BY MERCEDES DAVIS
On April 12th, Harvard Law School will begin its official commemoration of the Supreme Court’s historic decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The Harvard Black Law Students Association, however, began its celebration of the landmark decision on March 5th – 7th during its annual Spring Conference entitled “Aggressive Advocacy: Our Role in the Courtroom, the Corporation, and the Halls of Congress Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education.” Over 150 students and legal practitioners participated in the weekend’s events, which took place between the campus of Harvard Law School and the Sheraton Commander Hotel in Cambridge. The Spring Conference was the collaborative effort of a committee of about twenty BLSA members and was chaired by Harvard Law 2Ls Jia Cobb, Mercedes Davis, and Walter Mosley.
While dedicated to Brown, the conference addressed more than Brown‘s obvious principles of equality and diversity. “We really did not spend all that much time talking about the actual Brown decision during the conference,” says Jia Cobb, Spring Conference Co-Chair. “In coming up with our theme, we thought about the lawyers – the deliberate design of their litigation strategy, their interaction with the constituencies they served, and the aggressiveness of their advocacy.” As a result, the conference was focused on an exploration of how young students of the law could mimic the “aggressive advocacy” of the Brown lawyers, regardless of the legal career paths they pursue upon graduation.
According to many conference participants, this year’s conference was the best in BLSA’s recent history. Not only were there a record number of attendees, but the conference was able to increase the number of panelists and events – thanks to raising almost $100,000 dollars in sponsorship money. In addition, the Spring Conference began what it hopes to be a new tradition by engaging in a number of community outreach efforts. In addition to sponsoring the registration of a number of local college students, the Spring Conference Committee gave a donation to College Opportunities Incorporated, a group of high school students planning to take a tour of historically black colleges and universities in the spring. Students were able to raise about $1200 at the conference, with $1,000 for the college tour, which will enable them to engage in some type of outreach, especially to support educational opportunities for students who would not otherwise have them.
On Friday, conference participants attended a variety of career panels. The first panel, entitled “The Road Less Traveled: Creative Alternatives to the Traditional Legal Career Path,” was designed to debunk the myth that any successful legal career much begin at a large, corporate law firm. Featured panelist included Paul Butler, General Counsel for VH1, Tanya Greene, NY Capital Defender Office, Alan Jenkins, Ford Foundation, Matt Middleton, Founding Partner, Woods & Middleton, and Soffiyah Elijah, HLS Criminal Justice Institute. Noting that in the past the conference had been very firm-heavy, the group made a deliberate attempt to incorporate public interest lawyers and legal careers to offer a perspective outside of the large law firm.
Understanding the reality that many students go to large law firms upon graduation, the conference also offered two “Firm Life” panels, the first geared toward corporate and transactional work and the second focused on litigation. The Firm Life panels, comprised of partners and associates from major law firms in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C., provided law students with the specific details of life at a large, corporate law firm. A similar panel, entitled the “Chicago Road Show,” showcased firm life in Chicago. In an effort to inform students about both the application process and benefits of judicial clerkships and fellowships, the conference featured a panel entitled “Continuing Legal Education,” which was moderated by Harvard Law Professor and former law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall, Randall Kennedy.
One of the most memorable events on Friday, however, was the conference banquet featuring keynote speaker Constance “Connie” Rice. Rice is co-founder and co-director of the Advancement Project Los Angeles. In addition to a resume that includes winning over four billion dollars in injunctive relief, Rice is a former head of the NAACP Western Regional Office. A black belt in Tae Kwon Do, Rice provided an energy and enthusiasm about law and social engineering that resonated with many conference guests. “I have attended three Spring Conference banquets and this is truly the best speaker I have heard,” says Walter Mosley, Spring Conference Co-Chair. “Her message was not generic – it was fresh, different, and applicable to every guest in the room, whether that person was interested in the work Connie days or hopes to be the future CEO of American Express.”
The featured event on Saturday was a National Town Hall Meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, hosted by Professor Charles Ogletree. The event, which included the Honorable Representative and CBC Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD), Rep. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI), Rep. William J. Jefferson ’72 (D-LA), Rep. Bobby Scott ’69 (Harvard College) (D-VA), Rep. Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D-OH), Rep. Diane Watson (D-CA), and Massachusetts State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, provided an opportunity to flag important issues for John Kerry to address at the Democratic National Convention in advance of that event here in Boston in July 2004. The Town Hall meeting included lively discussions on Haiti, the War in Iraq, the prison system, and disenfranchised minority voters. It ended with a presentation by Dr. Genna Rae McNeil, professor and author of the seminal book on Charles Hamilton Houston entitled Groundwork.
Saturday’s events also included a panel on corporate law entitled: “Keeping It Real: Confronting Challenges of Cultural Responsibility in the Corporate Arena.” The panel, which was moderated by Professor David Wilkins, included such distinguished guests as Solomon Watson IV, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the New York Times, Tara Griffin (HLS graduate), Vice President and Assistant General Counsel of J.P. Morgan Chase, Macey Russell, Partner at Choate, Hall & Stewart, and Marsha Simms, Partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Wilkins pressed the panelist to discuss the duties they felt as African Americans to give back to the younger attorneys of color in their office. He was also able to get some of the panelist to share their life story, highlighting the difficulty that existed many years ago for Black lawyers to find work in big firms.
The last event on Saturday was entitled: “Behind the Black Robe,” a panel on the black judiciary, which was moderated by Professor Heather Gerken and featured the Honorable Julian Cook, Jr., (E.D. Mich.), the Honorable Vanessa Gilmore (S.D. Tex.), the Honorable Gerald Bruce Lee (D.C.D.C.), the Honorable Reggie Walton, Justice Robert Preston Young Jr., of the Michigan Supreme Court, and the Honorable Marie Jackson (Massachusetts Trial Court). Justice Young and Judge Walton, who are both African American Republicans, represented the conservative side of the discussion. The discussion ranged from the importance of judicial clerkships to the difference between fighting for equality verses the principle of pursuing equality under the law. Judge Marie Jackson provided a personal anecdote on the difficulty of being the only African American and one of few women on the Massachusetts Trial Court.
In addition, Saturday included an alumni luncheon featuring Harvard Law School graduate Deirdre Stanley, who is currently the Vice President and General Counsel of Thomson Corporation. Stanley’s address focused on what it means to be an “aggressive advocate” in the corporation. “It may be hard to think of the Brown decision as having anything to do with corporate law, however Deirdre made that connection,” says Mercedes Davis. “She really encouraged students to be ethical a
nd uncompromising in their respective law firms. I think students really related to what she was saying and were genuinely interested in her commentary on the current corporate climate post corporate scandals like Enron.”
The last event of the conference was a Gospel Brunch, attended by Professor Charles Ogletree, Dean Elena Kagan, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and about sixty law students. Keynote speaker Marlon Milner, a candidate at the Harvard Divinity School, gave a rousing address about being an aggressive advocate. The conference co-chairs thought it was important to end the conference with a note of activism. “I really wanted the conference to end with some sort of charge to our guests,” notes Walter Mosley. “There was so much energy throughout the conference, it would be unfortunate for guests to go home and not reflect and act on the things we discussed. I think Marlon provided the perfect tone and really urged people to continue what we started during this conference.” Hopefully this tone of activism will resonate both within BLSA and Harvard Law School generally as we move to the celebration of Brown in the coming months.