“My goal is to change the game in a profession that's very heavily dominated by people who don't look like me.”
When she was a junior at UC Irvine, Victoria Ayeni read An Expendable Man in a course called “Miscarriages of Justice.” The book tells the story of Earl Washington, Jr., an intellectually disabled black man wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a white woman in Virginia. He spent nearly two decades behind bars and was nearly executed before being exonerated in 2001 thanks to DNA testing. Ayeni had considered becoming a psychologist, but Washington’s story convinced her to go into law.
“The book showed how people in those circumstances have such a difficult time navigating the legal system,” she says. “I realized we needed more people that can connect with that part of the community.”
Now a 2L at UC Hastings, Ayeni has become a fierce advocate for diversity in the legal field. “My goal is to change the game in a profession that’s very heavily dominated by people who don’t look like me,” she says.
Ayeni’s commitment to diversity dates back to her undergraduate years at UC Irvine, where she double majored in psychology and criminology, law and society. As one of the few black presidents of a sorority at the university, she implemented the chapter’s first cultural and ethnic diversity training and created a junior executive board to empower younger women leaders. She also spent a year running diversity and wellness programs for students living on campus.
After graduating, Ayeni interned at the National Immigrant Women’s Advocacy Project and at the Environmental Law Institute. She also spent three years as a paralegal at the firm Higbee & Associates, which serves low-income clients in southern California, in the criminal and family law departments. “It emphasized to me how important it is to have attorneys who are not only well-educated about the system, but who can connect with different parts of the community,” she says.
In 2017, Ayeni enrolled at UC Hastings, attracted by its alumni network and reputation for training lawyers who coupled academic excellence with active practice. Ayeni has kept her focus on making an impact as a law student. As a 1L representative in the Associated Students of UC Hastings, she served as a conduit for student concerns and participated in the professional development committee, where she advocated for transparency around networking opportunities. Since being elected External Vice President, she has worked to increase the diversity of practice areas in the 6@6 Program, a series of professional networking events on campus. Ayeni also serves on the university’s new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Working Group and is secretary of the Black Law Students Association and a member of the Women’s Law Society. She also finds time to serve as a teaching assistant and compete on the Moot Court team.
“Being so involved is admittedly stressful, but it helps you grow so much personally and professionally,” she says.
Last year, Ayeni worked as a summer associate and diversity fellow at Meyers Nave, an Oakland-based law firm that primarily represents municipalities. “Victoria attended our diversity committee meetings and had thoughtful input, whether we were looking at internal policies or a more macro level,” says Eric Casher ’06, a principal at the firm who chairs that committee. “A lot of people pay lip service to it as a general principle, but I get the sense she’s genuinely committed to promoting diversity in the profession.”
After law school, Ayeni plans to make her mark as a litigator, with hopes of eventually focusing on civil rights. “Litigation is a place where you can make change because you’re creating precedent,” she says. “You can start small but then ultimately have larger impact.”