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.
This week I sat down with the President of the Cincinnati Bar Association, John Williams. John is rounding out a one-year presidency that has seen great strides in the areas of minority inclusion and community leadership. When I asked about leadership in the African American community here in Cincinnati, John was reluctant to name himself among the other greats who are leading the charge toward equality and opportunity for minorities. He seemed to see himself more as just a regular guy out there trying to do his best for his city and his community. I think it’s safe to say that John’s impressive career of fighting for the inclusion of all minorities in any profession or industry they so choose in Cincinnati speaks for itself. He genuinely is one of the greats and I was privileged to gain his perspective on what is means to be an attorney of color in Cincinnati.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: 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’m from New York, an area called Southampton on Long Island. I went to undergrad at a small SUNY school in Purchase, New York, then went to University at Buffalo Law School. I moved to Cincinnati 30 years ago and I’ve been practicing law all that time. I’ve been admitted to the New York, Ohio and Kentucky Bar. I worked for the city of Cincinnati for 14 years. 3 of those years I was a prosecutor in the civil division with the solicitor’s office, did a lot of employment law, appropriations that kind of thing. I practiced with a minority owned law firm out of Milwaukee for about 7 years. I actually started their satellite office here. There were about 15 people in the firm, though I was the only one here in Cincinnati. After that I kind of floated around as Of Counsel with several firms and then I’ve been on my own for about the past 5-6 years. As part of my practice I worked with Saul Green the independent Monitor and his Team [to monitor compliance with the Memorandum of Agreement and the Collaborative Agreement on police reform between the Department of Justice, the City of Cincinnati and the Cincinnati Police Department and African American plaintiffs] I was the only local guy on the team, which was interesting because I’d worked with the police department beforehand, so I had a unique perspective from that angle.
I’ve been CBA president since May 2017. It’s been a great experience. I’ve been a member of the Bar Association for about 27 years and I’ve just worked my way up. I helped organize the Run for Kids program with ProKids, which is a great community event that connects young lawyers with Prokids. I was President of the Black Lawyer’s Association and I work a lot with minority inclusion programs. I’ve been with the Greater Cincinnati Minority Counsel Program since its inception. That is a great program designed to connect minority lawyers and larger companies. People tend to think of reverends when they think of black leaders of the community, not lawyers, so it’s interesting getting that different perspective out there.
Q: When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: I wanted to be a spy, like in the movies. I wanted all the cool gadgets and toys. Just didn’t work out though.
Q: What made you decide to pursue a career in the law?
A: I had an opportunity presented to me by an older classmate who was already in law school. He called me up one day and said “hey, do you want to go to law school?” He was a part of a minority recruiting program and he was supposed to reach out to his old school and pick people he thought would do well in law school and he picked me. I was like “sure, I could go to law school. What do I have to do?” I didn’t know anything about going to law school - didn’t know anyone who’d been to law school. I was the only guy in my family to have even gone to college. My friend told me I just needed to apply. So I applied. He didn’t tell me there was a test involved. The school called me and said “Um, yeah, you need to take a test.” So I took a class, passed the test and got in. I was a few credits short of graduating on time, so I asked if I could come the next year and they told me no. This program has 27 seats with 500 applicants. So if I haven’t graduated, they go to the next person. So I went to summer school, handed in my final assignment one day and the very next day was in law school. Ended up in law school because of my buddy Mark. A complete fluke.
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: You know, I don’t really have a lot of tough days. Stuff happens, you’ve got to keep going. I go to the gym, I’ve got a good set of friends, got a great wife, good kids. Occasionally things don’t go my way but I still get up every day. I’m pretty happy I get up every day because the alternative is much worse.
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: That’s a good point. I think it’s hard. No one in the profession is overtly racist but I know there’s some implicit bias, there’s no doubt about it. So I’ve seen some of that over the years. Occasionally I’ll hear a lawyer say something stupid or inappropriate. For the most part I believe white lawyers temper what they say around me. I’ve had a lot of discussions with lawyers about race, dealing with the Greater Cincinnati Minority Council program. The challenge is getting those corporations to make an opportunity for minority counsel. Companies recognize they lack diversity and have been working on that, which has been great. I think law firms have been great about trying to get in younger diverse attorneys. My son is about to enter a legal internship and I think his experience will be a lot different than young minority law students who came through 10 or 15 years ago, so we’re definitely making progress. I think a lot of it is just experience with diversity and the more diversity a person experiences, the more comfortable they’ll be with working with individuals of all backgrounds.
