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Kristi Skalman JD’20 accomplishes her dream of opening her own law firm

by Jessica Rotter,

Kristi Skalman
Kristi Skalman JD'20

Kristi Skalman JD’20 had a long path to law school, but she never let it stop her from achieving her goals. Growing up in poverty, she began working and taking care of herself at age 15, she got her GED before enrolling in community college. She studied welding because she enjoyed the artistic component and it was welding, Skalman shares, that saved her life in many ways. Following a few years of experiencing homelessness, welding gave her the structure and stability she had long been hoping to find. After working as a professional welder for a couple years, Skalman felt a pull toward attending law school. Witnessing firsthand how difficult it can be for families to access legal aid when they are low income, she felt strongly about finding ways to help others who came from similar backgrounds as her. 

With that, she began to explore how she could become a lawyer and enrolled at Portland State University to complete her bachelor’s degree. Exactly one day after receiving her undergraduate diploma, Skalman began classes at Willamette Law with a singular goal in mind: to graduate before turning 30 and to go on to open her own family law firm. 

“I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I told myself that I would remain focused on that goal until I achieved it,” Skalman says. Right away, she loved law school and found the student culture at Willamette Law to be a gift. Though her time at law school was not without its obstacles, Skalman recalls. The first year of law school, she lived in a floating home near Portland without internet access. “I would get home from classes and drive to the truck stop close to my home so I could use their internet. Even though it was difficult, I needed to do it in order to accomplish my dream. After a while, people at the truck stop would recognize me and I knew that they were cheering me on as well,” she says. 

Though it was Willamette, Skalman offers, that was the most integral to her success and ability to complete law school. The student food pantry, laundry facilities, gym, and counseling services at Willamette all played a vital role in helping her focus on her studies. With the school helping to ensure that her basic needs were always met, coupled with the law school’s supportive environment in the law school, she was able to focus on what was important. 

As for her time in the classroom, Skalman found that the courses she took at Willamette, in particular her legal research and writing course, helped prepare her to feel confident in her goal to open her own law firm. While she didn’t know very much about legal terms, norms, and concepts before law school, the courses prepared her well for the realities of practicing law. 

While at Willamette, Skalman was introduced to the Commons Law Center where she was an attorney fellow. From learning trial prep to trauma-informed care training and mentorship opportunities, the Commons Law Center set her up with an understanding of how to provide community based care while immersing her in the tools necessary to open her own law firm. “It put me in a position of understanding how to care for those in my community and how to start and grow a practice from the ground up. My time at the Commons Law Center set me on the path to success in starting my firm,” Skalman says. 

Now, after launching Vibrant Law a little over a year ago, Skalman is focused on providing the highest quality service she can while prioritizing her firm’s commitment to work-life balance. “I want it to be a place that benefits the public, but we can only do that if we care for ourselves and the workload is manageable,” she says. As her firm grows and she continues to build connections and relationships in the community, Skalman proudly looks back on how she accomplished exactly what she set out to do – open her own family law practice. 

While she keeps her eye on growing her firm, Skalman is also dedicated to keeping legal aid predictable and available to those who need it most. “My goal is to keep legal fees predictable and transparent so my clients never have to worry about costs changing. When someone first sits down to talk with me, I want them to come away feeling relieved because they’ve been heard and they know I am going to do all I can for them. I want people to understand the court process and the ins and outs of what to expect, my goal is transparency and communication at all times,” she shares. 

Skalman is proud of Vibrant Law being a minority and women-owned business, and she is proud of everything she overcame to open her firm. However, she shares that she is just getting started and there is a lot left to learn and offer the community. Skalman hopes that others can benefit from hearing her story, what she has accomplished, and what she strives to do in the future. “I want to be an example for those who don’t think it’s possible to achieve their dreams. If you had told me at 18 that I would be where I am today, I wouldn’t believe you. The secret is to stay focused, dedicate yourself to your passions, and find a supportive community and mentorship along the way,” Skalman says. She is grateful for her time at Willamette Law which gave her the foundation she needed to achieve her goals and helped to improve not only her life, but the lives of all the clients she will go on to serve.

About Willamette University College of Law

Willamette University College of Law was the first law school to open in the Pacific Northwest. Building on deep historic roots, we focus with pride on educating the next generation of problem-solving lawyers and leaders. Our location in Salem, Oregon, directly across the street from the Oregon State Capitol and Supreme Court, cannot be matched in the region. Our thought-leading scholars advance and promote our shared responsibility to make a difference in society, placing justice, fairness, and equality at the heart of everything we do.

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