From BYU Law to Deputy Attorney General and Beyond, One JRCLS Member's Inspiring Journey
“If you endanger the children of American Samoa, you endanger the welfare of American Samoa”—that was the closing argument Lornalei Meredith Fanene hoped would resonate with the jury. And it did. The correctional officer who provided minors drugs and snuck them out of their juvenile detention center after hours was convicted of seven charges.
Now, when Lornalei walked into her first class at BYU Law school in 2009, she had not planned out everything, but she did know at least three things about her future.
First, she knew she would not be moving to American Samoa anytime soon after graduation. Though close to her family and home in Samoa, she felt drained from some of the local politics she had seen while teaching high school in American Samoa the year before law school. “That was the hardest job I’ve ever had,” Lornalei said. Though she was grateful for the eye-opening experience, she was not in any rush to move back.
Second, she would never date Malaeimi Fanene, a childhood friend who had romantically pursued her since their days in community college together.
And third, she would never work in criminal law. Her father had read “too many John Grisham books.” He had the idea that she would become a “big-shot corporate attorney making some money.”
But somehow her three years at BYU Law had a way of flipping those “never-evers” upside down.
The week after taking the bar exam, Lornalei found herself moving back to American Samoa to work as a prosecutor and happily change her last name to Fanene. “I’m glad I was wrong about our relationship,” Lornalei said with chuckle.
“And I knew I wanted to come back and serve,” she said. “I cannot complain about [island challenges] and then not choose to be part of the solution.”
There is a saying in Samoan that goes, “O le ala i le pule o le tautua.” It means, “The way to authority is through service.” That’s a good theme for Lornalei’s life since her return to American Samoa.
After two years serving as a prosecutor, she took a year hiatus to manage her parents’ business while they served in the presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temple in Samoa. When she returned to American Samoa, she quickly ascended to the position of Civil Division Chief within the Office of Attorney General. She simultaneously served as president of the American Samoa Bar Association. And then in July 2017—just five years after graduating from BYU Law—she was named Deputy Attorney General. In addition to protecting children from abuse from those who should be their protectors, as highlighted in the story above, Lornalei accomplished other noteworthy things during her tenure as Deputy AG.
When the federal government recovered over $6 million from Starkist for EPA violations, American Samoa was only going to receive $80 thousand, even though the violations and damage occurred in American Samoa. Lornalei helped negotiate with federal agents and, ultimately, American Samoa received $2.6 million—more than 30 times the original amount.
Currently, Lornalei is contributing in other ways. She founded a law firm with Gwen Tauiliili-Langkilde, called MTL Law. She has a personal goal to tackle one or two pro bono cases a year. She also serves as a Board member of American Samoa Legal Aid.
Having worked for the government on criminal and civil matters, and now in the private sector, Lornalei has handled a wide variety of cases. But regardless of the nuances of the specific case, she maintains the same basic approach.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing is people,” she said. “Sometimes as lawyers we get bogged down by legal theories and facts. But the most important thing is how that is all going to affect peoples’ lives and relationships.”