Meet the President: Tom Williamson
From Washington Lawyer, June 2012
By Thai Phi Le
On June 19, 2012, Tom Williamson will begin his term as the 41st president of the D.C. Bar. Williamson has been with Covington & Burling LLP since 1974, with two stints working for the government as deputy inspector general at the U.S. Department of Energy and as solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor. He chairs Covington’s employment practice group.
Throughout his career, Williamson has used his practice as a vehicle to foster social change, consistently performing pro bono work as a top priority. In 2007 the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs recognized his commitment to promoting civil rights and equal justice with the prestigious Wiley A. Branton Award.
Williamson is a member of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission. He has served as a board member of the D.C. Bar Foundation, as cochair of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, as a member of the D.C. Bar Board of Governors and D.C. Bar Pro Bono Committee, and was appointed to the D.C. Judicial Nomination Commission. He also serves as a member of D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton’s Federal Law Enforcement Nomination Commission, and as a trustee of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Can you tell me about your upbringing?
I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1950s and ’60s in the small town of Piedmont, California. My father was an Army officer who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. I’m very proud of my dad for many reasons. As you may know, the military wasn’t officially ordered to integrate until 1948 when President Truman issued an executive order to that effect. My father was an officer who fought in the Korean War, and he was among the first black officers to command white troops in the U.S. military.
After spending two years as part of the post–World War II occupation of Japan, my parents settled the family in Piedmont. Legend has it that I spoke Japanese before I spoke English since a local Japanese woman assisted my mother with child care during our time in Yokohama. We left Japan when I was three years old, and unfortunately, I did not retain any of my early Japanese language skills. My brother George was born just before we departed, and my sister Brenda was born a few years later.
Even though my parents did not plan to be engineers of social change, the Williamson family, coincidentally, integrated Piedmont, a formerly all–white community. There were people who employed domestic servants who were African American, but there weren’t any other black families living in the community or sending their children to the Piedmont school system.
What was that experience like to be the first black family to integrate the town?
It’s strange when you’re a kid. I was five years old when we moved there. Even though California had not adopted a system of de jure segregation, there was no shortage of de facto segregation; racist attitudes were commonplace. As a child, it’s difficult to decipher why it is that people either think you’re inferior or avoid socializing with you just because you’re black. You have to learn what sort of world adults have created before you begin to understand how racism operates.
For the most part, we were not threatened with racial violence, but there were racial incidents. The neighbors across the street passed around a petition to try to persuade the other neighbors to ask us to sell our house because they didn’t want to have a black family in the community. Fortunately, the authors of the petition were even less popular in the neighborhood than we were. In addition, there were instances when one of us Williamson children would go to play at somebody’s house, and the kid’s parents would say, “You can’t let them come in because we don’t want a black kid in our house.”
On the other hand, there were white people in the community who were remarkably endearing because they were so reliably welcoming. In those days, children went to the playground and played with other kids. There was a playground director; parents were not around hovering in helicopter mode as they do today. If you were an elementary school kid, the playground was the center of your universe. The playground directors were college students who were always very supportive and encouraging of the Williamson children. Also, for my brother and me, it helped that we were sufficiently good athletes and we could fend off or outrun the neighborhood bullies who would repeatedly harass the kids that they did not feel “fit in.”
At school, the teachers were also very welcoming and enthusiastic about helping us to excel. Our parents reminded us each day that we had a responsibility to strive to do our best in school, but we knew that the people in the community around us often viewed our success as a surprising and puzzling novelty. For example, I remember going to the Lakeview Branch of the Oakland Public Library when I was seven years old. I wanted to read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The well–intentioned white librarian said, “Do you really think you want to read that book?” I replied, “Yes, that’s the book I’d like to read.” She said, “Well, it’s a very long, difficult book. Maybe you ought to look at something else, like the Big Book of Fire Engines. I’m thinking to myself that I’m just a kid trying to do something I’m interested in. She’s thinking it’s odd that there’s this black child who wants to read a book that looks like he shouldn’t be able to read. With a trace of polite impatience in my voice, I made the following proposal: “Ma’am, can we make a deal? You open the book to any page you want. If I read that page, will you please let me check this book out?” She opened the book, I read the page, and she allowed me to leave the library with the book.
Did you feel more accepted over time?
Junior high and high school presented new challenges. The teachers remained enthusiastic believers in the Williamson children. This would sometimes become a problem. For example, my high school physics teacher simply assumed that I should perform at the top of the class. I studied conscientiously, but I never achieved the highest grades in physics. My physics teacher insisted in a gentle, bemused manner that I was simply not trying hard because of other interests. I was never able to persuade him that I was not naturally gifted as a science student, and that I would have benefited from more energetic and creative teaching efforts on his part.
