As a voice for working people who are seldom heard, Symone Wango ’21 has found a way to help people facing adversity, discrimination, and poor working conditions in her home—the Capital Region.
Through a summer clerk position with Legal Aid of Northeastern New York in 2019 she worked on racial justice, re-entry, and foreclosure prevention issues, and started to see how lawyers can help those fighting for basic rights as they go to work each day.
“I fell in love with the work that Legal Aid does, and I really wanted to try to figure out a way to continue to do this work,” she said
She did stay on through March 2020, but was planning to leave to finish law school and start bar exam preparation. That’s when Legal Aid asked her to create a proposal to continue helping low-wage workers get access to legal services as part of the Equal Justice Works design-your-own fellowship program. She will start the fellowship in September.
Each year, Equal Justice Works selects a class of passionate public service leaders—this year two of the 77 selected are from Albany Law School—who design two-year projects in partnership with legal services organizations to help build sustainable solutions in the communities they serve.
“This is a unique opportunity for me because there is no program like this yet at Legal Aid and there isn't anything here in the Capital Region that directly helps low wage workers with employment discrimination, wage theft, and worker safety issues,” she said.
The application process was rigorous, Wango said, but well worth it. She completed mock interviews with Albany Law’s Career and Professional Development Center and Legal Aid in order to present to Equal Justice Works and the project sponsors, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP and Morgan Stanley.
“It was a process, but they were really excited about the project. I think the reason why is because I had spent so much time preparing and making sure that I was able to support myself. That was because of the help that I got throughout the process. The Career Center was a huge help in areas where I was struggling,” she said. “[The program is], basically, creating your dream job. If you were to pick something to do in legal services, what would it be? For me, that was my opportunity to create something that I knew I was passionate about. The whole reason why I went to law school was because I wanted to practice employment law.”
Wango’s interest in employment law began during her time in the workforce between her Graduate school and law school years. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration and a Master’s in Public Administration at the State University of New York at Albany’s Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy.
In 2013, she was one of New York’s first Excelsior Service Fellows with the New York State Department of Labor.
“I helped facilitate projects to streamline processes throughout the agency. So, I learned a lot about the work that the Department of Labor does,” she said. “I was in workforce development, which helps people to get jobs, career plan, and learn about different opportunities.”
That experience planted the passion, but once she got to Albany Law in 2018 things went to another level when she was presented with opportunities to advocate for those struggling to find employment. Through her law school field placement with the Division of Human Rights, she worked on conferences for employment discrimination claims in 2020.
“That's where I learned that people were working these low wage jobs, but also paying attorneys to do minimal to no work. And then they were also losing their claims. So, I saw that there's a need here,” she said. “I also noticed that there was a pattern of people who if they probably had representation, they might have been successful.”
Beyond her field placement, Legal Aid, and work with low-wage workers, while at Albany Law she was an active member of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) and served as Symposium Editor for the Albany Law Journal of Science and Technology. During the 2020-21 academic year, the journal held a virtual symposium, “In the Crosswalk: The Intersection of Covid, Race, Technology, and the Law.”
“Being a member of BLSA was very important for me as a person of color having a support group. It was great to see people like me doing the same thing and working towards the same goal. We really had a tight knit group of people and we supported each other—and still do,” she said.
“The journal was critical to my development as a professional in several ways. One was my writing skills—because legal writing is very different from other kinds of writing—then, in my third year I was a member of the board. That was a great experience because I also met these amazing professors and attorneys that are doing this amazing work.”
She’s looking forward to continuing to find her voice to help others be heard.
“I am excited to be doing this right now because I'm hoping that some of the work that I do will actually create lasting and meaningful change in people's lives. One of the biggest things in people's lives is work and being able to work with dignity and not have to worry about the working conditions or the way that you are being treated at your job on top of the fact that you're not making a lot of money, you know, those things are important,” she said. “And for me, it's really important that people have the opportunity for their voice to be heard regardless of how much money they make.”