Washington, D.C. is a city brimming with service organizations, and the local bar association is no different, counting no fewer than 40 separate Voluntary Bar Associations under its aegis. From the LGBT Bar to the Capital Area Muslim Bar Association, voluntary bars in the District represent the diverse expertise and affinities of its thousands of attorneys.
Under the leadership of V&E Senior Associate Carla Jordan-Detamore, one of those, the Greater Washington Area Chapter, Women Lawyers Division, National Bar Association (GWAC), was recently honored by the D.C. Bar as its Voluntary Bar Association of the Year for 2018-2019. The D.C. Bar lauded GWAC for responding to the challenges faced by its members and Black people in the larger community and “for providing a substantial amount of programming with the goal of reaching a wider audience.” In 2019, GWAC celebrates its 45th anniversary.
“… [W]hat’s special about GWAC is that it creates a vibrant community and real support network for Black women in an elite profession where we are a very small percentage.”
V&E+ caught up with Jordan-Detamore, who served as GWAC’s President for the 2018-2019 term to learn more.
Tell us about GWAC and its mission
GWAC is the D.C. affiliate of the Women Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association. The National Bar Association is the oldest and largest national network of predominantly African American and Black attorneys and judges in the United States. GWAC is primarily focused on developing and advancing Black women attorneys and serving the greater D.C. community. Big picture-wise, I think what’s special about GWAC is that it creates a vibrant community and real support network for Black women in an elite profession where we are a very small percentage, especially at big law firms, but also in the judiciary, private practice in general, and crucially in D.C., among government attorneys. So what we focus on in our dozens of events throughout the year is community building and developing relationships. We also are active with different generations of lawyers, which is important. In addition to networking with and learning from the experiences of seasoned attorneys, GWAC provides a plethora of leadership opportunities for younger attorneys, and for making connections and providing mentorship to local area law students. Mentoring and helping to advance the professional opportunities and careers of the next generation of Black attorneys are key priorities for us.
We have also been committed to highlighting important issues that affect not only our membership but the larger community as well. For example, last year we hosted or co-sponsored events focused on the disproportionate rate of maternal morbidity among Black women, the role of the Black elected official, police brutality, immigration, the #MeToo movement, and implicit bias in the workplace, among several others. GWAC’s Dinner Series also provided opportunities for our members to engage in intimate discussions about career triumphs, professional lessons learned, and navigating the legal world as Black women with esteemed legal heavyweights including Chief Judge Anna Blackburne-Rigsby (District of Columbia Court of Appeals), Avis Buchanan (Director of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia), Kimberley D. Harris (Executive Vice President and General Counsel of NBCUniversal), and the D.C. Bar’s very own 45th President, Annamaria Steward.
GWAC also has a number of initiatives aimed at the greater D.C. community: running a program placing local high school students in internships in the Mayor’s office, fundraising for book scholarships for local law students, submitting comments to the Judicial Nomination Commission on candidates for judgeships, signing onto an amicus brief regarding D.C. voting rights, and volunteering at organizations like the Central Union Mission, the Washington Center for Aging Services, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Election Protection Hotline. In 2018, GWAC also sponsored a reception for 119 newly naturalized citizens sworn in at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and I personally got the cool opportunity to provide welcoming remarks to the newly minted citizens.
When and how did you get involved?
I joined GWAC almost six years ago, before I came to V&E, when I was clerking in the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division. I clerked for a terrific Black judge, the Honorable Gerald Bruce Lee (now retired), who was really active in the local community and strongly urged me to get involved with GWAC. I had been a student member of a National Bar Association affiliate in law school at Washington University in St. Louis (Mound City Bar Association), so I was familiar with the larger organization, but I really valued Judge Lee’s opinion. I was also familiar with the National Bar Association because I served as the National Director of Communications for the National Black Law Students Association while in law school and the two organizations frequently collaborate on programming. I’ve been on the board of GWAC for the last four years, having served as the Historian, Treasurer, Law Firm & Corporate Counsel Chair, President-Elect, President, and now as the Immediate Past President, and have also served on the board of the GWAC Foundation for the past three years.
This is when you weren’t winning V&E’s Pro Bono Awards in 2015 and 2017. Service is obviously hugely important for you. Tell us more about that commitment.
Growing up in Philadelphia, I was lucky to have parents who instilled in me a very strong sense of obligation to serving the community that you live in. For my grandparents too, service was fundamental. My father’s parents lived in Savannah, Georgia, and were very active in the civil rights movement. They were very active in the civil rights movement including the Savannah chapter of the NCAAP. My mother was an attorney and was the executive director of a nonprofit organization that provided legal aid to migrant workers. My father is a senior policy advocate for the ACLU and has focused recently on ending the school to prison pipeline. I resisted law at first; I did Teach for America for two years in the Atlanta public schools after undergrad at Duke.
Eventually I realized how law could let me use my analytical skills in a different way while still serving the community. At V&E, I’ve been lucky to have worked on pro bono matters and other types of community service and mentoring programs. For example, I serve on the Legal Advisory Committee of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, where I help place pro bono cases with attorneys at V&E such as asylum cases and special immigrant juvenile status matters, including some I have been able to take on myself. I’ve also enjoyed participating in V&E’s law firm tutoring program with the Thurgood Marshall Academy, which I was the office co-coordinator of one year, but is currently run by my colleagues John Satira and Abby Meredith. Finally, through the firm, myself and one of my former colleagues (Alicia Burns-Wright) started a mentoring program for first year law students that is now going into its fifth year with George Washington University’s Black Law Students Association.
You mentioned the low percentage of Black women in law and GWAC’s support of female law students and young attorneys. What do you say to Black female law students who are considering firms?
I think it’s important to find a place where you feel comfortable, where you feel like you can develop genuine relationships, and where you feel like people genuinely take an interest in your professional development and advancement, even people who don’t look like you or come from the same background. And although progress is being made, unfortunately, the majority of partners in big law are not Black women. For example, according to the 2018 Vault/MCCA Law Firm Diversity Survey, less than three percent of equity partners at the law firms surveyed were women of color. Even with the American Bar Association, although it was founded in 1878, the ABA only had its first Black woman president take office in 2015. At V&E, I have been fortunate to serve as one of the office leads for the firm’s Diversity Council, a group of over 200 attorneys, led by the Chairman and a member of the Management Committee, who work across offices to facilitate communications and recommend programming, which allows me to propose and implement strategies for recruiting, retaining, and promoting women and diverse attorneys. I hope efforts like those will help turn the tide in the legal industry. Through the Diversity Council, I have been able to develop close relationships with people of varying backgrounds who care about diversity, even across practice groups and offices, and I think your willingness to put yourself out there and invest time and energy into developing those relationships, even with people that may not look like you, is invaluable to your career and advancement regardless of where you end up working.
What’s next for GWAC?
I am looking forward to an awesome 2019-2020 bar year led by our new President, Maryam Hatcher, Counsel at the American Petroleum Institute. Under her leadership, GWAC recently hosted a social media campaign on August 22nd for Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, raising awareness for the fact that because on average Black women make $0.61 for every dollar white, non-Hispanic men make, it takes Black women almost 20 months to make the same amount of money that their counterparts made in only 12 months. I know that Maryam has some amazing programming planned for the next year and is working on a strategic plan to continue and expand upon GWAC’s legacy as we head towards our 50th anniversary in 2024. To find out more about GWAC’s upcoming programming, follow us on Twitter or Instagram at @GWACBar.