By Amelia Patrick
Washington Council of Lawyer’s annual Summer Forum began on June 3, 2021, with an enlightening conversation on racial equity and public justice provided by keynote speaker Eric H. Holder, Jr. Eric is a former U.S. Attorney General and self-described, life-long public-interest lawyer. For this forum, he was in conversation with Nicole Austin-Hillery, U.S. Program Executive Director for Human Rights Watch and Washington Council of Lawyers Board Member. Throughout this first session of the Summer Forum, a multitude of topics were highlighted, all with the connecting message that lawyers need to utilize their “unique capabilities and responsibilities” to promote justice.
To begin, Eric commented on his journey to the office of the U.S. Attorney General. When he graduated from undergrad with a degree in American History, he was unsure of what he wanted to do, so he went to law school which he viewed as a “safe haven for the undecided.” Throughout his time in law school, his past experiences growing up in the midst of the civil rights movement impacted his vision for his future; he hoped to become a civil rights litigator.
However, upon graduation, Eric did not get the job he was hoping for with the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, so he took another opportunity in the Public Integrity Section of the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division. Even though this position was unexpected, it provided many opportunities which eventually led him to be appointed U.S. Attorney General. These other opportunities included working as a prosecutor, a judge, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, the Deputy U.S. Attorney General, and eventually the U.S. Attorney General. Eric shared how this journey taught him to give 125% in every opportunity that he is given because he never knows the impact certain things can have on his life.
As he talked about his different career steps, Eric emphasized that no matter his position he always considers himself to be a public interest lawyer first. Even now as a partner at Covington, his work is committed to pro bono efforts and increasing equal opportunities for minorities to work in companies. He believes that all lawyers should work to protect the American people while upholding a fair and diverse system and that doing so cannot be limited by the type of law one practices.
This goal of working to protect the American people while upholding a fair system is also one Eric strove for in his time as U.S. Attorney General. Nicole pointed out that his time as U.S. Attorney General was historic due to the fact that he was the first black Attorney General, and Eric commented on how this fact gave him a special charge: to prove his critics wrong and to make proud those who supported him and helped him get to that place. During his six years as Attorney General, Eric pushed for action in all divisions and is pleased with his work to make the system more equitable for all Americans.
Improving racial equality in America is a large part of making that system more equitable for all, and this past year has led to many conversations and demonstrations regarding the still rampant racial injustice in our nation. Eric calls upon lawyers in this time to be activists, recognizing that demonstrations are the catalysts for legal decisions that can bring about lasting change. In order for our nation to move the fight forward, we must have conversations and dialogue about race and America’s painful past. Lawyers can be a helpful part of that conversation.
As a final word, Mr. Holder gave an inspirational charge to all the lawyers in attendance. He said no matter your age, you must get involved in public justice because lawyers have the “unique capabilities and responsibility” to do so. He quoted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, and reminded us that the arc does not bend on its own, but lawyers have the ability to move society towards justice if they actively strive to do so.
The video recording of Eric Holder’s conversation is available here.
Amelia Patrick is the 2021 Washington Council of Lawyers summer intern.