Leadership at UC College of Law strives for a more inclusive future
Changing the face of the legal profession
African Americans are underrepresented in the legal profession, comprising only five percent of attorneys (American Bar Association, 2017), despite making up over 13 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2018 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Progress has been slow: this number has risen only one percent in the past ten years.
But recently, many law schools have taken steps towards greater inclusiveness by hiring and promoting African Americans to leadership roles. The University of Cincinnati is one of these schools.
Today, five female African American leaders at the College of Law bring unique perspectives to their roles. Their experiences in law and in academia vary widely, and inspire both their approach to education and their vision for the future.
Chief of Staff and Associate Dean Mina Jones Jefferson
Mina Jones Jefferson serves as chief of staff, associate dean, and director of the Center for Professional Development. Jefferson, an alumna, joined the College of Law in 1999 after working as a hiring partner partner at a National Law Journal Top-250 law firm. In fact, she is one of the few law school career services professionals in the country who has been on both sides of the table. Jefferson practiced commercial litigation for nine years and was one of the first African American women in the region elected to the partnership of a large firm.
“Diversity in leadership matters, because the more perspectives around the table on an issue, the better the outcome,” said Jefferson, “historically, institutional structures were designed by one group, to benefit that one group. Those structures can limit the inclusion of a variety of perspectives.”
Jefferson’s experience rising through the ranks to become hiring partner helps her advise students on planning their own careers.
“For the majority of my time in private practice and in the ‘big law’ setting, I was the only person who looked like me. That’s a daunting experience in a place where opportunities flow from relationships,” said Jefferson. “In addition to meeting the daily demands of the job, I had this additional reality of having to strategize and build consensus around me.”
As a hiring partner, Jefferson saw new lawyers succeed or fail not based on academic prowess, but ability to navigate the profession. She sees soft skills as essential to long-term career success. The Center for Professional Development holds planning meetings designed to mimic the performance evaluations that occur in the workplace. Through these meetings, law students learn to periodically assess where they are in their career and make adjustments when necessary.
“To succeed as a lawyer, you need to be very strategic about your career and how you are building it. This is particularly true as a person of color—you can’t expect anyone to do it for you,” said Jefferson.
To succeed as a lawyer, you need to be very strategic about your career and how you are building it. This is particularly true as a person of color—you can’t expect anyone to do it for you.
Mina Jones Jefferson
Jefferson believes that the diverse leadership at the College of Law sends a positive signal, but that important work remains to be done. Important goals include recruiting more students of color, making sure they feel like they belong at the law school, and ensuring they have the support they need to be successful.
“You need to able to recruit people, get them through law school as the best version of themselves, and have them succeed on the bar exam. And I think the UC College of Law is in a position to be very competitive in all of those areas,” said Jefferson.
Assistant Dean Cassandra Jeter-Bailey
Cassandra Jeter-Bailey serves as assistant dean for Admissions. Jeter-Bailey earned her Master of Laws and Juris Doctor from Capital University Law School and her undergraduate degree from Howard University. She has over 15 years of experience in higher education and was Director of Admissions at Capital University Law School prior to joining the UC College of Law. Jeter-Bailey is both the first African American and first woman to be Assistant Dean for Admissions here.
“Our leadership team reflects the values of our institution, and makes a statement to the world about who we are,” said Jeter-Bailey. “Diversity is not just something we talk about, it’s something we’re actively focused on, something that we live.”
Diversity is not just something we talk about, it’s something we’re actively focused on, something that we live.
While an undergraduate at Howard University, Jeter-Bailey had the opportunity to participate in the SWEL (Summer Work Experience in Law) program here in Cincinnati. SWEL was started by the Cincinnati Bar Association to connect undergraduates with legal work experiences. Jeter-Bailey’s experience with SWEL included a variety of practice areas and settings, including juvenile court, corporate legal departments at GE and Macy’s, and a local law firm.
