ASU Law grad understands the language of law

Portrait of ASU grad Janis Palma.

Janis Palma is graduating from the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University with her Master of Legal Studies after working for four decades in the court system as an interpreter. Courtesy photo


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

Janis Palma has been immersed in the legal system for four decades as a certified English-Spanish interpreter. 

But the Puerto Rico native, now living in San Antonio, knew she needed to understand the law better to translate it effectively for her clients in their pursuit of justice. Though Palma retired from the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico in 2017, she worked as a contract interpreter in South Texas and was involved with the Society for the Study of Translation and Interpreting Research Collaborative. That path led her to pursue a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. 

“This was the program I was looking for — a master's degree in law for non-lawyers, completely online,” she said. “The tuition was also very affordable. I have not taken courses with every member of the ASU Law faculty, but everyone I have met has been outstanding in one way or another.”

Her degree was made possible, in part, by a scholarship from Patrick Malone & Associates and a Dean's Recruitment Award.

Palma was busy during her time at ASU Law. She wrote an article on interpreter ethics for the University of Texas School of Law’s Texas Hispanic Journal of Law & Policy, interned at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and started a nonprofit called the Integrated Knowledge Institute for the Greater Advancement of Interpreters.

No stranger to higher education, she earned her Bachelor of Arts in Spanish language and literature with a minor in art history from the University of Texas at Austin, as well as a Master of Arts in Puerto Rican and Caribbean history and literature from the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y el Caribe. Now, she can add MLS to that list at the age of 69. 

“This is a huge source of pride for me and my entire family,” Palma said. “I hope to teach by example to the younger generations in my family that you can do anything, accomplish anything, at any stage of your life, and that it is never too late to follow your dreams.”

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the law?

Answer: It happened when I realized it was a very necessary step in my work toward language justice in our courts. As a judiciary interpreter for my entire professional life, I am concerned about the Limited English Proficient (LEP) defendants we serve. I know that they are entitled to competent interpreters as a matter of due process and equal protection. I wanted to study law in order to be well informed in the field of criminal law, in particular, and the protection of linguistic minorities' right to meaningful language access.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU Law — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

A: I have been around lawyers, judges and courtrooms for the past 40-some years, looking in as a non-lawyer. I have gained a completely new understanding of the difficulties and complexities of litigation and have acquired a brand-new respect for trial attorneys and judges. The rules of evidence alone are so complex, I take my hat off to all of them who know exactly how to apply them, what to look for and what to do when the rules of evidence are your guiding light!  

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Give it your 1,000%. Being admitted to law school is a privilege. Don't waste it. Reach out for help if you feel like you're drowning. There is a whole team of wonderful people in this school who are ready, willing and able to help you. It gets tough sometimes, but that's a good sign. It means your professors care, and you need to rise to the challenge. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am going for my PhD. I love learning, and research is my happy place. My birthday is on Nov. 27, so by the time I graduate, I will be 69. If I can live the rest of my life as a student while also contributing to the scholarly literature on the intersection of law and language, I can say I am living the dream.  

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would finish my dissertation, which is essential for what would come next. I would assemble a team of subject-matter experts to create a curriculum for judiciary interpreters in all languages and another team of test design experts to redesign the testing criteria and methods to certify judiciary interpreters for both state and federal courts. I would also seek access to judicial conferences all over the country to educate judges about the critical importance of competent interpreters in every court proceeding and seek approval from the American Bar Association for law school courses that would teach future lawyers how to work with interpreters when they have LEP clients and witnesses.     

Q: Who, if anyone, helped you get here?

A: I have a whole village that has helped me get here. In particular, I have a dear mentor and friend, Dr. Aneta Pavlenko, who has been encouraging me from the moment I said I wanted to go back to school. Another source of encouragement has been Professor Melissa Wallace from the University of Texas in San Antonio, also a member of the board of the Society for the Study of Translation and Interpreting. The project the organization sponsored, called the SSTI Research Collaborative, inspired me to seek a law degree, and in many ways is responsible for this part of my life's journey.

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