Also, social life became more confusing and problematic as I grew older. Playing sports was the equal–opportunity arena where performance decided your status and acceptance. That formula worked particularly well for me because football was the dominant sport in my hometown, and that was the sport where I enjoyed the greatest success.
Social life as a teenager was a different story. There were unwritten rules that I was expected to follow. According to the unwritten code, it was okay for me to be student body president, but not okay for me to date any of my classmates. That sort of tension always reminded me that there were demeaning limits on how much racial progress could be achieved by striving to be the “model Negro.”
The most dismaying aspect of graduating from high school was the number of classmates who came up to me and said, “You know, Tom, it has been great going to school with you. We don’t even think of you as black anymore.” That confirmed to me that it was time to go someplace where there was a chance that people would understand and appreciate me for the whole person that I was and not for how well I emulated who they were.
How did you make the choice to go east for college?
I was very close to going to Stanford and competing to make the football team where my family could see me play. I was being enticed by a very persuasive recruiter, who was then an assistant coach named Bill Walsh. He later became the head coach at Stanford, and then went on to distinguish himself as one of the greatest head coaches in NFL history.
There were a couple of factors that caused me to look east to the Ivy League. One was that Stanford was offering an athletic scholarship. My mother was adamant that I not go to college on an athletic scholarship, which I initially thought was kind of weird. She explained, “I don’t want you to attend college and feel like you have to continue to play football because you’re worried about the financial burden on the family if you decided you wanted to stop playing.” As I reflected on her reasoning, that actually made some sense to me.
Also, I didn’t want football to be my whole life in college. At that time, the Ivy League schools did not hold spring practice, and the Ivies still do not participate in postseason games. As a result, after the last game of the regular season, you were done with football until preseason double sessions in late August. The scholarship I received at Harvard was not as generous as the Stanford full ride, but I know I was able to avail myself of a broader opportunity to experience the full range of student life at Harvard.
Did the diversity of the campuses factor into your decision?
There wasn’t much diversity to speak of in any place in 1964. Things changed quite dramatically while I was in college. Only 3 percent of the class of ’68 at Harvard was African American during my freshman year. That totaled to 36 black guys in my class. At Radcliffe [Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard], the figure was only 1 percent; there were three African American women students in my class. On the other hand, compared to Piedmont, Harvard was like a multiracial oasis. Stanford was very, very white then. The East was slightly more diverse, but in ’64, we didn’t use the term diversity. Rather, we knew that we were “token Negroes,” who had been admitted to serve as examples for our race.
During the mid–’60s the culture evolved quickly; the Black Pride/Black Nationalist movements emerged and became militantly active. We progressed from the notion that, as the token black people, we were supposed to show that we could measure up to white people’s standards to an awakening of the sense that we and our university and our country’s culture should value us for our distinctive contributions and potential as African Americans.
During this time, did you make a concerted effort to not be the person who tries to mimic whites?
Concerted effort would be a little strong. I came to understand that the token Negro assimilationist formula really wasn’t going to work. Let me share an example with you. There was a classmate of mine who was in a course where I had developed a reputation as one of the more studious members of the class. This white friend was physically handicapped, and he used to ask me to come over to his room and help him prepare for the exams in this particular course. I was assisting him one day when his roommate came and saw me talking to my friend. He knew that my friend had been tutoring low–income black kids from the local Cambridge public high school. The roommate comes into the room, and he asks my friend if I’m one of the local kids that my friend has been tutoring. What else do you have to do for these people to get it? That was a telling moment for me that underscored the racial limitations of my youthful Harvard credentials.
By my senior year I had changed a great deal, and Harvard was awakening to the need for change. We had invited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to be our Class Day speaker in the spring of 1968, but that was not to be. James Earl Ray assassinated Dr. King on April 4. In the wake of our tragic loss, leaders of the black student organizations on campus asked me to be the chair of a group that came to be known as the Ad Hoc Committee of Black Students. We successfully negotiated with the university to reform the admissions process so that there would be substantially greater opportunities for African American students, and the university agreed to begin the process of establishing a department of African American studies.
What was it like having to juggle both your academic and sports schedules?
It was challenging. I developed “catch–up” strategies rather than “juggling” strategies. During football season, the regimen is onerously demanding. You go to practice, attend to injuries, and prepare for games by watching film. During the season I devoted myself to football from about 2:30 in the afternoon until 8 or 9 at night. I would go to class in the morning, but I wouldn’t have much time or energy to study. After the season ended, I would buckle down and try to catch up on research for my term papers and my neglected required reading lists for my courses. I developed a high tolerance for staying up very late at night and churning out my assigned papers and projects on deadline.
Having worked at that pace, it must come in handy now.
You know, I used to think it was crazy and say, “Gosh, I’ll be so glad when I get out of college. I don’t have to go through this hectic madness of preparing for exams and writing all these papers.” Turned out it was probably the best preparation for law practice where there is a premium on producing persuasive, analytic work under severe time pressures.
