To celebrate Black History Month, each week we will profile a different Cincinnatian whose leadership in the legal community as well as the African American community is the embodiment of all that makes this city great and good.
First we talk with Attorney Carl Lewis, whose tireless dedication to the law is only eclipsed by his gregarious personality. Everyone in the legal community knows Carl, either by his jovial nature, his strident defense of accused criminals from all walks of life, his work with the boxing community, his role as a legal expert for several local and national news outlets or just from the sound of his voice (it’s pretty hard to miss Carl in a crowd).
Carl’s defense of civil rights and civil liberties is as impassioned as it is just and I was honored to be able to gain his perspective on what is means to be an attorney of color in our great city.
Q: First off, tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from, how long have you been in the profession, where did you go to school, that sort of thing.
A: I am from Cincinnati, Ohio having attended Aiken High School-1980; The University of Cincinnati for my B.S. in Urban Affairs-1985, M.S.-1986 in Criminal Justice and my law degree (J.D.) 1989. I have been practicing since 1991 with a concentration in Criminal Defense, Entertainment & Sports law. I am married with two sons.
Q: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I love music and I play the piano/organ. As a child I always thought I would grow up and be a musician for The Jackson 5! I still play piano today for my home church.
Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in the law?
A: A great mentor and legendary legal professional, The late Hon. Judge Leslie I. Gaines gave a speech to my high school in 1979 called “The Seven-Ups” it motivated me to stay in school, graduate and work hard to become a lawyer.
Q: Who was (or is) your hero? Who do you look up to, either in the legal profession or in life, as your inspiration?
A: My greatest hero is my mother. My mother raised me and my brother alone and watching her work hard a sacrifice for us motivated me to excel in all I did and do. I looked up to my grandfather who raised my mother and her 10 siblings on a “chauffeur’s” salary.
Q: How do you handle the tough days - the losses, the set-backs, the cases that get under your skin? What keeps you grounded?
A: As a Christian I learned as a child that setbacks are setups and “we fall down but we must get back up!” I have hard days when I have a client that will not listen to my counsel to his detriment and when a person receives an unfair decision or a harsh sentence. My mother, wife and children have and continue to keep me grounded.
Q: Can you tell me a little about what it’s like to be a person of color in the legal profession here in Cincinnati? What hurdles have you faced in your career either because of your race or because of some of the history of racial tension in the Cincinnati area?
A: I understand that people of color face many challenges but I continue to pray, trust god and believe that if you show love you will receive love. When I face racism, prejudice or negativity I turn it into motivational fuel. I’ve have to face many hurdles and again my faith God and my supportive family help me tackle any obstacle. I remember about ten years ago I had a white Judge tell me “boy some of y’all black lawyers are just as good as any other lawyer I’ve had practice before me.” Another incident involved murder case I was on where the victims white family refused to allow me to enter an elevator they were on and said “boy it wouldn’t be good for you to get on here” and another time while investigating a case in a predominately white community I was told “hey N***er you better get your black **s out of here before we put you in a body bag.”
Q: Do you feel that there are certain responsibilities or opportunities that come with being a person of color in the legal profession?
A: The Bible teaches “To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required.” Luke 12:48 So I thank God everyday for this Blessing of representing people and I don’t take for granted the opportunity to help people on a daily basis. There is a pride factor when people say “Hey, it’s Attorney Carl Lewis” or when people ask me to speak because of my profession.
Q: What advice do you have for young people of color who are thinking of going into the law as a profession? What do you wish you had known when you first started out?
A: I would encourage those interested in the law to speak with attorneys, shadow them if you can and get a deeper understanding of what lawyers do not from television but from real lawyers. I wish I had known more about other areas of the law before concentrating on just Criminal and Entertainment law.
Q: As a librarian, I’m an introvert in extrovert’s clothing. When I meet new people, I wish I had a big sign that said “Secretly Shy” so they would know the internal struggle I was experiencing. If you had a similar sign, what would it say?
A: “What you see is what you get.” I am loud all the time and yes I do love to talk.
Q: Can you tell me a favorite memory or story from your career?
A: Yes, I represented an African-American 8th grade honor student in who was wrongfully suspended and expelled from her school. My client gave a Midol tablet to her white friend and classmate because she was experiencing menstrual pain. The school discovered that she had given the tablet to the student through a crumpled up note the two had been passing back and forth to each other in class. The principal brought the girls in and asked them about the Midol tablet. My client admitted that she gave her the tablet. My client was suspended and expelled because the school felt she was “trafficking” and the white student was only suspended for three days for “receiving” the tablet. I filed an action in federal court and miraculously the school board reversed its position and rescinded the suspension and expulsion. A local limousine company who saw the story in the news offered her a free ride to school in a limousine! This was a great resolution.
Check back next week when we sit down with the Honorable Melba Marsh, judge for the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas.