Moving Forward: A Conversation with the Law School’s Interim Dean
Verna Williams: Bio in brief
- Born and raised in Washington, DC
- Frequented museums and libraries (Williams’ mother was a school librarian)
- Studied Spanish, German, and Italian languages in high school
- BS (Spanish), Georgetown University
- JD, Harvard Law School
- First job: reporter training program at CBS Affiliate in Washington, DC
- Worked as paralegal before decided to go to law school
- Practiced law at US Department of Justice and Sidley Austin LLP
- Spent 8 years focused on gender equity in education at the National Women’s Law Center
- Successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court (Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 1999)
Meet the Family
- Married to David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center
- Williams and Singleton have one daughter, 17-year-old Allison, a high school senior
Verna L. Williams didn’t set out to become dean of the University of Cincinnati College of Law, where she had been teaching family law, gender discrimination, and constitutional law since 2001. Her work as co-director of the Center for Race, Gender, and Social Justice, along with leading the university’s joint-degree program in Law and Women’s Studies, provided plenty of professional fulfillment.
But when Jennifer Bard stepped down as dean and Nippert Professor of Law at the College, Williams felt called to throw her hat in the ring. She heard Peter E. Landgren, UC’s Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost, speak about the need for a leader who could step in and help move the school forward.
“That actually resonated with me,” Williams says. “I like to do things like that. I felt like that was a service that I could provide.”
Announcing Williams as interim dean of the College of Law on May 8, Landgren said he looked forward to her “bringing her energy and professional background and experience to this new college leadership and community partnership role. She has already proven to be remarkable in building collaborations and providing guidance to the college during recent transitions.”
With second semester coming to a close, Williams had to balance grading final exams for two classes with graduation details and preparing for the college’s budget hearing. Despite the chaos of transitioning from faculty member to dean, she quickly began to make her mark.
“I did meet one-on-one with folks to just check in with them—alumni, faculty, staff,” she says. “The thing I wanted to get across was how grateful I was that people hung in there, even though things had gotten difficult, and that I really appreciated their commitment and support. I wanted people to know we are moving forward now and putting a lot behind us.”
With her classes done for now, Williams can focus all of her attention on leading the law school, as it partners with alumni, the legal community and the UC community as a whole. As interim dean, she wants to expand real-world opportunities for UC Law students via programs that combine legal education with specialty coursework and put students at the elbow of legal professionals.
“I'm working hard with Admissions to bring in a really great first-year class … a highly credentialed, bigger, even stronger academically, more diverse class,” Williams says. “I’m also looking very carefully at employment for our graduates. We're doing a good job, but I think we can do better. I'd like us to get more students into clerkships, which are great launching opportunities for young lawyers.”
Williams recalls how profoundly a clerkship impacted her early law career. After graduating from Harvard University with a law degree, she clerked for Judge David S. Nelson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Nelson had been appointed to the position in 1979 by President Jimmy Carter, becoming the first African American appointed to the federal judiciary in the district. “I loved working with the judge. I learned so much. ...and it still ranks as one of the best professional experiences I've had in my life,” she recalls.
She also wants to find more ways to connect alumni with current students, from recruiting to teaching to fellowships. “We have the benefit of really fantastic alums,” she says. “We've got a small school and I think it facilitates connections in ways that don't always happen in larger schools.”
Another priority for Williams: revamping the Corporate Law Center, with the help of professors Felix B. Chang and Sean K. Mangan as co-directors. “We are lucky to be in a city that has such a myriad of corporations,” she says. “We can really work with them to educate our students about what it means to be a corporate lawyer and the role of the corporation in society. Let’s combine our theoretical understandings of corporations with the practical application of what ought to be happening. (Chang and Mangan) have some fantastic ideas around that.”
Just as she didn’t expect to become a law school dean, Williams also didn’t plan on making Cincinnati her home for the long haul. She and her husband, David Singleton, moved to Cincinnati in 2001 for her new job as assistant professor, with their 18 month-old daughter Allison in tow. As the family packed up to move from their DC home, news of civil unrest and curfews in Cincinnati—sparked by the death of a black teenager shot by police—made her wonder, "What the heck? What have we done?"
But raising Allison in Cincinnati, Williams says, “has been great for her. I couldn't be happier to have my family here. ...To be in a place where you're free to do the work you love and people appreciate the work that you do and it matters. The community is small enough that you actually can have an impact. And we have had an impact. That's what we wanted to do.”
2017 Goldman Prize for Excellence in Teaching Awarded to Mangan, McMahon, and Sperino
Professors Sean Mangan, Stephanie McMahon and Sandra Sperino received the annual award for teaching excellence.
Cincinnati, OH – For over 30 years, students at the University of Cincinnati College of Law have had the opportunity to recognize excellence in teaching by recognizing professors who distinguish themselves in the classroom, and whose accomplishments in research and public service contribute to superior performance in the classroom.
Congratulations to this year’s Goldman Prize for Excellence in Teaching awardees: Professor Sean Mangan, Professor Sandra Sperino, and Professor Stephanie McMahon.