“It was a great exposure to the law as a profession,” said Jeter-Bailey. “When I approached the application process myself, I felt well informed about what it took to get here, so that really sparked my interest. I went to law school with the intention to practice, which I did for a time, but what really drives me now is the opportunity to do the same thing for others.”
Jeter-Bailey believes that sometimes a lack of information about law school can be a barrier to diversity. The presentation of the legal profession as an opportunity often comes later for students of color, who may not have connections through family and friends due to underrepresentation.
“It’s important that we start having that conversation earlier, about what the law is and what it requires. And then, help individuals understand that there are pathways available and what those are,” she said.
Jeter-Bailey stresses the importance of connections to the community in getting the word out about law school. This means forming relationships with not just undergraduate institutions, but community colleges, high schools, churches and other community organizations.
“Often, students underestimate the willingness of lawyers to share their experiences, how they got here, what it's like to be an attorney. But many are craving that type of interaction, so sometimes it's just helping people make that connection,” said Jeter-Bailey.
Assistant Dean Staci Rucker
Staci Rucker, assistant dean for Academic Affairs, Student Affairs, and Diversity, is an experienced leader in higher education. Previously, she was Assistant Dean for Academic Affairs at the University of Dayton School of Law, where she was the visionary behind the development of Dayton's learning communities, dean's fellows, and academic advising programs. Rucker began her career working at law firms in Washington, D.C. and Atlanta before joining the ranks of academic administration. In addition to her work at Cincinnati Law, Rucker serves on the National Association of Student Affairs Professionals.
“It can be important to have representation of minorities in leadership teams. But representation without action is meaningless. If you are bringing truly different perspectives and ideas, and those are being valued, that’s important,” said Rucker.
After graduating from Howard University, Rucker went to Harvard for law school. She found that expectations were not always communicated clearly. Students were expected to just “know” that, for example, the property law exam would be multiple choice. Later in her career, Rucker wanted to demystify law school for students. Her first opportunity came as Director of Academic Support at North Carolina Central University School of Law. In the past 15 years, the legal academic field has moved towards more transparency; discussing exams, giving feedback throughout the semester, and providing more academic support in general.
“I realized that there was an opportunity to help law students, that’s what attracts me to this work,” said Rucker, ”I get to meet with them and engage one-on-one, and also have an opportunity to make systemic change.”
Rucker believes shared growth, inclusion, and understanding are important goals for a law school concerned with diversity. “It’s not just the numbers, it’s what kind of learning happens. Let’s have those hard discussions and have them in a respectful and meaningful way such that we educate and learn from each other. There’s lots of opportunity to do that here and it’s something that I am very hopeful for. My goal is for no student to come out of the law school experience the same as they were. You will have exposure to different ideas and different backgrounds—because people and their experiences are really what make up the law.”
My goal is for no student to come out of the law school experience the same as they were. You will have exposure to different ideas and different backgrounds—because people and their experiences are really what make up the law.
Communications Director Sherry English
Sherry English serves as director of College Relations and Communications. English originally came to UC as an undergraduate student to become a teacher (an English teacher, in fact!) but changed course upon discovering a passion for public relations.
“I think diversity means being open to the differences in thought, opinion, gender, race, and sexuality across the board. You may not always agree with somebody, but it is important to be open to their experience and perspective. Openness will inform whatever you do,” said English.
You may not always agree with someone, but it is important to be open to their experience and perspective. Openness will inform whatever you do.
English sees the leadership team as an important part of the public image of the law school, which is part of what draws new students. English herself had few teachers of color, only 4 from kindergarten to graduate school. She noticed that stories being told and history being shared were mostly about white people with few exceptions: a brief discussion of slavery, a mention of peanut farmer George Washington Carver, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This was not reflective of society.
“We say in this country that you can be anything you want to be. But if you don’t see it or see someone who looks like you leading, how do you know you can do that job, hold that position? You really don’t.” she said. “That’s why It’s so important for people to see themselves in a leader, too see someone who looks like them leading companies, law schools, classes, and effecting change.”
