Cooley alumna aims to serve marginalized communities

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

In May 2020, Frances Silney-Bah was arrested in Houston for peacefully protesting the murder of George Floyd, the black American man murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis during an arrest made after a store clerk suspected Floyd may have used a counterfeit $20 bill.

“That moment was the catalyst that changed my life,” says Silney-Bah, a recent graduate from Cooley Law School. “I decided during that summer that if I could be of service and help save lives of those in my community, now was the time to do it.

“I’d always dreamed about being a lawyer, but held myself back because I feared I would fail. 2020 taught me the only failure is not trying, so I decided to do something different with my life and go to law school so I could learn how to use the law to better serve marginalized communities.”

At that time Silney-Bah, an alumna of the University of Missouri-Columbia, was a special education teacher in a private school, working with students with serious scholastic or social challenges.

“These students are not always treated with the patience and care they need, so, it was important to me that I focus on teaching the holistic student,” she says. “It was great to create flexible lesson plans and plan field trips that took my students overseas to places like France and Mexico City.”
But as much as Silney-Bah enjoyed teaching, Lady Justice was calling her name. In 2021, she headed to Cooley Law School in Lansing, where she particularly appreciated her professors.

“Their levels of expertise, experience, and knowledge is what made going to class worthwhile,” she says. “I also love the community I found in student organizations, such as the Black Law Students Association, of which I served as president for two years. Another thing I enjoyed, you can tell by the way the faculty and staff interact with students that they really care about you as a person, they're very supportive.”

In her 1L summer, she interned with Judge Kristen Simmons at 54A District Court in Lansing—a rewarding experience where she saw first-hand how trials run, preliminary exams, and landlord-tenant cases.

“Judge Simmons has been a mentor to me since that first summer and now as a graduate, she is still mentoring me and helping me prepare for the bar exam,” she says.

At the Cooley Innocence Project, Silney-Bah enjoyed working on DNA cases to find previously overlooked forensic evidence to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. During her internship, Louis Wright was exonerated after serving 35 years for a crime he did not commit, when Calhoun County Circuit Court Judge Sarah Lincoln set aside his conviction for criminal sexual conduct and breaking and entering after DNA testing established Wright was not the perpetrator.

“I got to work on that case by helping prepare for his return to society—it was rewarding to be a part of his journey,” Silney-Bah says.

Last year, she was a summer law clerk at Legal Services of South Central Michigan, handling eviction defense work and client intake, and had her first experiences drafting motions and working directly with clients.

“Housing is another cause I’m passionate about, so being able to help people stay in their homes was a priceless reward all in itself,” she says.

Participating twice as an oralist in the Jessup International Moot Court Competition, she enjoyed learning about international legal instruments that have been in effect for decades and that are now seen front and center on the world stage as international violence escalates. This year, the team not only earned a seventh best written memorial award, but it also advanced to the octo-finals, placing the team among the top 25 law schools that competed nationally.

“Reading the Geneva Convention, the Statute of the International Court of Justice, and other relevant sources helped me to concretize how those sources are applied in real life,” she says. “I was fortunate to have two brilliant and encouraging coaches who helped me hone my oral advocacy and written advocacy skills. It’s an experience, I believe, will serve me for the rest of my legal career.”

Selected by her peers this year for the Leadership Achievement Award, Silney-Bah is interested in restorative justice.

“Because, as a Black woman, I’m acutely aware of the discrepancies in how the law is applied,” she says. “While we’re taught the law is neutral on its face, the reality looks much different. It’s important to me I serve my community, using the law to protect rather than punish.

“This is the same reason I have an interest in environmental rights and women’s rights issues. Earth is in crisis and that’s a direct result of human activity. I want to use the law to ensure communities get access to potable water, something residents of Flint are still fighting for. As the water crisis intensifies, I believe, as a lawyer, I should be advocating for those communities.”

Silney-Bah notes she had a “moment of grief” after Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization, the 2022 Supreme Court case overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

“I thought about all the people who would need access to life-saving healthcare who would now be unable to get it in certain states,” she says. “Again, as a Black woman, it’s important to me I uplift women’s issues and do my part in protecting our rights.”

Social justice is at the heart of her passion for the law.

“I see myself working to have justice served for those who have been traditionally left out of the courtroom or any legal process. This could be as a prosecutor or as a public defender,” she says.

“I still have a passion for working with youth and would love to combine my teaching with my advocacy. International law is something else I see myself doing because of my background and it would be great to one day argue in front of the real International Court of Justice. “

Silney-Bah spent the last six months interning at Blue Peak, LLP, a boutique Intellectual Property firm where she has gained firsthand experience with patent infringement cases, depositions, and privilege logs.

“As the world increases its reliance on A.I., that area of the law will continue to be pivotal in deciding what companies have the rights to use what inventions,” she says.

This year, Silney-Bah was one of three recipients of the inaugural Plunkett-Cooney Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) essay scholarship.

“It was an honor to be a recipient, especially during a time where we’re witnessing the first Black woman on the U.S. Supreme Court,” she says. “It was a great boost for me and gave me the confidence to go into my 3L more focused than ever.

“Sadly, during my law school experience, I did encounter micro-aggressions. Coming into this profession knowing that less than five percent of lawyers are Black and even less are Black women, I knew I would have to find ways to cope with these unfortunate incidents. Thankfully, most people are kind and I’ve found being honest about yourself and being mindful everyone comes from a different background helps me to navigate those situations. DEI is important because this profession should be a reflection of the public it serves, so investing in diverse lawyers can only make that stronger.”

Silney-Bah’s mother is from Cap-Haitïan, Haiti and her father from Mamou, Guinea-Conakry in West Africa. Both of her parents immigrated to the United States to pursue their studies. Her mother is a family medicine physician, and her father is a retired professor of sociology and criminal justice.

Silney-Bah has visited both countries multiple times, and lived in Conakry for a year in 8th grade, where she learned to speak and write in French fluently.

“As a first-generation American, I feel a responsibility to give back to those less fortunate and especially in Haiti right now where social unrest threatens my family every day,” she says.

She has always found time to give back to the community, and in undergrad, got involved with Grassroots Organizing.

“I learned a lot about the challenges people face such as cash bail, and housing issues. I was able to network with other organizers who have visions for what a more equitable world could look like,” she says.

As a law student, she volunteered at multiple expungement fairs, driver’s license restoration clinics, and as a guest judge for Lansing Teen Court.

“Now as a lawyer, I’m volunteering with the 10 C.O.R.E. housing literacy program, founded by Cooley Professor Florise Neville-Ewell to teach minority youth ages 16-20 about the process of buying a house,” she says.

 “I’ve been fortunate in my life and intend for volunteering to be a big part of my legal practice.”

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