March 29, 2023 — The Federal Bar Association awarded University of Houston Law Center 1L Deborah Billy Gillis-Harry the $15,000 Diversity in the Legal Profession 2023 Scholarship. In her scholarship essay, Billy Gillis-Harry depicted the financial and emotional turmoil caused by battling the U.S. immigration system as she struggled to maintain her legal status.
“I am paying for law school directly out of pocket,” Billy Gillis-Harry said. “Every amount counts, and this lifts a huge burden for me. I am very grateful for this blessing.”
Contacted by a judge on behalf of the scholarship committee, Billy Gillis-Harry was told her essay captivated the committee’s attention by exemplifying strength in trials overcome and educational aspirations. Dispersed over three years, the Foundation will annually provide Billy Gillis-Harry $5,000 to ease enrollment fees.
“As a first-generation, minority student, the costs of a legal education weighed heavily on my mind,” Billy Gillis-Harry said. “I took a leap of faith returning to school, knowing that I was going to work very hard and opportunities to fund my education would present themselves.”
Originally from Nigeria, Billy Gillis-Harry earned her Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice and Master of Arts in Legal Studies at Texas State University before pressing pause in her educational journey to work as a paralegal and then in corporate legal compliance work. In 2020, Billy Gillis-Harry fell in love with UH Law Center, the vibrancy of the city of Houston and, of course, the food.
“I love Houston so much, and I remember visiting the new law building and getting an exciting vibe for law school instead of the fear I’d been feeling,” Billy Gillis-Harry said. “It wasn’t nervousness anymore; somehow I fit in, and I was excited to begin.”
And she hit the ground running, already winning the 2022 Blakely Butler Moot Court Competition and Best Speaker Award. She is also part of the corporate and taxation organization at UHLC, and the SBA Adopt a 1L program has been instrumental in her legal success.
“Deborah is one of the most active and engaged students at the Law Center,” UH Law Center Assistant Professor Aman Gebru said in a recommendation for the scholarship. “She goes above and beyond what is expected of first-year law students. I expect that her skills, passion for the law and warm personality will secure a bright future for her in the legal profession.”
This summer, she will be working at Gibson Dunn, exploring both transactional law and litigation to see where she fits in. She will enjoy immigration pro bono work and the aspect of giving back.
“You never know how amazing your life could be pursuing your dreams if you do not approach your challenges,” said Billy Gillis-Harry. “Life is never going to be convenient. Who says there is never going to be another pandemic or financial downturn? Just do it afraid because there is never going to be ‘the right time.’”
After she turned 21, Billy Gillis-Harry was no longer protected by her parents’ immigration status and she performed exhaustive research on immigration laws, personally filing immigration documents to maintain her legal status.
“I am a full-time student, and this was a risk — a scary risk — but it worked out,” Billy Gillis-Harry said. “I now have a better job, doing something that I love more, and I have more impact and more access to being an agent of change and giving back through Gibson Dunn’s Pro Bono of Change initiative.”
Driven to make a positive impact on the legal industry and to inspire something bigger than herself, Billy Gillis-Harry envisions herself becoming an influential, global leader, opening new doors for law students.
“Deborah’s own experiences have impressed upon her the real stakes of the legal process,” noted UH Law Center Assistant Professor Peter N. Salib in his recommendation. “She understands firsthand that the difference between good and bad lawyering can mean life-altering consequences for clients. I have every confidence that, upon graduation, Deborah will pursue her clients’ interests with the same zeal she has pursued her own immigration case. She will be a credit to our profession.”
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