Q: I’ve wondered with the history of racial tension in Cincinnati, even things as recent as the Tensing trial or what just happened at Elder, if being an attorney of color is different in Cincinnati than in other parts of the world.
A: I would image that it is different because this is a community that does not have a lot of attorneys of color and as community leaders we are asked to do more than we can at times. We also wish that we could do more for the community in regards to access to justice. Thus when a Tensing or Elder situation happens we don’t question whether or not we should get involved we have no choice. I think legal minds provide a good counsel to just discuss things in an organized manner where no one’s trying to win. We’re just trying to get us all through it. I expect the newly created Diversity and Inclusion committee of the Cincinnati Bar Association to do great things for the city. I think we need to close the divide and I’m hopeful the Diversity and Inclusion Committee will help to address those community issues.
Q: Do you feel that there are certain responsibilities or opportunities that come with being a person of color in the legal profession?
A: You have a responsibility to give back something. Whether it’s sitting on a board or working in the community, no matter what, black or white, you need to give something back. I think black lawyers have more of a responsibility to get out there in the community because there just aren’t enough of us. Part of the responsibility is to bring more people up to be like us. I think white lawyers need to take opportunities to help minority communities understand the legal process as well. I think sometimes white attorneys are afraid when someone says “you’re being racist”, they’re afraid to step up and say “no I’m not. This is my view, my position. I’m sorry if you think that, but I’m not going to change my mind because you say it’s racist”.
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 believe that if you are a person of color and you have exceptional grades, you can write your own ticket. Because everyone’s trying to find that person. Stay out of litigation. Think about other areas of practice. Go into corporate, bankruptcy, public finance. Don’t think about the court room stuff as much. Think about other areas of the law like Intellectual Property. I would encourage minority engineers to be Intellectual Property lawyers because there aren’t a lot of minority IP lawyers. Also, you can’t let your grades drop. The first 18 months is it. You’ve got to kick some a** man. Especially, these firms are trying to recruit early, so you’ve got to get out there early. If you sign up for something, you’d better deliver. Because that’s just life. If you don’t understand something, you’d better get some help. Don’t sit there for 5 weeks to say I didn’t understand something in the first week. Cause you’ll never catch up.
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’s up?"
Q: Can you tell me a favorite memory or story from your career?
A: Hmm… a favorite story? There was a case once, when I was working for the city. There was an issue with overtime for police officers who had K-9 dogs - a question of where the dogs went overnight. The Police Department came to me and said “what do you want to do? It’s an overtime issue.” I’m like “well, I don’t know, just take the dogs and put them in a kennel until we figure this out.” I didn’t think they’d actually do it, but they did. So that night on the news, they’ve got all these cop’s kids crying, sad about their dogs being locked up in the kennels. The City Manager calls me down, I’ve never met the guy before. He says “whose idea was that?” I was like “The cops are saying we’re making them keep the dogs overnight and so they should get overtime, so I thought, don’t make them keep the dogs”. He goes “this is a publicity nightmare”. Every night for a few nights they ran that story of the dogs with the kids crying. We went to trial on it. I remember Judge Weber, the federal judge here at the time, he took me out to lunch before the trial to tell me “you’re going to go down”. This was a bench trial! And he told me beforehand “you’re going to go down”. And I said “I’m going to appeal you” and he said “that’s fine, you’re still going to go down.” I asked if I could at least put my case on and he agreed, but he ruled against me like he said he was.
But the cool thing was, I was acting as local counsel for a law firm from Atlanta and the lawyers asked me if had any dealings with Judge Weber because the suit that they were involved with was in front Weber. I explained to them that I knew him well and had some favorable and unfavorable rulings. The day we go to court and we’re in the judge’s chambers for a conference and the judge announces in front of everyone that he owes me apology because his decision in the dog case was over turned by the sixth circuit the day before. So he reads the decision in front of us all. So there, in front of all these lawyers from all over, for both sides he says “This is a good lawyer right here. So how can I help you?” The lawyers from Atlanta were very pleased that they chose me as their local counsel.