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2023 Summer Forum Keynote Nicole Austin-Hillery

2023 Keynote Conversation with Nicole Austin-Hillery

By Chris Marin

Washington Council of Lawyers’ Annual Summer Forum began on June 7 with an inspiring and enlightening discussion by keynote speaker Nicole Austin-Hillery. Nicole is the President & CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc., and a former Washington Council of Lawyers President and Board Member. Nicole was joined in conversation by current Washington Council of Lawyers President Debbie Cuevas Hill, Supervising Attorney at Legal Aid DC. During her opening remarks, Nicole covered her journey, as a way to inspire everyone to follow a purposeful path on their own personal and professional journeys. Nicole shared her “Nikki-isms”, guiding principles that have helped her on her journey, you can find the complete list below. 

Nicole opened her remarks with a warning to the audience, “Don’t try this at home.” She then shared the many twists and turns of her inspirational journey, while emphasizing that it is uniquely her own and charging everyone to find their purpose. Nicole found hers in her eighth-grade speech and debate class, where she had her first chance to express her passion for giving a voice to communities that were misrepresented, misunderstood, or judged in ways that made her angry. Her teacher saw Nicole’s talents and skills and inspired her to pursue a career as a human rights lawyer. 

Seeing her path, Nicole sought to carve it out with intention. As a student at a music arts magnet high school, she became Class Vice-President, Model UN President, and Homecoming Queen. She went to Carnegie Mellon University for theater but soon switched to an Applied History (now known as Public Policy) major to solidify her dream of attending law school. After undergrad, she began as a student at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. 

After her first year in law school, unexpected challenges in Nicole’s personal life forced her to drop out of law school and return home. Undeterred, with the support of her mother and help from CMU’s alumni office, Nicole tracked down and wrote to all the alumni in the Central PA area who graduated with a public policy background, She explained her situation and how she wanted to continue to gain experience that could help her achieve her goal of becoming a human rights attorney. 

While not the next career step she expected, Nicole began working for a chemical trade association. Although not aligned with Nicole’s interests and values, the experience both taught her a lesson in being open to people and led her to important opportunities. Her connections there opened doors to Pennsylvania’s Capitol Hill, where she worked with the Democratic Policy Committee and for the Legislative Black Caucus working on issues she was passionate about. After gaining experience in Pennsylvania, Nicole knew her next step would be to Washington, D.C.

She began in D.C. at a government relations consulting firm that represented corporate clients. While again not aligned with her values and interests, it was another growth experience. Nicole learned to actively listen when speaking to people with opposing views, to never be afraid to use her voice and to never use her voice in a way that would harm or hurt, insult or disrespect. She emerged knowing that there is always a way to find common ground and that she should never lose sight of her personal beliefs in the process of becoming the best version of herself. 

Nicole then became the Research Director of the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), one of her favorite jobs. Nicole highlighted how doing public interest work is about doing good but that it is also doing hard work. She described the most difficult skill she has ever had to develop is listening to her clients and believing in her skills. She didn’t see herself as qualified for the LDF position, but her then-partner, now husband, found the position and encouraged her to apply because it was one of her dreams. She thought not having a JD put her at a disadvantage, but after a little over two years working with LDF, the organization helped her go back to law school and earn her J.D.

While Nicole’s story is full of professional highs and lows, it is also importantly defined by the people that supported her along the way. From her eighth-grade teacher to her mother, and her husband. Nicole emphasized the importance of having people in your life that will see how incredible you are and still identify ways you can improve and become better. Nicole trusted the people that saw something in her she couldn’t see in herself and followed her gut and their wisdom to make positive impacts on the organizations and people she’s worked with and for, every step of the way. 

Nicole now has what she terms her “Kitchen Table Board of Directors” – a group of people who help her to strategize when she needs to make major life decisions. They are her mentors, her family, and her friends who both support her and give her hard truths when she needs to hear them. She recommends you find your own “personal board” who believes in you and supports your growth into the best version of yourself.

In wrapping up her discussion, Nicole left the audience with her below “Nikki-isms” and a challenge: how can you raise the bar where you are? Her answer: (1) start where you sit; (2) look at organizations doing the work you want to do. Being a changemaker can start with your interpersonal interactions, your community, and your career. Hold all the people in your life to a standard of respect and dignity. Moreover, whether you’re looking for your next career or next volunteer opportunity, allow altruism to guide you. Focusing on how you want to work and the communities you want to touch will give you the dedication and devotion to gain the experience you need. 


  1. Be prepared to pivot
  2. Be open to the people who may lead you to something amazing that you can do 
  3. Never be afraid to use your voice and bring your voice out but never use it in a way that will harm or hurt, insult or disrespect
  4. There are ways to find common ground even if [people] don’t agree
  5. Do not leave yourself behind in the process of becoming the greatest version of yourself you can be 
  6. Ask yourself: how do I have the most impact regardless of the opportunities I have in front of me?
  7. Do not doubt yourself in doing [public interest] work  
  8. Do not be afraid of failure, because it can open many doors
  9. Sometimes an opportunity will come your way and you won’t see how you can make an impact but the people around you may see it, trust them
  10. Go out and be bold

Chris Marin is the Program Director for the Washington Council of Lawyers

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