way her mother was going to discourage her ambitious young dreamer.
“I asked her, ‘How do you become president,’ and she said, ‘Well, mija, most presidents were lawyers.’ So I thought, that’s it. I’m going to be a lawyer,” LopezGaetke said.
Over time, that childhood dream has grown into something more nuanced, but powerful nonetheless. The 2006 graduate of Seattle University School of Law doesn’t intend to run for office, but rather aims to build greater diversity among society’s leaders by starting with the legal profession.
After more than five years as the first director of Seattle’s Community Police Commission, LopezGaetke now serves as director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at the Law School Admission Council (LSAC). Her experience advocating for marginalized communities on issues of police reform illuminated for her the pressing need for more diversity in civic and social leadership.
“In politics, look at who holds power – they’re largely white, and there are so many men. I’d often be the only woman of color in a space, or there were just a few of us, and that’s a very lonely place,” she said. “There’s a need for folks with more perspectives in those places where critical decisions are being made that affect people’s lives.”
Because so many individuals in positions of influence are lawyers, she said, a JD can be a crucial pathway to power.
The LSAC has long promoted diversity in legal education. LopezGaetke, as a relative newcomer to the organization, has brought a systematic and evidence-based approach to that work. She has tasked her team with evaluating educational studies to identify the most effective strategies and policies for helping diverse students gain admission to law school – such as the LSAC Prelaw Undergraduate Scholars (PLUS) programs – and helping them succeed and flourish once they’re there.
LopezGaetke calls it “pipeline 2.0” – creating a path to law school that both welcomes innovation and challenges long-held ideas and traditions, whether it be teaching methods, admission criteria, or how scholarship dollars are distributed.
For a concrete example of effective programming, she need look no further than her own experience as a student in Seattle U Law’s Access Admission Program, which creates an annual cohort of incoming students from underrepresented groups who show great promise but need additional coaching and resources.
“Access Admission created a sense of belonging,” she said. “And there’s research that shows that when students feel like they belong, it actually impacts their learning.”
Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, who mentored LopezGaetke as a law student and last year recruited her to serve on a racial justice initiative for the state’s judiciary, noted that LopezGaetke’s respect for the legal profession, along with her determination to change it for the better, is an effective combination.
“Fé understands the power of the law and the role lawyers play in maintaining a civil society,” Yu said. “Her work at LSAC will open doors for people of color across the nation because Fé has the insight to know what meaningful outreach looks like. She knows what it takes to transform old practices.”
Following nationwide racial justice protests last summer, colleges and universities are more receptive than ever to making changes that foster diversity, equity, and inclusion, LopezGaetke said. “This moment in time has created a lot of momentum,” she said. “But everybody wants to solve racism tomorrow. You have to build the muscle. You have to build a foundation.”
With her current projects at LSAC, LopezGaetke is doing just that.