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Voice of Experience

Voice of Experience: February 2023 | Transition

Member Spotlight: Wilson Adam Schooley

Wilson Adam Schooley

Member Spotlight: Wilson Adam Schooley

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Why did you go to law school?

My High Potential English teacher at Berkeley High School, Mrs. Jogo, told me I should become a Supreme Court Justice, which I thought ridiculous because I was too busy playing basketball and football and intended to be an NFL running back. But, when a 280 lb. linebacker (who did go on to play in the NFL) demolished my knee, ending my football career, Mrs. Jogo’s words stayed in mind. So, when I was busy studying on the beach between waves at the University of Santa Barbara, and the visiting professor from Cornell teaching my Black Political History class, Willie Drake, encouraged my passion for racial and social justice and told me I needed to go to a top law school, and specifically recommended Duke University, I went to Duke.

When I got to Duke, I realized I’d dimwittedly made three miscalculations. I went to law school because of my devotion to civil rights, but discovered Duke seemed populated largely by Harvard, Yale, and Princeton undergrads destined for “white shoe” Wall Street law firms. Second, I was pathologically shy and had been blind to the Socratic method’s public speaking requirement. Third, I assumed Duke’s having told me it hadn’t raised tuition in years meant my scholarship would support me through law school, when in fact it meant Duke did—of course—raise its tuition the very next year, and I went into debt. 

Tell us a little bit about your career.

In light of that debt, I was forced to join a law firm in order to pay it off. Fortunately, those were by-gone-days when graduating from a top law school meant law firms from all over the country flew you out for visits. I was flown everywhere from DC to NYC to Miami to Chicago to Seattle to SF to…San Diego, California. When I stepped off the plane on the Pacific shore it was 77 degrees under cerulean blue skies and everyone looked blissful. What’s more, the law firm recruiting me—one of the oldest and largest in the city at the time—was a remarkable bastion of collegiality, erudition, and ethical practice that felt like family.  So, I stayed, actually became a trial lawyer in spite of my shyness (another story), made partner, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Unfortunately, the firm’s focus on family, quality of life, and a scholarly approach to practice rather than maximizing profits contributed to its dissolution during the legal recession in the early 1990s. 

For years thereafter, I tried to find a firm as remarkably wholistic, and discovered how rare a species that seems to be. After several years at a couple of different firms, I resigned the cushy comfort of the corner office with a bay view to pursue the causes that sent me to law school in the first place.

For years I represented the indigent accused in criminal appeals. Now I manage a public service, nonprofit law firm program that provides pro bono legal services and education for both (1) low-income entrepreneurs and microbusinesses from historically marginalized communities; and (2) nonprofit organizations that serve those underserved communities, to help close race, gender, and national origin wage-and-wealth gaps, and establish generational wealth for disadvantaged families.

What has been the highlight of your career?

I’m blessed. Highlights have been many and diverse. An overarching highlight is to have been able not only to enjoy so interesting and diverse a legal career—from business trial lawyer to criminal defense attorney to public service pro bono lawyer, but also to have managed simultaneously to engage in other careers including professional actor and published photographer and writer.

Among the more specific highlights were when an actress hired by my first law firm during my first year to coach its lawyers on presentation skills pulled me aside from the group and told me I had “something” and she wanted to cast me in a play she was directing—that moment changed my life: precisely because I was so shy and terrified of what she was suggesting, I did the play. Then, I was cast in another. Then, an agent signed me and I began doing TV and film. It led not only to a wonderfully rewarding second career as an actor, but enabled me to overcome debilitating introversion and become a successful trial lawyer and public speaker.

Another highlight was, amidst a successful trial lawyering career, becoming certified as an Appellate Specialist by the California State Bar.

There are other awards and accolades, and the prestige of representing Fortune 100 companies. But by far the most meaningful specific highlights, truly, have been from-the-heart gratitude expressed by individual indigent clients I’ve helped, and their families. No accolade or amount of money comes close. For example, when the mother of a young Black defendant for whom I was able to get a reversal on appeal told me I was “an angel sent from God,” and that no one else had ever paid attention to her son before, and I would be in her prayers ever after.

If you could go back to the beginning of your legal career, would you have done anything differently?

Like everyone, I made some poor choices, wrong turns, and outright mistakes. But, honestly, I wouldn’t change a thing. Because from each of those came life lessons and unexpected opportunities.

What advice would you give to someone considering law school today?

When I was a first-year associate working late one night, the firm’s truly extraordinary and brilliant name partner popped into my little office and said: “Wil, don’t make the mistake I did. Don’t make the law your whole life. Cultivate other interests and avocations, spend time with your family, live a full life.” I took his words to heart starting that very night, turned off my light, left the office, and began a life full of many rich and varied interests. I’d give that same advice to any aspiring or new lawyer.

What were the biggest changes you saw in the legal profession over the course of your career?

There have been so many. Some definitely for the better, like a long-overdue increase in racial and gender diversity and inclusion (though there remains far to go). Some partly for the better, like advances in technology that enable both efficiencies and working remotely. Many, though, for the worse. Specifically, the dramatic increase in time demands—velocity and volume. When I started, lawyers wrote and received letters. There was time for reflection and neither clients nor colleagues expected instantaneous responses. Now, lawyers are constantly connected and expected to be. And the steady decrease in collegiality. When I started, the legal community felt so much smaller and closer. Firms were smaller and more local. Everyone knew everyone and so were more unfailingly courteous and gracious.

When did you first become a member of the ABA and why did you decide to join?

Again, in those days-gone-by, law firms paid bar association dues for everyone, so I joined even before I was sworn in as a member of the bar and have been ever since. The key decision was to become active, and then, thanks to the marvelous Pamela Roberts, to be appointed to my first leadership position in the Young Lawyers Division.

Are there any member benefits that SLD or the ABA provided to you that helped you decide to become a member of the ABA and/or SLD?

  • The lifelong friendships
  • The client referrals (including several Fortune 100 companies)
  • ABA publications

What has been the highlight of your work with the ABA?

As with my legal career, there have been many highlights over the years. Some have been specific leadership roles. It’s a pleasure and privilege serving on the Editorial Board of the ABA Journal. My continued service for over a decade in the House of Delegates. Standing on the shoulders of giants as Chair of the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice (CRSJ), a storied and vital section whose early members included the likes of Justices Brennan and Ginsburg. Having the CRSJ’s African American Affairs Committee surprise me at the Thurgood Marshall Award Dinner honoring John Lewis with a plaque lauding my “unwavering commitment” to racial justice, diversity and inclusion in society, and CRSJ.

Hands down, however, the most meaningful and powerful highlight has been the people—the lifelong friendships with ABA colleagues and the remarkable ABA staff. The band of brethren and sistren forged in my Young Lawyers Division class remains as close as family still today, and I know many of us would not hesitate to entrust our children or grandchildren to each other’s care. Those bonds are singular, extraordinary, invaluable, unbreakable, and beautifully emotionally rewarding.

If you had not become a lawyer, what do you think you would have done?

Apart from being an NFL running back or NBA guard, I’ve been able to do almost everything I enjoy and imagine, including writing, photography, and acting—even playing Atticus Finch in productions of To Kill a Mockingbird across the country (a trial lawyer’s dream role). I’d have to be greedy to ask for more or different.