January 23, 2014

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: Interview with Alvin W. Thompson

Before being appointed a U.S. District Judge for the District of Connecticut in 1994 by President Clinton, Alvin W. Thompson served for three years as the managing partner of Robinson & Cole. In that role, he was the first African-American to lead a large Connecticut law firm. In his practice there, he represented regional banking companies, special finance companies, state government entities, and privately held companies in financial matters. In his earlier years at the firm, he also had a secondary practice of immigration, representing businesses needing to obtain nonimmigrant or immigrant status for employees.

A former chair of the ABA's Business Law Section (2005–2006), Thompson has worn many hats in the Section. Among other things, from 1991 until 1995, he was co-chair of the predecessor to the Section's Committee on Diversity; he served on the Section Council for four years and served as an officer of the Section for five years beginning in 2002; and he has co-chaired the Committee on Business Law Fellows, Ambassadors and Diplomats, and the Leadership Development Committee. His current home in the Section is the Committee on Business and Corporate Litigation. Thompson has also served the ABA in various capacities outside the Business Law Section, including serving on the Legal Opportunity Scholarship Committee, the Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness, and the ABA Commission on the American Jury.

Devoted to public service, Judge Thompson has over the years served on the boards of numerous civic and charitable organizations – his longest standing involvement is the with the Salvation Army, where he has been a member of the local Advisory Board since 1979. A 1975 graduate of Princeton University and 1978 graduate of Yale Law School, he received the 2008 Edwin Archer Randolph Diversity Award from the Lawyers Collaborative for Diversity, a non-profit committed to advancing the professional status of attorneys of color and women in law firms throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts.

What inspired you to attend law school and practice law?

I didn’t grow up knowing any lawyers except the lawyer who interviewed me for college. When I went to college I was really interested in architecture. I also had a very strong interest in history and wound up majoring in history, and I got a certificate in Afro-American Studies, as it was called at the time. One of the professors brought in as guests some friends that he’d had from college who had all gone to law school. One of them was an in-house lawyer, one was a civil rights litigator, and one was getting a Ph.D. in philosophy. I saw these people who’d all gone to law school together and they were fascinating people. They were all doing very different things. So it seemed to me that the law was something that offered a great variety of opportunities and it was something that was very interesting as well. So I went to law school feeling fairly confident that when I graduated I would find a number of things I’d be interested in doing, and that turned out to be the case. 

What was it like to be one of the first attorneys of color admitted to the Connecticut bar?

When I became a partner in Robinson & Cole, I think there had been one African-American partner at my firm who left to go into the state legislature just before I got there. And there were two others in other large firms in Connecticut. So there weren’t a lot of lawyers of color and certainly not people who were partners in the large firms. 

But I was used to being in a very distinct minority. In high school, I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to a private high school. They had five kids from inner-city Baltimore who were given scholarships to come, and four of us were African-American. So it was not something I was unused to. I had developed some ways to feel comfortable and I figured how to read situations. 

The fact that I was at the particular firm I was at was also very helpful. The people were wonderful. I’m still very close with all of them today. I felt very supported. And I learned over time that there had been a lot of firsts in terms of the legal profession becoming more diverse. I learned stories of the people who’d been the first Catholic hired at a particular firm, or the first Jew hired at a firm, or the first person from a non-Ivy League law school. I was much more conscious of an obligation to continue the evolution in terms of the legal profession being a profession that affords opportunities to everyone, no matter what their origins and beginnings. 

Why did you specialize in finance?

In my first couple of years, I did litigation more than anything else, which as it turns out has benefited me in the long run. I also continued to do litigation work on pro bono matters after I started to do mostly finance work. I also did immigration work because the person who was doing it didn’t want to do it, and it was an interesting little side line and turned out to be quite lucrative. I wound up doing a lot of finance work, because in my class and the classes on either side of me, there weren’t many people who wanted to do corporate or finance work. So I sort of wound up doing some. 

It was fascinating. I enjoyed it immensely. I enjoyed litigation work immensely. So I think because I was willing to do it that I wound up getting a lot of it. But it wasn’t that I really picked it out, because I always wanted to do that kind of work. 

My general experience has been that every kind of matter I’ve worked on somehow comes back to benefit me. Because the law is really about legal principles and people and, in the long run, things that don’t seem connected to something you’re doing a few years later will, in a way that you least expect it, give you some insight into an approach to dealing with a person or solving a legal problem. 

What were the highlights of serving as managing partner of your firm?

I felt incredibly honored to be elected, especially at such a young age, by a group of people for whom I had such respect and who I liked so much. Our firm was a very democratic partnership and I really liked working to build consensus. 

I’m very systems oriented and I think for me one of the highlights was making law firm governance and operations more systematic. I also spent a lot of time getting the firm’s Boston office up and going and that was very satisfying. 

In terms of being African-American, I appreciated the symbolic significance of it. Personally, to me, it wasn’t a real big deal. But I understand it was an important statement about the progress of the profession. 

What did you like most and least about practicing law? 

First, it was intellectually stimulating. I still get that today, of course. I liked that I was helping people with their problems. Even when I was dealing with an institutional client, I was really dealing with a particular loan officer and they had a problem that they needed help with. 