In addition, I would often enroll in full–year courses rather than one–semester courses so that I could rally in the second semester. My grades were always better in the second semester.
At what point did you think you might want to become a lawyer?
There was no epiphany moment when I decided I wanted to embark on a legal career. I partly decided by default because I had learned in high school that I wasn’t that great in math or science. That realization doomed my dream of becoming an aeronautical engineer.
During my time in college, from 1964 to 1968, the civil rights movement was still generating front-page news, and those were also the beginning years of the “War on Poverty.” The Johnson administration program created many antipoverty programs under the banner of “Great Society” while I was in college.
It was evident that lawyers were playing a leadership role in trying both to challenge segregation and combat discriminatory laws. Lawyers also were defending people involved in demonstrations or accused of misconduct in pursuit of their efforts to protest segregation and racism in America. I admired those lawyers and aspired to join their ranks.
During the summer before my senior year, I learned that one of my teachers knew somebody who was then the deputy director of the California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), which was a new legal services program established to advocate on behalf of rural poor people in California. Through my faculty friend, I secured a job as a researcher for CRLA. I was motivated to consider a career in the law by seeing these lawyers use their skills and training to assert basic rights and protections for poor people, especially migrant workers, who had traditionally been exploited and abused. The stark reality I witnessed left an indelible impression on me that those who could not afford lawyers possessed only illusory legal rights.
The CRLA experience was inspiring to me and made me think that I would probably want to become a lawyer. I didn’t finally decide until after I studied abroad for a while. I was in graduate school at Oxford University, and there were a number of professors who had encouraged me to become an academic. However, I was having trouble envisioning myself as a successful academic. You need to publish to flourish in that world, and I simply did not take my own views and theories seriously enough to believe that publishers would be clamoring to publish what I had to say.
Tell me about your law school experience.
I went to law school at Boalt Hall at the University of California, Berkeley. It was a fascinating time to be there. My beginning year (1971–72) was the first time that Boalt had admitted a significant number of women. The entering class was 38 percent female in 1971. That was stunning to the faculty and also to quite a number of the male students.
In a class of about 300 students, there were maybe 34 African Americans—more than 10 percent. In addition, the class was approximately 10 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian. There were new dynamics and tensions at the law school because these racial and ethnic communities were now represented in substantial numbers. We actually went on strike and shut down the law school for a couple of weeks my first year in protest over the school’s decision at the time to cut back on diversity admissions in the 1972–73 school year.
What I didn’t like about law school was that it seemed that the faculty was training all of us to think the same way, whereas in college there was much more of a smorgasbord of intellectual options for you to consider or for you to concentrate on as a discipline. Law school focuses on helping you to learn to think like a lawyer. That was satisfying as a professional goal, but somewhat disappointing in a more fundamental, intellectual sense.
What I really preferred was working at law firms in the summers. I was a little slow to realize that law school isn’t actually designed to teach you how to be a lawyer; it’s teaching you how to persevere through law school and pass the bar exam. In the summers when I would work on real-world projects, I found that the tools that I had started to hone as a law student were useful for trying to analyze and solve practical problems.
Because I wasn’t that enamored of the academic side of law school, the highlight of my experience was spending a semester doing an externship. The law school only required me to enroll in one regular course, and I was free to spend the rest of my time working in a public interest law firm in San Francisco called Public Advocates. As an extern, I associated with an incredibly bright and committed group of lawyers, and I was mentored by an extraordinarily personable and creative litigator named Bob Gnaizda. He was a Yale Law School grad whom I had first met when I was working for the CRLA.
What brought you back to the East Coast?
Following graduation and taking the California bar, I came east in 1974 for personal reasons. I thought I would return home to California within a few years since I found Washington’s summer heat and humidity intolerable. I accepted Covington’s offer; however, at the time, I knew very little about the firm’s traditions and stature. Rather, I had been seduced by the firm’s program to permit young associates to be on loan to the Neighborhood Legal Services Program for a six–month rotation, an option I exercised in the first half of 1976.
What was it like to argue your first motion in court?
I was afraid you might ask a question like that. The honest answer is that my first argument was a mortifyingly disappointing experience. The argument was in support of a motion for a temporary restraining order in a pro bono employment discrimination matter before a federal judge who has long since passed away. I was too proud and insecure to ask for help at the firm as I should have, and I was naïve enough to think that I could properly litigate a TRO application by simply doing a careful reading of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. My voluminous supporting papers were much too lengthy for a judge to read, and my overly imaginative theory of irreparable injury was passionate, but utterly unpersuasive. In the wake of that dismal experience, I could only improve.
How did you become an employment lawyer?
