Minorities in the Profession Committee: Spotlight Article: "The Unlikely Civil Rights Lawyer"

November 19 2014 | Committees

When I first met James Williams he was a first year associate and I a summer law clerk at a well respected local defense firm. Since that time James has gone on to become a prominent plaintiff’s lawyer who is still respected enough by both defense firms on behalf of their corporate clients as well as other defendants to assist them with jury trials and complex litigation. James is a partner of the law firm of Gauthier Houghtaling & Williams.  Many of James’ most notable successes have come in the context of catastrophic personal injury and business litigation matters.  He has been named to the list of “Top 100 Trial Lawyers,” by the American Trial Lawyers  Association and was one of the first lawyers to be inducted in the City Business “Hall of Fame,” in 2007.  So when I sat down with James to speak with him about his moonlighting as a civil rights lawyer—an area seemingly farfetched from his field—my first question to him was why?  With all the successes and  demands on his time why not leave civil rights to those who lawyers who have focused their careers in those areas. 

What those of you who focus primarily on civil litigation might not know is that in addition to his numerous personal injury and business litigation victories, James has also been lead counsel in a number of high profile civil rights cases.  By way of illustration but certainly not intended to be an exclusive list, James was also victorious in representing as lead counsel, the Honorable Justice Bernette Johnson, for whom he clerked, in her bid to become the first African-American Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court.  He also currently represents Dorian Johnson, the primary witness to the shooting death of Michael Brown by police in  Ferguson, Missouri. James also represents Judge Yolanda King in what he describes as an unprecedented level of attack for an alleged violation of the state’s residency rules by a candidate for public office. And because civil rights has no color, he represents Shane Gates, a Caucasian male who was allegedly brutally beaten by police in St. Tammany Parish during a traffic stop.

In response to my question, James states simply that we all have a responsibility to fight for the things we believe are right.  If each of us would only take on one cause or one civil rights case then the issues that currently permeate our society would not appear so insurmountable.  James recalled a recent conversation he had with civil rights icon Rudy Lombard in which he asked Mr. Lombard to name one book that accurately depicts the plight of the civil rights movement.  Just as Mr. Lombard could not name one book but instead responded with a list of books that inform the conscience on issues related to the civil rights movement, the issues are also too complex for just one lawyer to tackle.

Tackling civil rights issues is about more than winning.  He learned early on from his mother that the possibility of losing is no defense to refusing to fight for the things you believe in.  Fighting injustice and conquering these hurdles is a part of the fabric of the man that is James Williams.  It is a part of his legacy that he would like his kids to remember.  Chief Justice Johnson also points out that it takes courage to be a civil rights lawyer, to fight against deeply engrained attitudes and thought processes and to be willing to make the sacrifices that come along with doing such work—particularly when there is no guarantee of success.  As Chief Justice Johnson puts it, if it were not for the courage and sacrifices of a James Williams, Clarence Roby or Tracie Washington, there would be no Chief Justice Johnson. 

I asked James what he would want you to know about his civil rights experiences.  James’ most humbling experience came at the recent funeral of Michael Brown where he accompanied his client, Dorian Johnson.  It was there that James witnessed the parents of Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell and Jordan Davis who were present to comfort the parents of Michael Brown, “as if to welcome them into a fraternity that none of us want to become a part of,” a fraternity of folks who have lost their children in the most unspeakable of circumstances.  We, as lawyers in the profession, should take heed to James’ advice and use the talents and skills we have gained in our respective practices to help out those who need a voice in their pursuit of what is right; even if at first glance the chances of winning seem bleak.


By: Dana M. DouglasMinorities in the Profession Committee 2014 Chair

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