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September 29, 2023 Did You Know? When I Was a New Lawyer

Judge Bernice B. Donald

Judge Bernice B. Donald, as told to Gail Vaughn Ashworth

What inspired you to become a lawyer? And what did you do prior to becoming a lawyer?

When I was 11 years old, three young lawyers came to our community in rural Mississippi to help people get the right to vote. They were considered agitators and had to stay in the homes of African American families. Two were from California and one from New York and they had no obligation to help us, but came at great personal cost, sacrifice, and risk, as it was dangerous work. They did not seem to care that we looked different (they were white), and they were so bright, friendly, and smart that I thought how wonderful it would be to be a lawyer and help people. I was the first person in my family to go to college and I was going to be a librarian. I had always been a volunteer at heart and volunteered with the Juvenile Courts. There I saw injustice and I decided I wanted to make sure children had what I now know to be due process and fair treatment. So, I decided to be a lawyer and help children.

Judge Bernice B. Donald

Judge Bernice B. Donald

But before becoming a lawyer, I worked at South Central Bell telephone company, where they told me I could not be a lawyer in their law department since I was not on Law Review, went to a night law school, and could probably only work in the HR department, which was crushing. I started to work with Legal Services and really enjoyed the Street Law program, where we went into the community to talk to people and hold workshops about their rights trying to address problems on the front end such as predatory lending, predatory insurance companies, and other predatory practices such as sales of siding on houses with liens, etc. and this helped people before they were actually in distress. I still see a need for this work today.

How did you become involved with the ABA?

I was appointed by the Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court as a delegate to the ABA Special Court Judges Conference and attended my first ABA Meeting in Chicago in 1984. I was an ABA Member but had not been involved until I was elected as a General Sessions Judge, which resulted in this appointment. My colleague advised me to keep going to the meetings and I would eventually be appointed to a committee. At my first meeting, I took good notes and participated in all of the activities and to my delight was appointed to a committee. I have never missed an ABA Annual Meeting since then and have only missed one Mid-Year Meeting.

What is the benefit of a new lawyer becoming active with the ABA?

I love the law; I love the profession and I am a meetings junkie. I love people, and meeting new people, and I became close to many wonderful people during my time in the Special Court Judges Conference that carried over to all of my later ABA roles. My ABA experience has resulted in a network that has been critical to all of my other judicial positions along the way, as I would never have been an appellate judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals without that support. That experience is a wonderful benefit of being active with the ABA and you cannot start too soon.

What challenges you the most?

Saying “no” and trying not to overextend.

What gives you the most satisfaction?

Being around people I love, exploring new things, making new friends, and learning more about the law.

What are your future ambitions for the next five to 10 years?

I did not retire to sit on the front porch and do not golf or fish.

  • I want to visit every state and only have Oklahoma left so am looking forward to that.
  • I want to dance on every continent and still have a short dance waiting for me in Antarctica.
  • I want to build my mediation and arbitration practice, and I have always wanted to work at a law firm, so that may be in my future, as I intend to work for at least another 15 years.
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Judge Bernice B. Donald


Judge Bernice B. Donald is a retired judge, mediator, arbitrator, and special master.