Equal Justice Works Names Law School Dean As New CEO

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Verna Williams
Verna Williams
Equal Justice Works has tapped the dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Law to be the organization's new CEO.

Verna Williams, who also is a former Sidley Austin LLP attorney, will leave her post at the university to join Equal Justice Works as CEO on Sept. 19, the organization said in a statement Thursday.

Williams has a long and diverse career as a lawyer. Before she was dean, she was vice president and director of educational opportunities at the National Women's Law Center. She has also clerked for Massachusetts U.S. District Judge David S. Nelson. And she was an attorney at Sidley Austin and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Williams told Law360 that public interest law has been at the center of her career, from focusing on voting rights at the U.S. Department of Justice to working as dean to collaborate with municipal court, helping students work with unrepresented litigants and developing a clinic to help indigent clients. 

"When I step back and look at my career, t's really been oriented around public interest," Williams said. "And I saw the opportunity to lead Equal Justice Works as that rare opportunity that calls on all my experiences and skills that I've developed thus far, to move in a new direction."

Williams has experience with constitutional law, critical race theory, race and law, family law and feminist legal theory, Equal Justice Works said. When she was dean, she founded and co-directed the college's Judge Nathaniel Jones Center for Race, Gender and Social Justice.

While working at the National Women's Law Center, Williams focused on gender equity in education, and was lead counsel on Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, successfully arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court that educational institutions have a duty to respond to and address complaints of student-to-student sexual harassment. The ruling set a precedent for Title IX to cover sexual harassment.

Williams said she hopes to develop new strategies for the organization to increase public education around the importance of providing access to justice. She said she also wants to work toward getting more lawyers of color involved in public interest law, and more students of color interested in pursuing a career in the legal industry in general. 

"My general sense is that recent graduates of color are not entering into that realm as much as their white counterparts," Williams said. "And I think there are a lot of great opportunities and there's a lot of power in communities of color being represented by attorneys of color."

Having been a law school dean for more than 20 years, Williams said she brings a lot to the table for Equal Justice Works. She knows the trends in legal education and is connected with deans from other schools. She said it helps give her ideas for how the organization might be more helpful to law schools, particularly toward helping students afford to chart legal careers in public interest law. 

"Verna has an impressive background and experience practicing law, driving educational opportunities in public interest law and leading a law school — all of which relates to the work and community of Equal Justice Works," Ivan Fong, chair of the Equal Justice Works board of directors, said in a statement. "She has a clear vision for the future of the organization; a strong record of championing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging; and she has a demonstrated ability to lead and build connections across groups within the community."

The United States is experiencing significant shifts in the law, Williams pointed out, and inequities are only growing larger. 

"We're in a historic moment," Williams said, "It's inspiring more and more students to come to law school with the idea of making change. As a dean, I can't tell you how exciting it is to listen to prospective students saying I want to come to law school because I want to change the world."

Williams graduated from Harvard Law School and earned her bachelor's degree from Georgetown University.

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from Verna Williams. 

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.



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