In law school, my plan was this: Spend two to three years at a large law firm and then return to my hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, to practice civil rights law and run for public office. But life doesn’t always go exactly as planned, and my trajectory turned into an improbable 34-year journey in BigLaw, where I found my path and have made the kind of difference I always hoped for.
This journey really began in the summer of 1986 as my clerkship for Judge Elbert Tuttle at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was coming to an end. Judge Tuttle was a legal giant whose tenure as chief judge of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals from 1960 to 1967 was critical to enforcing desegregation decrees. I recall the reverence with which the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis spoke about Judge Tuttle on the occasions that we met.
The path to my clerkship for Judge Tuttle and journey at Kirkland & Ellis started in an improbable way, through my legal research and writing instructor at Georgetown, who was a third-year law student from South Carolina. The class was small, and I was the only Black student. Our first one-on-one meeting to review my paper was somewhat awkward. He asked what my parents did for a living. My father had been a construction worker after serving in World War II, restricted by the circumstances of his birth in 1910 to a third-grade education. My mother left college in her final year due to illness. She worked as a substitute teacher for a time and then as a day care worker. So the answer was no to his subsequent questions as to whether I had attended private school or had private tutors. What followed next was something to the effect of, “Well, I’ve not seen anybody write as well as you.”
From that rocky start, we became great friends. He recommended me for my clerkship with Judge Tuttle and recruited me to Kirkland. I became a good writer in much the same way that Michael Jordan or Steph Curry honed their skills on the basketball court: practice. I read a lot and actually studied the works of good writers. By the time I was going to trials, I did the same thing with direct examinations and cross-examinations. I studied trial transcripts from modern and historical trials, assessing what worked and what did not work. I studied the masters: Clarence Darrow, Louis Nizer and others.
Best of both worlds
So much of my litigation was in courts across the country where I was the “visiting team,” and I would inevitably hear: “Mr. Jones is a big-firm lawyer from Washington.” I have seen many instances of the appeal to prejudice against Northerners. It is what prompted me once in a closing argument in federal court in Mississippi to recount stories from my childhood, when my brothers, cousins and I regularly worked on my grandparents’ and uncle’s farm picking cucumbers and cotton. The judge later asked if I was too young to have actually picked cotton. I told him I was not too young. Over the course of two long days, we could earn enough to buy two pairs of bell-bottom pants and shirts like those worn by the Jackson 5 on Soul Train. That was our motivation.
In this way, we helped my uncle in his quest to produce the year’s first bale of cotton, which paid a premium over regular prices. The Sept. 28, 1973, Shreveport Journal noted he had produced Caddo Parish’s first bale in six of the last seven years, a feat accomplished not by mechanization but a large family of eight children and a host of nieces and nephews, myself included. This background came in handy when I spoke to reporters on behalf of a large company in the crop protection business. Reporters from the Wall Street Journal to small farming publications in Iowa had preconceived notions about large-firm lawyers that I have been able to break through.
As for my plan to stay at Kirkland for two or three years and then move to Shreveport to practice civil rights law and run for public office? Those plans dissolved as the years passed and the practice became more and more rewarding. For the past 11 years, along with my partner Karen Walker, I have represented students, faculty and alumni at Maryland’s four historically Black colleges and universities in a civil rights lawsuit against the state aimed at providing additional funding for academic programs. We have had two long trials, an appeal, two legislative hearings, countless rallies and four mediations. I have spoken to reporters from most of the national news outlets and appeared on radio and TV. The pandemic has stalled proceedings, but I believe ultimately we will prevail.
The past as prelude
In some ways, it seems inevitable that this case would be a part of my legacy. One of Maryland’s most famous figures is Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become a famous orator and abolitionist. His autobiography sits on my office shelf. In urging free Black men to join the Union army, Douglass and other notable free Black men cited the heroic fighting of my great-grandfather’s unit, the 76th Regiment, United States Colored Infantry. My great-grandfather, Floyd Washington, was born enslaved in Alabama and made it to Louisiana to join the Union army, fighting at Port Hudson and Fort Blakely, where a colonel described them engaging confederate units, “charging ‘like mad.’” Douglass and others noted in recruiting posters: “We have seen what valor and heroism our brothers displayed at Port Hudson and Milliken’s Bend, though they are just from the galling poisonous grasp of slavery. They startled the world by most exalted heroism. If they could prove themselves heroes, cannot we prove ourselves men?”
After the battle of Port Hudson in Louisiana, Floyd Washington returned to Alabama, where he had been enslaved, to fight in the battle of Fort Blakely, one of the last major battles. As recounted in Freedom by the Sword: The U.S. Colored Troops, 1862-1867: “All witnesses agreed that the attack of the Colored Troops Division thoroughly broke the Confederates’ will to resist.”
For my great-grandfather and the other colored troops, too much was at stake; retreat was not an option. The same is true in today’s fight for racial justice—a fight I realized I could take up anywhere, whether at a BigLaw firm or back home in Louisiana.
This story was originally published in the Dec/Jan 2020-2021 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “BigLaw, Big Difference: Using my platform to help move America toward justice.”