A Discussion with Fr. Bryan Pham, SJ, from Gonzaga University’s General Public Practice & Indian Law Clinic
Edited by MegAnne Liebsch and Kristen Smith
February 21, 2023 — Fr. Bryan Pham, SJ, is the chaplain to the law school and assistant professor of law at Gonzaga University, where he teaches legal methods and jurisprudence, and is the managing attorney for the Gonzaga Law School Clinical Legal Programs. He’s also the supervising attorney for the General Public Practice & Indian Law Clinic which works with members of the Kalispel Tribe and other Indigenous people in the Spokane region of Washington on legal matters.
In this interview — which has been edited for length and clarity — Fr. Bryan discusses his journey as a Jesuit, his career in law, and his work at the General Public Practice & Indian Law Clinic.
Q: How did you decide to enter the Jesuits?
A: As a sophomore in high school, part of our English curriculum was to read Newsweek magazine from over to cover each week. One week, there was a story on the Jesuits who were killed in El Salvador in 1989. Although I was Catholic, I didn’t know much about the Jesuits, but I thought to myself: “Here were people who believed in God and were committed to God, justice, and the betterment of people. And they did it in such a way that they were willing to put their life on the line.” I didn’t want to be a martyr — I hate suffering and pain — but I was attracted to the idea of living your life for something worthwhile, something that you’re willing to put your life on the line for.
As I explored different religious orders, I was drawn to the passion of the Jesuits, their way of life, and their constitutions. When I applied in my late teens, the vocations director at the time suggested I spend more time out in the world before making that decision. I thought, “If you think I have a vocation and this is what I want to do, then let’s do it. Why delay?” So, I joined the Jesuits when I was 17. Fortunately, my superiors recognized that although I was a vowed religious, I was still a teenager, so they gave me the freedom to be an adolescent with certain parameters. I was able to go to college, spend time with friends, take classes, and grow up — an opportunity that not all Jesuits have.
I realize I was quite naive, and they took a risk on me. I never had any regret. I never looked back. Every experience I’ve had in the Society of Jesus, whether good or bad, has always been affirming of my decision.
Q: How did your Jesuit discernment of vocation influence your career path into becoming a lawyer?
A: The discernment process is contemplating how to follow Christ and to be effective as a Jesuit. For some, it’s about teaching at the university, others about working in a parish. For me, it’s the legal world, it’s the legal profession; being an attorney (and a canon lawyer) is the intersection between justice, faith, and passion. I think our entire Jesuit lifestyle is to be available to the mission, to where the Spirit moves you. Our Ignatian spirituality makes us mobile.
When I was an undergrad, I did pre-med and was trying to figure out both what I wanted to do and how to be a Jesuit, I had the chance to work in a leprosy colony in India between my junior and senior years. I loved it. It was there I realized that to be a doctor, you need an entire healthcare system, you can’t just do surgery without equipment, nurses, physical therapists, and pharmacists. I thought, unless I’m going to be in a place where I have an entire system to support my work, I won’t be apostolically available — going into medicine would limit my availability.
During my time in India, I had the chance to visit a refugee camp in Nepal where I shadowed lawyers who worked in that context. It was there I discovered that you can be an attorney in a different capacity, without having to rely on an entire legal system. When I returned to the U.S. before my senior year, I knew I wanted to study law. Considering my personality and interests, and knowing that my calling was to serve the greater good, what motivated me was to work in contexts where I could interact with the secular society from a legal perspective, and accompany people who need accompaniment.
After completing his undergraduate studies at Gonzaga University, Fr. Bryan received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from Regis College and a Master of Divinity from the University of Toronto. He also received a law degree from Seattle University School of Law, a Licentiate of Canon Law from the Pontifical Gregorian University, a Doctor of Canon Law from Université Saint Paul, and a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa.
After practicing asylum and refugee law in Italy, Thailand, and Canada, Fr. Bryan returned to Los Angeles to practice immigration law. He then returned to Spokane, and since 2019, he’s been a supervising attorney for the General Public Practice & Indian Law Clinic at Gonzaga University.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face as a law professor?
A: As an assistant professor of law and a clinical supervisor, I get to accompany my students during their first appearances in court or encounter clients as part of their experiential learning. It’s the best job in the world because I get to watch them grow and become confident as both individuals and as future practicing attorneys.
One of the challenging things I find among my students is that they think passion is what you do. I’m a believer that passion is who you’re with or who you accompany. We’re passionate about people, right? We can be doing anything with them, but if we’re not passionate about them, then it becomes objective or a task, rather than a way of being. I have students who are driven by how immigration law works, but they burn out very quickly. But if they’re passionate about immigrants — especially those who are undocumented immigrants — and that’s who they love, then they’re able to use that as the driving force behind their studies. When you’re able to put a face to the law, you can say to yourself: “This is why I’m doing this.”
