April 2021 Bar Bulletin
By Christopher L. Young
Seattle attorney Tuella Sykes focuses her legal practice on strengthening our community. Finding inspiration in the life, work, and wisdom of Justice Thurgood Marshall, Ms. Sykes is committed to fighting injustice and is not afraid to reinvent herself to do so. Her journey began in Seattle, routed through the Midwest and New York City, and returned her to the Emerald City where she owns and operates the Law Office of Tuella Sykes, PLLC. She currently represents individuals impacted by immigration, bankruptcy, and tax issues.
If asked, Ms. Sykes would say that education has been her greatest joy and the best means for connecting with her community. Ms. Sykes was born in Seattle and attended the renowned Garfield High School. (Full disclosure: your author also attended GHS and may be biased in favor of its charms.) “Coming from Garfield is like its own little club,” she says. Perhaps that is true because of the school’s unique place in our community. For decades, Garfield has attracted a diverse mix of highly motivated students. In the 1970s, the Seattle School District adopted “The Seattle Plan,” a policy ostensibly designed to desegregate Seattle public schools by bussing students of all grades to schools across the city. The Seattle Plan ended roughly twenty years ago but its legacy remains. See, e.g., Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1.1
For some, Seattle’s bussing policy represented a misguided effort to desegregate local public schools; but for others, including Ms. Sykes, the program created opportunities to interact with children from other neighborhoods and, yes, from other racial backgrounds. “When I went to Garfield, they bussed the ‘white’ kids from the North side of Seattle to school. The entire idea was to create a school where there was a mix of kids both Black and white. This is exactly what happened, and the two cultures mixed and became forever friends. When we have our five- or ten-year high school reunions it isn’t about Black and white, but it is simply about catching up with high school friends.”
Not only has Garfield been recognized for its diverse student body but also for the high-quality education it imparts to its students. Such accolades extend to its unparalleled art and music programs. In fact, two of Ms. Sykes’s classmates were awarded Grammies. Ms. Sykes’s four years at Garfield were instrumental in establishing education and inclusivity as touchstones for her life’s journey.
After earning her high school diploma, Ms. Sykes earned her undergraduate degree from the College of St. Catherine in Minnesota (now known as the University of St. Catherine). St. Catherine was one of the first institutions of higher learning for women in the Midwest and is now the largest private women’s university in the United States.
Notwithstanding her childhood dream of becoming an attorney, Ms. Sykes began working as a registered nurse upon taking her undergraduate degree. However, her childhood dream of becoming an attorney was too powerful to ignore. Throwing caution to the wind, she enrolled in law school. Ms. Sykes earned her juris doctor at St. John’s University School of Law in New York City. One year after earning her J.D., Ms. Sykes earned her Master of Laws in taxation from the University of Washington School of Law.
Whether providing care to patients or legal advice to clients, Ms. Sykes has always put the interests of her community first. Justice Marshall’s representation of Oliver Brown inspired Ms. Sykes early on to forge a career as a practicing attorney. See Brown v. Board.2 “As a Black woman, I saw this Black man that moved mountains in my eyes. He opened doors for millions of Black people in America and, as a young Black child, that was so inspirational. From that moment on I wanted to practice law.”
As a practicing attorney, Ms. Sykes has found myriad ways to help clients in dire straits. She has assisted clients with liquidation and restructuring under the Bankruptcy Code, with federal and state tax issues, and now, with seeking relief under President Biden’s U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 (the “Act”) once passed by Congress. Her ideal client is an individual seeking to exercise their rights as a United States citizen, green card holder, asylum seeker, or otherwise under the Act.
One of the first immigration cases Ms. Sykes handled was a deportation case. Walking into the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, and seeing many families impacted by potential deportation, Ms. Sykes couldn’t help but think of Justice Marshall, who said, “Where you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”
From Ms. Sykes’s perspective, immigration law is truly concerned with human and civil rights. “People who are seeking asylum or who are in the shadows are just like you and me,” Ms. Sykes notes. “Yet they are somehow different [in the eyes of some]. When I first walked into the Northwest Detention Center’s waiting room, it was filled with families waiting to see loved ones who were detained. Sitting in the courtroom, however, you realize that those families will end up being separated. It is an incredibly sad and frustrating process.”
By helping individuals and families to remain united, Ms. Sykes is fulfilling Justice Marshall’s gentle command. Her vision for the future is to assist those families and individuals who would seek relief under the Act. Such individuals are likely undocumented but may be able to tread a years-long path to citizenship. They will certainly benefit from Ms. Sykes’s counsel.
But Ms. Sykes’s contributions to her community do not stop there. She mentors newer attorneys as much as possible notwithstanding a busy professional schedule. Prior to the novel coronavirus, Ms. Sykes tutored Garfield students and worked hand-in-hand with them to improve grades, assisted with KCBA’s Downtown Debt Clinic, and participated as a judge for the University of Washington’s undergraduate mock trial team and the Emerald City Open Mock Trial Invitational. When social distancing measures ease, she looks forward to continuing and expanding on her efforts to give back to the community.
Ms. Sykes’s commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusivity is manifest as well in the legacy she seeks to establish through her law practice: to live the words of Justice Marshall and to create an environment where each of us can “simply be kind to one another.” We all have something to learn from Ms. Sykes’s inspirational example.
Christopher L. Young is an attorney and managing member of the Law Offices of Christopher L. Young, PLLC, and the editor of the Bar Bulletin. Chris can be reached at BarBulletinEditor@KCBA.org or (206) 407-5829.
1 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
2 347 U.S. 483 (1954).