UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Yanna Banks, a third-year student at Penn State Law in University Park, recently won Reed Smith’s Deborah Broyles Diverse Scholars Award, a national honor given annually by the law firm to two law students who demonstrate academic excellence and a commitment to diversity and inclusion. The award includes a $20,000 scholarship and a paid summer associate position with the firm. Banks was placed with Reed Smith’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, office for summer 2019.
Banks was excited to share more with us about this experience—what it meant to win the scholarship, how it has impacted her final year of law school and future career, and what she gained from her work with Reed Smith over the summer.
The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
How did you hear about this award?
I heard about this award from Penn State Law’s Career Services office. They sent out an email about it early fall  semester and a second reminder sometime in the spring .
What was your reaction when you learned that you won the award?
I actually went to two extremes. I’d already received a summer associate offer from Reed Smith’s Philadelphia office the first day of school, and their Pittsburgh office a few weeks later. When they called about the scholarship, I initially thought they were revoking one or both of my offers. The recruiter was attempting to build anticipation, which I mistook for her trying to figure out how to tell me bad news. Once I realized what was going on, I started crying on the phone with the recruiter and the hiring partner. I’d put over 30 hours into my application and couldn’t believe that out of all the applicants across the country, I’d actually been selected.
What does this award mean to you?
My passion is and has always been the elevation of blackness and black excellence. At my current stage in life, that involves the diversification of law, one of the least diverse professions in this country. This award demonstrates that leaders and decision makers at top law firms understand that the lack of diversity is a systemic problem and they are taking affirmative steps to remedy. It means that my background and experiences are both valid and valued beyond the boxes I can check and the quotas I can help meet. This award not only represents progression for myself, my culture, and my people as a whole, but it also denotes a commitment to progression for the entire legal community.
How did Penn State Law—faculty, staff, or students—help you achieve this award?
Brenda Porter and Magen Mihok in Career Services have always been a big help with anything I’ve needed career wise. I can’t thank them enough for introducing me to this scholarship. As far as students, [3L] Tony Elion was invaluable while I was writing my application. He’s been a great sounding board for me to bounce ideas off of and was my biggest supporter while I was waiting to hear back.
Tell us about your summer experience working at Reed Smith.
The summer associate program ran for 10 weeks and had a lot of structured activities for myself and the eight other summer associates. The program is comprehensive; I would classify it into three prongs: professional development, legal work, and social.
For professional development, we had a lot of training sessions geared towards improving our legal writing skills, increasing our familiarity with legal research tools, and acclimating us into firm life with a formal mentorship program.
I loved this internship because there was an abundance of real legal work for us to choose from and the summer associates were valued members of the team. For the most part, we were free to select our own assignments and practice areas which is exactly what I needed since I was unsure what type of law I wanted to practice.
Finally, the firm really wanted us to get to know the partners and associates, as well as the city of Pittsburgh. We had a lot of social events: pizza making with our mentors, a tiki boat ride with first-year associates, a private tour of PPG Paints Arena, and the crowd favorite—an Ariana Grande concert. We also had a lot of meetings with the general counsels of Fortune 500 companies, universities, and sports teams. Most of the general counsels happened to be African American, which meant a lot to me personally.
In addition to my time at Reed Smith, I also spent one week during the summer in Bentonville, Arkansas, as a participant in the Walmart WISE Summer Associate Program. This program aims at increasing diversity within the legal profession and allows Walmart’s outside counsel to send a summer associate to corporate headquarters and pair them with a member of the legal team. It’s a great way to experience the role of in-house counsel and really shows what clients are looking for in outside counsel. I got to see a lot of the inner workings of one of the world’s largest companies.
How will the Diverse Scholars Award contribute to your law school education and future career?
First and foremost, this award means that I won’t need to take out loans for my final year of law school, which has its obvious benefits. But more importantly, it reminds me that I didn’t get to where I am all by myself. Every step of the way, there have been people creating or introducing me to opportunities that have opened up some really incredible doors. While I always planned to help those who come after me, this scholarship is a reminder of how big of an impact a simple gesture can have on someone’s career path. To a firm that makes millions a year, $20,000 may be a drop in the bucket, but to a student, that same amount can make a huge difference.