Portrait of the Artist as a Young Law Student

© 2021 Gina McKlveen
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“Cling to your why. If you can really hold on to why you’re doing something, what brought you there in the first place while making sure that purpose is a little bit bigger than yourself so you can give back to the community, you’ll succeed.”

For the author of these wise words the “why” is both personal and altruistic. Gina McKlveen, a recent graduate of George Washington Law School, is also a talented artist and the recipient of the prestigious Outstanding Law Student bestowed by the National Association of Women Lawyers. This award is given to a graduating student who contributed to the advancement of women, promoted concerns of women in the legal profession, achieved academic success, and earned the respect of the law school faculty and administration.

As an undergraduate at Saint Vincent College working on dual degrees in English literature and studio arts, McKlveen experienced an epiphany.

“I went to a very small liberal arts college where I graduated with just eight other art majors,” she says. “My lightbulb moment came when I realized how under-resourced art programs are. A lot of that has to do with a lack of knowledge of how to start your own business, how to protect your artwork, which is obviously done through copyright and registration processes. So, I wanted to pursue a path where I could become a voice for these issues while calling attention to the fact that artists have value and that deserves protection.

“In fact, there is a clause in the United States Constitution, Article One, Section Eight, Clause 8 that states that we’re supposed to be promoting and protecting the progress of the arts. That’s essentially why I wanted to pursue a law career and I want to become an art advocate and attorney. Now of course you have to factor in the elements of technology and the exposure this creates. I’m still figuring out exactly what my role will be and what it will look like, but this is why I decided to go to law school.”

A Vibrant Palette

Once on the campus of GW, McKlveen discovered another underdog cause to champion. “My motivation for going to law school was realizing that artists aren’t equipped with the legal side of things,” she says. “But once I began my law classes, every time I looked up, I’d see the artwork on the walls, and it was always a portrait of a man. Typically, a white man. It made me think, ‘How do I even fit in here?’ To me, how I resonate with that is through art, so I decided to use my talents and gifts to create space and tell the stories of those women who also deserved recognition.”

This consideration evolved into a historical NINE: Portraits of Women in the Law event held at the university honoring nine women who previously graduated from GW Law namely, Belva Ann Lockwood, Emma Reba Bailey, Mary Coleman, Marguerite Rawalt, Helen Newman, Patricia Roberts Harris, Sarah T. Hughes, Jeanette A. Michael, and Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

Not surprisingly, McKlveen was responsible for painting eight of these portraits.

“I planned this entire exhibit with help from many other young women law students at GW, which obviously required a deep dive into the women alumna,” she says, “and just going through that I learned so much about the women who had come before me at GW. For instance, I learned about the first woman who graduated from GW Law which was Belva Ann Lockwood, a true trailblazer. She was also the first woman to argue before the United States Supreme Court and one of the first women to run for president of the United States. She was such an iconic lady, and it was such an honor to learn about the lives of all these amazing women.

“I just felt that I wanted to use my position here to bring these women and their stories to light,” McKlveen adds. “You know, neither of my grandmothers, both very smart and talented women, had the opportunity to pursue their education so not only am I grateful to the women who went before me at GW but also the women of my own family. I feel I am standing on their shoulders and with that opportunity comes a responsibility to not just succeed but honor them in the process.”

Painting the Future

During her tenure at GW Law School, McKlveen served as president of the Law Association for Women, as mentor for the Student Intellectual Property Law Association, director of SBA Student Wellness & Morale, Art Law and Entertainment Society Member and a member of the Christian Legal Society.

Unlike the majority of her fellow classmates, McKlveen has deferred both taking the bar and applying to law firms. Instead, she’ll be pursuing her LL.M. degree hopefully at American University.

“I love Washington D.C. and American University coincidentally is located here,” she says. “Another fun fact about this school, it was founded by two women during a time when women were still denied admission at most law schools. For me this just feels like the right ‘next step.’ I’m also busy applying for various fellowships including one at ACLU and their Women’s Rights Project.”

Regardless of where her path takes her McKlveen will undoubtedly be a breath of fresh air as well as a tireless and dedicated advocate for her fellow artists.

Susan Cushing

Susan Cushing is the associate editor of Attorney at Law Magazine as well as a staff writer. She has been contributing to the magazine for more than eight years.

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