My principal specialty these days is employment law. Like many lawyers I know, I traveled a circuitous route to arrive at my current specialization destination. When I started at Covington, I first tried my hand at being a communications lawyer. I was eventually lured away from interest in that field in my third year when I became intrigued with Covington’s “states practice.” Back in the mid–’70s Covington pioneered representing state governments in disputes relating to federal funding of health and welfare programs, most significantly the Medicaid program. When I made partner in 1982, my practice primarily consisted of handling state disputes with the federal government. However, in 1993 President Clinton nominated me to serve as the solicitor of labor under Secretary Robert Reich. When I returned to the firm in 1996 after my stint in the government, the firm and I agreed that the expertise that I had developed at the Department of Labor would be best deployed by my assuming a leadership role in the firm’s employment practice.
When did you become involved with the D.C. Bar?
I first became involved with voluntary bar organizations such as the Washington Council of Lawyers because they were focused on trying to develop strategies to engage law firms more actively in pro bono practice. Those experiences afforded me some measure of visibility, and lawyers I met encouraged me to run for the D.C. Bar Board of Governors in the late ’80s, early ’90s. I was elected to the Board of Governors back when Jim Robertson, who later went on to become Judge Robertson, was the president of the Bar.
What are your priorities as Bar president?
Access to justice is my number one priority. It’s the number one priority in the Bar’s strategic plan. I believe fervently that we have to continue to pay attention to meeting a higher standard of making access to justice a reality and not just an ideal for everyone in our community. That is particularly true in Washington, D.C., which, unfortunately, is a paradigm for the rest of America where the gap between the haves and the have–nots is widening at an accelerating pace. As the country overall appears to be finding its way back to prosperity, that prosperity is disproportionately allocated to the top 5 percent or 10 percent of the population. The District of Columbia is a dramatic example of this growing disparity. To me, the Bar, as part of its professional responsibility, should be dedicated to undoing injustice and fostering support for the most vulnerable citizens of the District to have a fair chance to achieve and experience equal opportunity.
One of my other priorities relates to the operation of the court system. For the average citizen, and especially the pro se party, the courts are often regarded as a forbidding and foreboding environment. Most people in the middle class don’t have to become entangled in the court system. And very wealthy people, if they want to, can afford to pay for assistance to navigate the system. But when you talk about people who have to be in landlord and tenant court or who are going to lose their benefits—unemployment or public assistance—the courts often become absolutely crucial for whether they can maintain a roof over their heads and provide basic necessities for their families.
We have very strong, progressive leaders in our courts, both at the Superior Court and the Court of Appeals. I look forward to working with them and various components of the Bar to see how we can make the court system operate in a fairer way—an open, sympathetic way for the people whose lives are most directly affected by day–to–day judicial proceedings.
In addition, I believe we still need to concentrate on assisting lawyers, particularly lawyers in solo practice and smaller firms, to operate viable and successful businesses. The law practice management advisory programs that the Bar administers are vital, and we should continue not only to fund those programs, but to expand them.
The economy is coming back, yet we still have many colleagues in the profession graduating from law school who are not finding jobs and who realize that they have to make their way on their own. Law firms are combining into ever larger megafirms, but these mergers often reduce or deny opportunities for new lawyers and incumbent lawyers. If you are able to survive a major merger, that’s great. If not, you’re going to be looking for training and expertise.
Again, law school doesn’t really provide much in the way of practical business skills. We have a system where lawyers are licensed to begin practice mainly because they passed the bar exam, but without necessarily being trained on how to manage client funds or how to go about marketing themselves to be successful lawyers.
Law firms are like a huge, protective cocoon in terms of their infrastructure. They are organized so the lawyers can concentrate on practicing law, but the lawyers don’t really have to figure out how to operate the business. You have senior lawyers who have either reached an age where their firm is saying, “You’re subject to mandatory retirement,” or, as noted above, there are some of these mergers where certain senior lawyers become casualties of the process. These lawyers frequently possess tremendous subject matter expertise, but they struggle at an elementary level in terms of their skills for running a business.
What do you do to decompress? Do you still play football?
I played for years in the Lawyers Touch Football League up until my mid–30s. In my later years playing football, I suffered a few concussions and I kept pulling muscles. I think on my last play I pulled a hamstring on a post pattern. I hung onto the ball, and I had to hop into the end zone. This was a sign that it was time to hang up the cleats.
Now to decompress, the main thing I do is cycling. We have beautiful bike paths throughout the Washington area. Cycling is an athletic pastime where you set your own pace in terms of how competitive you want to be. I aspire to be more competitive than I actually am. Accordingly, it’s somewhat deflating that there are people who do not look all that athletic to me, yet they seem to be effortlessly pedaling past me, even when I’m trying to outpace them. The last couple of years I’ve done the Seagull Century, which is a 100–mile bike ride on the Eastern Shore.
For pure R&R, I kick back and listen to Classic R&B music. I am a forever fan of the Motown era, and the artists of that era are still my favorite makers of musical magic.