Even though she was initially just one of several squares on the screen of his online classroom in the spring of 2021, Professor Michael Doran knew within days he had somebody special in his federal tax law course. She was just a first-year at the time, but Yewande Ford ’23 brought insight and maturity from her three years as an analyst at Goldman Sachs, and she quickly mastered difficult concepts. More important, perhaps, was the heart of gold that somehow emanated through the screen.
“Rarely have I encountered such a combination of high intelligence, genuine modesty, and absolutely unfailing kindness,” Doran wrote in a letter supporting Ford as a nominee for this year’s Gregory H. Swanson Award at the University of Virginia School of Law.
The award, which Dean Risa Goluboff presented to Ford on Thursday at an event celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day, recognizes UVA Law students who demonstrate the character and conduct exemplified by Swanson, an alumnus who was the first Black student to attend any school at the University of Virginia. Though the Law School initially admitted him, UVA’s Board of Visitors issued a rejection. Swanson sued the University in a 1950 federal court case and won.
As president of the Black Law Students Association, a role she took on at the end of her first year, Ford went to great lengths to foster a sense of community and mentorship among Black students as social connections across the country were fraying.
“Growing up in New Jersey, and at Howard University and at Goldman Sachs — all of those had really strong Black communities — I had never been in a situation where I felt like the Black people were a little disjointed,” Ford said. “Obviously it was through no fault of UVA, but because of the pandemic I felt like we were just becoming disconnected and so I really wanted to bring back a close sense of community.”
As social distancing rules relaxed, a loaded BLSA calendar featured hybrid and in-person events, including social events, speakers and service events, such as a service trip to Cape Town, South Africa, and local Habitat for Humanity work. The calendar was capped by a weekend retreat at a Shenandoah cabin last spring.
The weekend was filled with games (including a murder mystery), theme nights, group meals and bonfires. “It was just a really good time,” she said. “The 3Ls hadn’t had a retreat in two years, so it was great for them to kind of give us their parting words of wisdom and bond with us.”
Under Ford, UVA’s BLSA chapter was named the 2021-22 Mid-Atlantic chapter of the year.
Ford’s BLSA mentee, Ugomma Ugwu-Uche, was wowed by her leadership in the national Afro Scholars program, a diversity pipeline program that connects first-year law students with career-coaching, professional development tools, law firm mentor-matching and early summer associate recruiting opportunities. She is one of three national board members and was instrumental in bringing on her future employer, Kirkland & Ellis, as a primary sponsor.
“The kind of person who gets rejected then sues the University and the kind of person who boldly asks Kirkland & Ellis what they can do for her and other minorities like her (before she’s even graduated) are cut from the same cloth!” Ugwu-Uche wrote in support of Ford’s nomination. Her letter was co-signed by 16 first-year BLSA members.
Other students also commended Ford for the way she leads and supports her fellow students.
“She lifts as she climbs,” said Tolu Ojuola ’24, a BLSA member who serves on the Virginia Journal of Law & Technology, of which Ford is editor-in-chief. Her personal support has included “sending encouraging texts, coming out to [support a member] at track meets, giving informal lessons in tax law, and the list goes on,” she said.
Layla Khalid ’23, president of the Muslim Law Students Association, said Ford would go out of her way to check on Khalid and others during their first year. “She helped me feel like I had a home at this law school,” Khalid wrote. “I could tell she genuinely cared about the well-being of her community.”
Ford said her academic focus and concern for others both stem from being raised by a Nigerian mother and a Caribbean father who are both immigrants.
“Nigerians love degrees, so I was not going to be the only person sitting at the dinner table with one degree,” she said jokingly, explaining why she chose to continue her education even after launching her career in investment banking at Goldman Sachs.
As she saw it, her choices boiled down to an M.D., an MBA or a J.D. After trying pre-med at Howard University, she decided health care was not for her. After Goldman, she felt that a law degree would give her a more diverse intellectual experience while allowing her to pursue her interest in the tax aspects of deal structures.
Ford’s emotional intelligence is also borne from Nigerian roots, she said. “There’s this phrase, ‘Ṣé àlãfíà ni,’ — or Alafia — which basically means looking out for people and checking in on people, and it’s something my mom has drilled in me since I was a kid,” she said. “I would see her do it with everybody, just call to check in because people can kind of feel like they’re running their own rat race, especially in the immigrant community.”
To hear Ford tell it, she has benefited from her relationships as much as she has given, from being on the receiving end of well-being checks, to internship and job opportunities, to career and workplace navigation advice.
That’s sort of the essence of Alafia. “If you want a friend, you have to be a friend,” she said. “If you can lend a helping hand, why not? You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Professor Leslie Kendrick ’06 noted all these attributes and more in her letter of support, writing that Ford broadcasts energy and positive focus. “Masks and distancing could not muffle what she brought to the table,” Kendrick wrote.
Doran called Ford “one of the most extraordinary students I have ever known at the law school” and expressed delight that she is pursuing a career in tax law, a practice area that is “chosen by far too few African-American women,” he said. “I fully expect that Yewande will not only thrive as a tax lawyer but will serve as a role model for other young women of color who, although interested in tax, might hesitate to enter a field still overwhelmingly white and male.”
Kendrick sees the field as a natural fit for Ford’s gifts in problem-solving, communication and sheer brilliance. Moreover, she noted, as a budding tax lawyer, Ford follows in the footsteps of another young, Black UVA lawyer: Gregory Hayes Swanson.
Previous Gregory H. Swanson Award Winners
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.