As a communications professional, English is responsible for crafting the brand of the law school and presenting it to the public. An important part of defining the brand is telling the success stories of the College of Law.
“The cool thing about UC Law is that we have so many women of color leading this place, and this is so empowering for women to see. It really says this is a place that is very forward thinking, which, I believe, also appeals to forward-thinking men!”
English sees communication within the College of Law as essential to its success.
“We want to make sure that students feel supported, from the moment they walk in the door and as they go through the law school experience,” said English. “So that if a problem arises or they need help in a particular area, they feel comfortable speaking up. We can’t expect that there will never be any issues. The way to deal with problems is to get them in the open and get everyone talking about it so that it can be resolved."
Dean Verna Williams
Verna Williams is the dean and Nippert Professor of Law at the College of Law, appointed in 2019 after serving as interim dean for two years. Williams had no intention of pursuing a law degree until well after graduating from Georgetown University. Later, she decided that a graduate degree would be necessary and that a law degree would be the most flexible and provide the most opportunity to make a difference in the world.
Williams attended Harvard Law School, which had a relatively diverse student body but an almost exclusively white male faculty. “Lots of students felt intimidated by the place, that they were accepted by mistake and couldn’t just go talk to a professor,” said Williams. “It was just the kind of place Harvard was back then.”
Williams fondly remembers some professors, such as Christopher Edley, who engaged with students and helped them feel that they fit in. Today, she prioritizes that kind of engagement at UC Law.
“All of us on the faculty have been where the students are. I remember, really well, feeling completely out of place, like I didn’t know what was going on, even overwhelmed at times,” said Williams. “That’s why I’m happy to talk to students and be accessible to them.
I’m familiar with the struggles, I know what it feels like not to get the job you wanted. It’s hard, when you’re starting out, to take the long view of your career and realize that one false move is not going to end your career. No matter how devastating it seems, you’ll most likely get through it. So I’m glad to be here and serve in that capacity. And I like doing it, I really do.”
Williams believes that having a diverse profession is important because the country’s population is incredibly diverse, and becoming more so. “Law is fundamental to our society. What could be more important than making sure that the legal profession reflects our society?”, asked Williams.
Law is fundamental to our society. What could be more important than making sure that the legal profession reflects our society?
"In an office or workplace, take this one for example, I have to make a lot of decisions about things, and I would be ill-served if I didn’t hear from the different perspectives of my leadership team. They help enrich my thinking about issues and situations and make a better decision—particularly when they disagree with me. That’s important for them to express,” said Williams.
Underrepresentation of certain groups is a barrier to the inclusion of diverse voices in the profession. One obstacle is the disparity in LSAT scores between white students and students of color.
“I don’t believe that diversity and excellence are at odds, but I do believe the metrics we use can create that impression. When we think about this disparity, we have to look at the education system, which is still very segregated. When wealthier school districts get the most resources and the not-so-wealthy ones get the least, you’ve baked in inequity.”
“Structural inequality is keeping us from having the society that we really want to have, with the fullest possible array of creative minds engaged in development, helping to make all our lives better,” said Williams.
Law schools can help by getting engaged with high schools, particularly in communities of need. “It’s important that kids see professionals, like lawyers, because they may not be seeing them otherwise. If they can work with them as volunteers, helping out in whatever way they can, that can serve many goals including broadening the horizons of some of the students,” said Williams.
Williams is one of several African American women recently appointed as law school deans. She sees this as a positive sign in this moment of division within society. “It’s really exciting to be a part of this change, to be one of these women of color who are leading law schools. That doesn’t mean we share the same perspectives. We all have different perspectives, but we share a level of energy in recognizing that we are making history,” said Williams.
In the testimony of these five professionals, a picture emerges of the College of Law. This is a place that encourages open conversations, values differing perspectives, seeks connection with diverse communities, offers empathy and guidance to its students, and tells the untold stories.
University of Cincinnati College of Law
Learn more about diversity and inclusion at the University of Cincinnati College of Law by reading our diversity statement.