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Nancy Williams, ’81: Giving Back Is Its Own Reward

Kristy Demas
November 13, 2017

Nancy Williams, ’81, did not start out as a traditional law student. At 33 years of age, she was more than a decade older than most of her Michigan Law classmates. She was recently divorced. And for her, law school was fun. “After 11 years in the working world, being able to sit in class listening to great professors like Yale Kamisar felt like a luxury.” While some found all the reading and cold calling in class stressful, Williams appreciated the new challenge, soaking in knowledge and relishing the revelatory insights of her younger classmates. The experience was rejuvenating, and today, some of her closest friends remain those she made in the Quad.

Fast forward to 2014, and again, Williams was learning new things—yet this time it wasn’t to make a career change, but to find ways to help others. As she began to wind down her successful career as an attorney with Perkins Coie in Seattle, Williams knew it was the perfect time to concentrate on giving back. She wasn’t sure how to go about it, but she was confident that, as one of the most active and best-funded United Ways in the nation, the King County United Way would be a great starting point.

“The success of the King County United Way is based on many factors, such as strong support from its many volunteers and organizations like the Gates Foundation. Seattle is a community that engenders in its citizens the desire to help others. It’s one of the qualities that has reinforced my decision to come here after law school,” Williams says.

She was talked into helping with the organization’s Free Tax Preparation Program, which annually, from January to mid-April, offers free tax help to people making less than $64,000 per year. The program helps thousands of people facing age, income, language, or disability barriers—many of whom are eligible for tax credits.

“I didn’t think tax work would be my cup of tea. I don’t even do my own taxes. But I agreed to try it and wound up loving it. The work itself is fairly simple. I use computer software to input a client’s data, and the result is usually a tax refund, which is very gratifying. Even an amount as little as $25 can be a big deal. It makes my day to feel a client’s appreciation.”

Williams started working just one afternoon a weekend during tax season. Now in her third year of helping with the clinic, she has increased her volunteer hours to include a Saturday shift near her home and participation in a post-season United Way tax group that assists clients through each October.

For Williams, the connections she forges with tax clients are meaningful. One in particular stands out. As an adolescent, she loved the poetry of Langston Hughes. “I was lucky enough to meet him and receive a photo dedicated and signed in bright green ink,” she says. Decades later, in talking with a tax client, Williams discovered that he, too, was a fan of Hughes. The client had received letters from Hughes, also signed in green ink, which Williams subsequently learned was the poet’s personal “trademark.” “The bond with my tax client was instantaneous. We came from completely different circumstances, brought together at a tax clinic, only to learn that we both loved Langston Hughes. The encounter reinforced for me how small our world is and how enriching it can be to connect with one another. It’s too easy to get out of touch with our communities—especially from the lofty perch of an attorney.”

Williams’ commitment to helping others stems from her upbringing in Kansas City. Her parents volunteered extensively in their community, instilling in her values that she retains today. “Let’s face it. Lawyers are fortunate. We are well educated and well compensated. We have an ethical obligation to provide pro bono legal services. I believe that we also have a moral and social obligation to help others who aren’t so fortunate.”

Her volunteerism actually started after college with a stint in the Peace Corps and has continued in one form or another ever since. Along with tax preparation, Williams also tutors area students once a week. Her pro bono work includes representation of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs) in child custody matters, assisting applicants seeking Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status, and providing employment law advice to nonprofits.

Soon after moving to Seattle, Williams signed up with the International Rescue Committee to work with a recent immigrant from Southeast Asia. “As much as I enjoyed meeting with him, I sometimes felt I provided little more than a friendly face and someone to talk to over a cup of coffee. But I tried to answer his questions about life in America and to let him know that I cared.” On a whim, Williams recently came across an old letter and tracked down the former immigrant, who has for many years resided in Texas. “When I made contact, he responded immediately with fond recollections and photos of his family—including a daughter named after me! I can’t believe that the small amount of time I spent with him impacted him so strongly, but it’s just another example of how small words and deeds at the right moment may mean the world to someone else.”

During the month of November, our Grads Giving Back series highlights ways that Michigan Law graduates are going above and beyond to serve their local communities outside of the office. Read our previous story, Thomas Bean, ’86, Finds His Spark, and look for the next installment in our series on November 20.

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