I liked the fact that at times I would be teaching the client. At times I would be working collaboratively with the client to come up with a creative solution, or I would provide the legal input and analysis and the client would make the business decision. I liked empowering the client to make an informed business decision. 

The least enjoyable aspect of private practice for me was probably business development. I like meeting people. I like to develop relationships with people, but I really enjoy it more if I’m developing the relationship because I just want to have a relationship with them as opposed to developing relationship with – in the back of my mind – hoping that this will turn out to be a source of work for the firm. The best case scenario is you develop a relationship with someone and it turns out to be a source of work for the firm. But that probably doesn’t happen as much as it used to.

A corollary to that question: what do you find the most gratifying part of being a judge and the most challenging part?

I guess both gratifying and challenging is the fact that I deal with such a great variety of cases. I can go from dealing with a very technical matter under the sentencing guidelines to working on something on a securities class action to working on a patent case all within a matter of 30 minutes, because different law clerks circle through or I’m in court. That’s very intellectually stimulating. But it’s challenging to set aside that block of time sometimes when you want to just focus and dig in. 

I feel a great sense of satisfaction when I can look back on something I’ve done and – it may sound odd – realize that the decision I’ve made was the one that the law and the evidence led to, but if I had my own personal preference, I would have come out the opposite way. And the reason that’s gratifying to me is I’ve been entrusted a great responsibility to be fair and impartial and to put my personal views and preferences to the side. I think that’s sometimes very hard for people to do in any number of roles. And nobody knows whether I’ve done that except me. 

It’s sort of like in high school: we had an honor code. I’m really operating on an honor system in that respect and I take a great deal of satisfaction out of knowing I’ve done the things the right way and I’ve lived up to the oath I took. I have particular cases I can think of where if I had written the laws I would have rewritten it to cover this person. And I didn’t. 

In terms of challenges, it’s sort of related, but as a federal trial judge I make decisions that really affect people’s lives. A lot of times you are really making judgments about people. And in making judgments about people it’s very important to identify any areas where you have a bias and it’s not always easy to do. Because probably, the deepest biases [are those that] you’re the most unaware of, unless you’ve had some experience in the past that’s helped you identify them. 

You have been deeply involved in your church community, including serving as a church school teacher. How has that influenced you?

My experience in my congregation has been one that has constantly energized me and helps me direct my thoughts about how to be a better person and what my relationship with others around me should be. That is very consistent with my natural desires and instincts. I worked with the youth for a while. I’ve been on just about every committee that you can be on – the business ones, social action, social outreach committees. I sometimes help lead our adult class discussions and we’ve done some really challenging books. They’re intellectually challenging and stimulating. I enjoy that stimulation and I find there’s a cross-fertilization, because the kinds of things that you’re thinking about in one area do stimulate your thinking in others. For me, dealing with the Constitution and dealing with the Bible, I do find I have parallel approaches to them. 

One of the things that I benefit from is we serve coffee to the homeless on the front steps of the church on Sunday morning. I started out doing that because I thought I would be doing something for them as I served a hot drink to them on a cold winter morning. But I think I learned that I got more out of it than I was giving them – I really learned to see people I otherwise didn’t relate to very much, if at all, more as whole people. I felt more like I was in a neighborhood than I did when we simply walked in to worship on Sunday and didn’t interact with the people who were sitting on the benches in the grassy area next door. That’s carried over to how I approach my work. This expands my group of close friends to people who are come from a wide variety of backgrounds, some of whom have been homeless in the past. I find that has really enriched my life. 

What have been the highlights of your work with the ABA Business Law Section?

I went to my first meeting in 1985, and I came away really sold on the value of the meetings. I found that people had very serious in-depth discussions about legal issues. Attending those kinds of sessions as well as the programs really increased my level of understanding of the law, the sophistication of my thinking, and gave me practical tidbits I took back to use in my practice. 

I was on the editorial board for Business Law Today, which I enjoyed immensely. Being the editor of the Business Lawyer and being on the board of Business Law Today were both intellectually enriching because you just found yourself getting all these articles written in areas about which you know very little, and at the end you have an understanding and some appreciation for an area of law about which you had no familiarity beforehand. I also served as co-chair of the Leadership Development Committee, which dovetailed with my interests in systems and how organizations work. 

Overall, I just have to say that my involvement with the Section has been rewarding in terms of the personal relationships I’ve developed with a good number of people through my association with the Section. It’s been rewarding in terms of enhancing my practice and deepening my understanding of the law. 

In my present position, going to meetings allows me to see people who are litigators who are very interested in improving the law and very dedicated to the ideals of the profession. Because when they’re in court, in the courtroom, that’s not what they’re there for. It’s always helpful for me to have a reminder that there are a good number of those kinds of lawyers out there who are committed to the ideals of the profession and improving the law, even though they may not be the ones I saw in the courtroom yesterday. 

What is a commonality is among the most successful business lawyers that you know?

They get excited about working with the law. They care about having laws that are fair and balanced. And there’s an appropriate accommodation of competing interests. They understand what you’re trying to accomplish with the law and they’re therefore able to use it effectively for their clients. They have good people skills. They like people and they know how to work with people. They try to understand people. And finally, they care about the profession as a profession. 

There’s a part of the Rules of Professional Conduct that says the lawyer is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen having a special responsibility for the quality of justice. The most successful lawyers hit all three of those.