As one of 20 inaugural Obama Fellows, Keith Wattley J.D. ’99, founder of UnCommon Law, is learning how to bring his successful model to even more people.
by Elizabeth Kelley Gillogly B.A. ’93
In 2006, Keith Wattley J.D. ’99 founded and became executive director of UnCommon Law, a non-profit law firm based in Oakland that provides counseling and legal representation for California prisoners serving life terms with the possibility of parole. “We’re proving what’s possible when we get past the stereotypes and labels about who is in prison for violent crimes and deal with the actual people involved,” Wattley said in an interview on the Obama Foundation web site.*
Wattley and his team at UnCommon Law work with people in prison to help them understand and address the personal traumas that contributed to their crimes, and through doing so, demonstrate to the parole board that they can safely be released. After doing this deep work with the clients, an UnCommon Law attorney or bar-certified law student represents them in their administrative hearings, thus greatly improving their chances of being paroled. The results have been profound, with an overall success rate of more than 60 percent in individual hearings, compared with the California average of 20 to 25 percent. In this past year alone, the UnCommon Law success rate has surpassed 80 percent.
The UnCommon Law method is undoubtedly successful, but how could Wattley scale his work and bring it to more people? That is where the idea to apply for the Obama Fellowship was born.
For the inaugural Obama Fellowships (obama.org/fellowship/), more than 20,000 people from 191 countries applied, and Keith Wattley was one of 20 Obama Fellows selected. “It has been a very exciting opportunity and process, and a remarkable group of people to work with,” he says. “The people at the Obama Foundation are nice, generous, and compassionate, and the other fellows–each one is really inspiring. I was surprised during our first gathering by how quickly we were able to bond. It happened naturally and really quickly. Each one of us recognizes something about ourselves in the others.”
The two-year fellowship includes weeklong gatherings twice a year as well as ongoing support from the Obama Foundation, including mentoring and networking help. Wattley attended the first gathering in April 2018 and looks forward to the next one in November. At the gathering, he says, the fellows participated in workshops with world experts in areas such as leadership development, executive leadership training, and storytelling. They also attended other networking events and began some group projects. “While the foundation doesn’t provide us with a financial award, they give us valuable tools and important building blocks,” says Wattley.
“The first gathering was much more about us as people than it was about our organizations, which was refreshing, and it had all of us recognize and start to face the challenges that had us sign on for this fellowship,” he explains. “Each of us has our own pathway for taking our work to the next level, so I found it very helpful to identify some potential barriers and start working through them.”
“In addition, we get an executive coach for the whole two years of the fellowship,” he added. “They help us create a road map to get from here to wherever we intend to have our organizations be in a few years. The idea is that the Obama Foundation is recognizing people who have created an organization with value and that makes a difference, and they are helping us scale those efforts. It is unlike most fellowship opportunities in that they are not asking us to work for the Obama Foundation; instead they are asking: ‘How can we work to support you to take your work to the next level?’ ”
Being honored as an Obama Fellow has turned a national spotlight on Wattley and UnCommon Law, which is a big benefit in and of itself for any small non-profit. “Exposure makes a big difference, and while it has helped to open up some new pathways to funding, it has also introduced me to a funding conversation that I was not part of before,” says Wattley. “I am learning how much our work fits right into the larger national conversation about meaningful reform of the criminal justice system—which is short on ’justice‘ – and about how we provide one solution for funders seeking to support those changes.”
The fellowship is also helping Wattley make some difficult choices in his work with UnCommon Law. He loves his first-person contact with clients, and in the past, he has spent 4-5 days a week in prisons. But now he sees that will need to change. “One of the biggest opportunities and challenges for the fellowship for me was that I knew there would be a need for me to get out of the prisons. As critical and essential as that work is, it doesn’t provide me the opportunity to connect with others” who could help bring this work to more people in need, he says.
Wattley and his team will train new advocates to do work directly with clients. “That is why I pursued this opportunity because I knew that is what we needed to do,” says Wattley. “Scaling means we could make our model available to thousands more people, and we can only do that effectively if we can train scores of others in what we do.” Meanwhile, Wattley will zoom out to the organization’s big picture, focusing on fundraising, outreach, and “developing and talking more about our own story–both our individual stories and our organizational story.”
Looking Back at Law School
As Wattley looks back on his Santa Clara Law story, he says his experience was deeply shaped by his professors. “Margaylanne Armstrong, Cookie Ridolfi, Ellen Kreitzberg, and Margaret Russell were all especially supportive,” he says. “They supported me there and since I left there. These professors were all consistently pro-student in a way that doesn’t always happen in law school, and they really got to know us.”
“My experience at Santa Clara Law was also made really special by the opportunities I pursued outside of the classroom, including in the first year when I volunteered in the workers’ rights clinic,“ he says. “I had a supportive environment with top-quality attorney mentors, especially Michael Gaitley. That great experience introduced me to the practical application of the things we were learning in the classroom, and it made law school worth it and make sense to me.”
During his law school education, Wattley also had an internship at a drug and alcohol treatment center that was run by a formerly incarcerated person. “That opportunity made it all real for me,” he says. “I always had to have that kind of balance. The law school stuff that seemed like either not real or not connected to everyday experience–I had to balance that with what is immediate and real.”
And that brings Wattley circling back to his own work. “We call ourselves UnCommon Law for many reasons, and one of them is because we do law a little differently here,” he explains. “It’s not a traditional law practice. I am much more of a counselor than a lawyer in my job. It is a fit for me.”
To law students, Wattley has some advice: “It is important for people—as they build their resumes and amass credentials—to look for what it is that they are really meant to do, and do what feels right to you, even if it’s something no one else is doing.”
*For a detailed interview with Wattley, visit obama.org/fellowship/keith-wattley-interview