When I was a novice back in 1994, I was sent to the reservation of the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, to work with Fr. Mike McHugh. I was there for about a month and a half but was deeply impacted by the Native people I met there. That short time made me want to minister and work with Indigenous peoples, although it wasn’t until almost two decades later that I started working with tribes.
That’s a long gap, right? But because I fell in love with the Native people, that’s what motivated me. I practice both federal and Washington state law because it allows me to accompany Native Americans here. My passion is the American Indigenous peoples and their cultures. I’m passionate about the way they ground themselves in their history, as well as their dignity as people. I’m passionate about their experience and who they are as people and children of God. I live out that passion through the practice of law.
The General Public Practice and Indian Law Clinic is part of Gonzaga Law School’s Community Justice Project. The clinic has a contract with the Kalispel Tribe to provide civil and misdemeanor criminal services to the Kalispel people, representing tribal members in tribal, state, and federal courts. The clinic also provides the same services to clients residing in Spokane County in district court.
Q: Can you describe your work with the General Public Practice and Indian Law Clinic?
A: Starting out, the General Public Practice Clinic and Indian Law Clinic were two separate clinics. Over time, the two clinics merged into one by a group of attorneys in Spokane at Gonzaga to help Indigenous people in need of legal representation, but who otherwise couldn’t afford it. We have a special relationship with the Kalispel Tribe — who partially fund the clinic under contract. When deciding on the name, we went to the people of Kalispel and asked, “How do you refer to yourself?” They told us, “We call ourselves Indian, so called it the Indian Law Clinic.”
Nearly 80% of our clients are Native Americans, so the majority of our cases are in tribal court, with about 20% in state court. Every recognized tribe in the U.S. has its own legal system. They’re represented under federal law, with their own law and order code typically approved by the federal government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the Department of Interior. So, the Kalispel have their own constitutions and law and order code.
As supervising attorney, I work alongside my law interns to guide members of the Kalispel Tribe through all the legal processes. Once a month, we go to the reservation and hold a legal advice clinic. People can come to us with any concern that they may have from divorces and custody issues to adoption. We also do public defending for misdemeanor cases in tribal court. And if enrolled members of the Tribe have issues in state court, then we represent them there, as well.
Our European-American legal system views litigation as something that is part of societal reality. It can be overwhelming and overbearing, resulting in conflict as a common reality. But for the Kalispel, as with many native tribes, conflict isn’t supposed to be a permanent reality. Decisions that are made in tribal court have to do with what’s good for the culture and the community, how to make whole again people who violated the community’s sense of security and trust. Because the Tribal communities tend to be smaller and more intimate, there’s a lack of anonymity, as opposed to state court. The community wants to do what is right, not just for you, but also for the community. Working with Native Americans in tribal law reminds us that people need to be civil with each other because of shared history and common narratives, and conflict should not be permanent.
Q: Why is the relationship between Gonzaga Law and the Kalispel Tribe important?
A: The Kalispel Tribe a relatively small tribe, and I am told that Gonzaga University and the Jesuits helped the tribe gain federal recognition. I’m part of the Rocky Mountain Mission, and the model we’ve used to work with Native Americans is over a century old. The original idea was that you send someone to the reservations where they live and accompany the people. The reservations used to be isolated places. But, with technology and mobility, they are no longer isolated. Moreover, more Native Americans are living off the reservations and in large urban areas than on traditional reservations.
I wanted to find another way to accompany Native people, another way to engage in Native ministry, one that fits into our current reality. My work in the law clinic allows me to be an active part of Gonzaga as an institution of higher education and it enables me to work closely with the Kalispel, while still living in a Jesuit community and finding support among my brother Jesuits. I envision future Jesuit ministries working with Native Americans in a similar capacity. Now, it’s Gonzaga’s responsibility to work with the tribe, not just the Jesuits. By creating this relationship, the responsibility is now shared with our lay colleagues — law professors, law students, paralegals, and attorneys — who can walk with the people of the Kalispel Tribe. I feel that his model is more sustainable. This model could be replicated in other schools — where students can have immersion experiences while they are in school. Medical and nursing students could work in health clinics on the reservation during their program; education, school counseling, and social work students could have placement in schools on the reservations; MBA students could work with the tribal business and gaming agency on the reservations; or students with interest in the environment could work with the natural resources and land-use department the tribe.
So, I think it’s important for a school like Gonzaga, as well as other Jesuit schools and institutions located in areas where there are Native populations, to understand the situation and turn their institutions into an agent of change and an opportunity to connect.