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Tulane Law Class of 2007 honors classmate with fund for legal clinics

April 17, 2023 9:30 AM
Alina Hernandez ahernandez4@tulane.edu

Valerie Zukin (L'07) and her husband, Josh Rosenthal, on their wedding day. Zukin's classmates have started a fund in her honor to assist Tulane Law's legal clinics and continue her advocacy in immigration law. (photo courtesy of Zukin family)


In life, immigration attorney Valerie Zukin fought for the most vulnerable, transforming detained immigrants’ access to representation in northern and central California.

Through her indefatigable determination and grit, she convened and inspired other lawyers and established the infrastructure that today provides thousands of detainees with access to counsel in the region.

Zukin (L’07), died of breast cancer in 2021 at the age of 41 – but despite her short life, she made a lasting impact, friends said. Zukin’s work literally changed the lives of thousands of immigrants, who are not guaranteed an attorney in removal proceedings and where they can face severe consequences. 

Zukin (right) with her friend and
classmate Ragan Schneider.

For her persistent and dedicated advocacy for this vulnerable population, her Tulane Law Class of 2007 established a fund in her honor last fall, in hopes of continuing her work of training future lawyers, appropriately, through the law school’s legal clinics. Since October 2022, the class has raised nearly $40,000 in gifts and pledges in support of this new fund.

“This fund provides a purposeful outlet for Valerie’s classmates, family, and friends to carry on her legacy in a meaningful way,” said Ragan Schneider (L'07),  Zukin’s law school classmate and close friend who helped establish the fund. “It is a perfect match of her passions, ideals, and accomplishments with an area of critical need for the school.”

To make a gift to the Valerie A. Zukin Fund for Clinical Education and Advocacy, click here.

The Valerie A. Zukin Fund for Clinical Education and Advocacy will support the day-to-day operations of Tulane’s nationally-recognized clinical programs, including the Immigrants' Rights Clinic which launched in 2020. Now with nine legal clinics that train students in cases in federal litigation, environmental law, criminal justice, juvenile justice, First Amendment rights, immigration law, domestic violence (which includes the nationally recognized Women’s Prison Project) and legislative advocacy, Tulane’s robust clinical programs are having a major impact in the New Orleans community and beyond. The clinics provide access to legal representation for those who often cannot afford a lawyer.

The new fund honors Zukin’s commitment to advocacy and training while supporting the law clinics’ need for additional resources. There is tremendous interest among students for clinical experience – the hands-on skills-training of lawyering – particularly in the complex and fast-paced area of immigration law. While it will help support all of Tulane’s clinics, the Zukin Fund is especially important for the Immigrants' Rights Clinic, which represents asylum seekers, immigrant workers, and immigrant youth while also developing know-your-rights materials for the thousands of detained immigrants in Louisiana seeking release to their communities.

"Her family is so moved to see this new fund established at the law school in her honor," said Heather Zukin, her sister. "We know it will help inspire many more fierce advocates like Valerie."

The fund’s creation is timely as Louisiana now houses more immigrant detainees than any other state except Texas. The detention centers and immigration courts are located remotely, several hours from where most immigration attorneys are based in New Orleans.  

“Valerie was a shining example of how to use the law in service of community-led movements for justice,” said Mary Yanik, Associate Clinical Professor and Director of the Tulane Immigrants' Rights Clinic. “Through this fund and through the legacy of her work, our students will be inspired to follow her path for years to come.” 

As a student at Tulane, Zukin was Editor-in-Chief of the Tulane Journal of Law and Sexuality. Her classmates remember her warmth, kindness, determination, and inclusiveness, traits which later made her a passionately committed advocate with a talent for mentoring and training young attorneys.

Zukin (left) with friend and classmate
Jami Vibbert.

 “Valerie was an inspiration to me, both during law school and after,” said Jami Vibbert (L'07), Valerie’s classmate and close friend, now a partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter. “Her untiring dedication to those in need, up until the last moments of her life, is a testament to what a truly incredible and selfless person she was. I am happy to support the fund to provide others with the ability to help fill the gap left by her absence.”

After graduating from Tulane Law School in 2007, Zukin began her career at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), a leading legal services provider for detained immigrants, where she defended detainees held at what was then the nation’s fourth-largest detention center near Tacoma, Wash. Four years later, she joined the renowned immigration law firm Van Der Hout, Brigagliano & Nightingale (now Van Der Hout LLP) in San Francisco as an associate, where she gained deep experience in immigration law and honed her litigation skills - training she later passed on to early-career lawyers.

Zukin made a lasting mark on her community in the Bay Area, where she spent the last decade of her life. Zukin became a leader in expanding pro bono services for detainees through her efforts to coordinate and grow the pool of immigration attorneys in northern and central California.

 “Valerie mentored a generation of detention lawyers and built a detention legal service infrastructure that has and will free thousands,” one colleague wrote in a tribute after her passing.

Another tribute described the domino effect of her tenacious efforts: Zukin created the pipeline for detainee representation which tackled a San Francisco docket of nearly 1,000 detainees in 2017 – most of whom could not find lawyers – and reduced it to two (both represented) at the time of her death.

Zukin, standing behind the swing, with the Class
of 2007 at their 10th Tulane Law Reunion.

“Many of the attorneys now advocating on behalf of detained clients in northern and central California are Valerie’s mentees, or are attorneys who have been mentored by her mentees,” said Schneider.

From June 2020 until her death in September 2021, Zukin served as Special Projects Attorney at the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC). There she led an intensive mentorship and training program to prepare attorneys and recent law graduates – the initial cohort of the California Immigrant Justice Fellowship – to provide legal services to immigrants in underserved areas of California. At the same time, she fought tirelessly for her last pro bono client, whom she represented through the nonprofit Immigrant Legal Defense (ILD).

Prior to her role at ILRC, she was the founding Lead Attorney for the Northern California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (NCCIJ) and later the inaugural Lead Director for the California Collaborative for Immigrant Justice (CCIJ), then housed at the Justice & Diversity Center of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Zukin’s impact was so significant that colleagues from across her career created the Valerie Zukin Memorial Fellowship to help develop more immigration attorneys like her in the Bay Area. This fellowship supports two fellows each summer at the organizations where Valerie represented detained clients: Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and Immigrant Legal Defense (ILD).

Zukin and Sadie.

“We are so grateful to Valerie Zukin’s classmates and friends for honoring and extending her legacy at Tulane Law,” said law Dean David Meyer. “Valerie represented the best of Tulane Law – passionately using her talents to protect the most vulnerable through the law – and this fund will help enable future generations of talented Tulane lawyers to follow in her footsteps.”

Outside of the law, Zukin lived her life to the fullest. Alongside her husband Josh Rosenthal and their beloved dogs, she was always planning the next memorable dinner party or adventure with friends and family. She loved hiking and traveling and was a foodie of epic proportions, friends said.

“Valerie was so vibrant and fun, with a great, big laugh,” said Schneider. “She was energetic and effective, accomplishing anything she set out to do, and she really enjoyed bringing people together. She would be very gratified to see what her Tulane Law classmates and her colleagues in the Bay Area have done to honor her contributions and continue her work to improve the lives of vulnerable people.”

To make a gift to the Valerie A. Zukin Fund for Clinical Education and Advocacy, click here.