What prompted your interest in the law?
I went to undergraduate school believing that I would get a degree in sociology and then an MSW. Although I requested a double room, I was ultimately placed in a triple room with two young ladies from New Orleans who came to Howard University knowing they wanted to become lawyers. They, along with the sister of a dorm floor mate who was the law librarian at Howard University School of Law, were very persuasive in having me change my mind. The goal was to provide service. I had the notion upon applying to and attending college that I could really help people. I learned that law school and becoming a lawyer would provide a greater platform for accomplishing this. I should note that my roommates and I are still very good friends after 46 years.
What people and circumstances were instrumental in shaping your career?
There are a number of individuals who have been instrumental in shaping my career, including those who were looking to stifle me. For example, at my going away party, as I was headed off to law school, I was advised not to feel badly when I flunked out of law school my first year. But for the fact that this negative comment was made to me, I am not sure if I would have studied as hard or as much as I did.
I did not know many lawyers and, at the time I began practicing law, I knew even fewer African-American lawyers, only one or two Hispanic lawyers, no Asian lawyers, and no lawyers who self-identified as members of LGBT groups. A turning point for me was when I attended my first National Bar Association meeting in 1981. I met lawyers from around the country who were successful in their practices and other legal pursuits. Some of them, such as Senator Arthenia Joyner and Robert Archie, recognized my naiveté and coached and mentored me and provided ongoing, sage advice. They, along with others, helped me broaden my thinking about lawyers and what is possible. The National Bar Association helped to shape my leadership skills. I believe my career is continuously being shaped. I am fortunate to have a very strong and supportive family who provided me with constant encouragement.
The enactment of ERISA shaped my early career. It became effective the year I graduated from law school and provided a wonderful opportunity for me with the assistance of one of my classmates, now Judge Nolan Dawkins. Although I ultimately became a litigator, I started my career as a transactional lawyer.
What aspects of the law and the legal profession have intrigued you or impacted you more significantly?
What intrigues me is how dramatically the practice or the business of law has changed since 2007. There is a correlation, I believe, in the lower law school enrollment and fewer individuals joining the practice. What intrigues and concerns me is the rapid increase in the number of those who need legal services (and often don’t know it) but are not eligible for legal services or legal aid, or they believe they can resolve their legal issues on their own. This is occurring simultaneously with young lawyers not being able to find viable employment that requires a JD. However, I am intrigued and encouraged by the hope and optimism of law students and recent law graduates.
Are there certain legal issues that impassion you more than others? Why?
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of Miranda, I am amazed by its evolution. “You have the right to remain silent,” but in some cases, if you do remain silent, it can be deemed an indication of guilt. How is it possible to provide a protection of rights on the one hand and take it away on the other? I am passionate about laws developed ostensibly to protect the public that have become harmful to the public, such as many stand-your-ground laws.
What did you draw your inspiration from during your early years of development?
My inspiration came from my parents and my teachers growing up. My mother instilled in us, “To whom much is given, much is required,” and my father always said there were no girl jobs and no boy jobs. Your best was always expected, and there were no rewards for doing well. My siblings and I were taught to be independent thinkers. I had the best teachers from kindergarten through ninth grade. The level of caring and ensuring that I lived up to my potential was their only goal.
What do you perceive to be your most important initiatives during your term as president?
As time passes, I want to do more and more, but I know my time and resources are not endless. My primary goal is to be collaborative and inclusive while simultaneously providing service to our members and our communities.
I have three primary initiatives, which have tentacles. The first is “ABA Every Day.” The plan is to provide a benefit to our members every day that I am president. Thus, the first member benefit will be received at the end of the Annual Meeting on August 4, 2015. The benefits will be disseminated through various vehicles, making use of social media, traditional messaging, and nontraditional messaging. We don’t want to clutter email boxes, but we do want to provide members with benefits in the form in which they wish to receive it. All of the entities within the ABA have been asked to provide content. I hope as many entities as possible will become involved. As a member benefit is pushed out, a message will accompany it stating which entity provided the benefit. For example, if the Judicial Division provided a primer on least-used Rules of Evidence, the benefit would be disseminated and a statement would go along with the benefit: “This benefit was brought to you by the Judicial Division.” The Science and Technology Section as well as Membership and Marketing have set the framework for this initiative and continue to provide guidance. So often members and nonmembers question the value proposition of the ABA. The ABA has extraordinary value and the plan is to actively demonstrate it.
Another initiative will be titled “Main Street ABA.” The plan is to visit at least two states every month and to stay two days in each state. The plan is to meet as many lawyers as possible, ABA members and nonmembers, alike. In addition to meeting lawyers, I will also be visiting Boys and Girls Clubs. It’s never too early to start building the pipeline. I would like for them to see and know what is possible for them. I hope other lawyers will become more involved with the Boys and Girls Clubs as a result. I will also visit a law school and meet with students.
My third initiative is “Diversity & Inclusion 360.” This is the most ambitious initiative. The plan is to review and analyze diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, the judicial system, and the American Bar Association. It is also the plan to formulate methods, policy, standards, and practices to best advance diversity and inclusion over the next 10 years. We want to create, for example, educational and other resource materials, including training videos for judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, that will address how neuroscience can affect decision making. It is recognized that others have engaged in similar projects or initiatives or are working on them now. The plan is not to duplicate efforts but to collaborate and combine resources so that we may have the greatest impact. Thus, for example, the National Center for State Courts has already developed training modules for judges on implicit bias. We want to learn as much as possible about their experience, build on what has already been accomplished, and work together to do even more.
In addition, through this initiative, we want to examine the level of economic stability of diverse attorneys and make recommendations concerning the economic case for diversity and inclusion in the legal profession. General counsels, deans, other academicians, judges, prosecutors, practitioners, and others have been asked to assist.
Finally, there are two ancillary projects. One is the creation of a tool kit for young lawyers. Again, it is a collaborative effort. The Law Practice Management Division; Senior Lawyers Division; Solo, Small Firm, and General Practice Division; and Young Lawyers Division are working together to develop the tool kit that young lawyers will be able to use until at least age 40. The first three divisions will provide the content, and the YLD will give guidance on types of content needed.
The second ancillary project relates to pro bono service. The ABA has what is known as “Pro Bono Week.” Lawyers currently provide more pro bono service than any other profession and yet lawyers get very little recognition for the positive work they do. We want to change this by having a National Day of Service, which we are calling “And Justice for All: A Day of Service.” The Day of Service will be held during National Pro Bono Week. Bar Associations, law firms, legal departments, and other legal entities will compete all across the country to determine who has the greatest percentage of lawyers participating. We expect record-breaking and startling numbers of lawyers participating in service to the public.
You will become the first African-American female to hold the position of president of the American Bar Association. This is an historical milestone of significant proportions. What advice would you give to up-and-coming attorneys regarding the road less traveled?
In August 2015, I will become the first woman of color president of the ABA in its 137-year-history. With this position comes a great sense of responsibility, for which I make no apologies. I have to be the very best that I can be to set an example for those younger than I so that they will understand the possibilities. I challenge up-and-coming attorneys to do the same.
What are your thoughts and observations concerning future challenges for attorneys and judges regarding the admission and use of forensic evidence?
From the little I do understand, I am encouraged by the use of forensic science. I am most familiar with its use in the criminal context. It is one way of ensuring that less reliable methods, such as eye-witness identifications, get us closer to the truth. I do not believe that judges should be reticent in allowing the use of forensic evidence if it could possibly result in the exoneration of one who has been wrongfully accused or convicted of a crime.