Professor Sean Mangan, Associate Professor of Practice | Co-Director, Corporate Law Center
Professor Sean Mangan doesn't see his position at UC Law as a job, but as an opportunity. Noted one letter of recommendation, “he has a gift for making difficult concepts easier to learn. When much of law school seems to take place in the clouds of legal theory, Professor Mangan helps students confront the real and daily challenges of practicing law. “ Wrote another, “he has proven himself to be a skilled and compassionate guide in the development of young lawyers. His dedication to students was on display recently when he answered the call to teach a class he had not planned to teach. Moved by commitment to his students and the school, he stepped outside his comfort zone to make sure students received the instruction they needed. This is just one example of his leadership, service and intelligence.”
Professor Stephanie McMahon, Professor of Law
Professor Stephanie McMahon goes above and beyond the standard for teaching. Wrote a student in her nomination letter, “She is one of those professors you remember forever who has the ability to change your view on a subject that most expect to dislike.” Commented another, “Professor McMahon runs her classroom with excellent poise, throwing thought-provoking questions at everyone in the class. Instead of providing a dense textbook, she creates her own handouts to give students a better opportunity to learn difficult tax concepts. Professor McMahon could be working anywhere or doing anything, but the fact that she is here teaching the next generation of lawyers speaks to her public service and desire to see her students succeed. Her students truly appreciate the dedication and effort she expends every day.”
Professor Sandra Sperino, Associate Dean of Faculty and Professor of Law
Professor Sandra Sperino stands out for her ability to grasp different learning styles and build a classroom community. “Professor Sperino has a knack for making sure students know what to expect and organizing material in a way that can make even the most complicated topics clear,” wrote one nominator. Professor Sperino’s 1L students particularly appreciated the time she took to help them prepare for exams. “Professor Sperino gives students the opportunity to practice issue-spotting and learn what a successful exam answer looks like. This helped students prepare not only her Torts exam, but for all their first-year exams.” Her willingness to help students extends beyond the classroom. Whether it is meeting 1L students for coffee or taking upper level students to lunch, Professor Sperino always makes sure students know that she is there for them.
Keating Muething & Klekamp Welcomes Corporate Attorney Andrew S. Griesser
Cincinnati (July 13, 2017) — The Cincinnati law firm of Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL (KMK Law) welcomes attorney Andrew S. (Drew) Griesser as an Associate with the firm’s Business Representation & Transactions Group.
Griesser focuses his practice on business taxation, mergers and acquisitions, business planning, and general corporate transactions. Prior to joining KMK Law, Griesser worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP where he assisted with international tax transactions and planning, business entity structuring, mergers and acquisitions, strategic planning, consulting, and compliance services for several large multinational and domestic corporations.
During law school, Griesser worked in the University of Cincinnati College of Law’s Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic where he assisted and advised entrepreneurs and a nonprofit through business formation and general legal matters. He also clerked for a couple of local law firms, a city of Cincinnati council member, and a local financial institution.
Griesser earned his J.D. from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 2015. He earned his B.S. in finance and accounting from the University of Cincinnati in 2007. He is admitted to practice law in Ohio.
About Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL
The law firm of Keating Muething & Klekamp PLL (KMK Law®), based in Cincinnati, Ohio, is a nationally-recognized law firm delivering sophisticated legal solutions to businesses of all sizes—from Fortune 100 corporations to start-up companies. Chambers USA: America’s Leading Business Lawyers® 2017 recognized KMK as a leading law firm in Ohio in Corporate and Mergers & Acquisitions, General Commercial Litigation, and Bankruptcy & Restructuring. KMK Law earned four National Rankings in Land Use & Zoning Law, Commercial Litigation, Corporate Law, and Venture Capital Law and 37 Metropolitan Rankings in the U.S. News & World Report and Best Lawyers publication of its 2017 “Best Law Firms” Report. Founded in 1954, KMK has approximately 110 lawyers and a support staff of 150 employees. Additional information is available at www.kmklaw.com.
Cincinnati School of Law alumnus honored grad named to Chambers USA list
TULSA, Okla., July 7, 2017 – Cincinnati School of Law graduate Oliver Howard (J.D. 1979) was recently named by Chambers USA to its list of Leaders in Their Field. Howard, who practices law with the law firm of GableGotwals, was honored for his work in Litigation - General Commercial (Band 2).
The qualities on which Chambers USA rankings are assessed include technical legal ability, professional conduct, client service, commercial astuteness, diligence, commitment and other qualities most valued by the client. Interviews are conducted with peers outside of the firm and clients in order to determine inclusion and rankings.
Howard was one of 15 GableGotwals attorneys to receive this ranking. The firm was also recognized as a Leading Firm in the areas of Energy and Natural Resources (Band 2), General Commercial Litigation (Band 2) and Corporate/Commercial (Band 3). It also was added this year as “Other Noted Firm” in the area of Native American Law.
GableGotwals is a full-service law firm of more than 90 attorneys representing a diversified client base in Oklahoma, the Southwest and across the nation. The firm has offices in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and San Antonio, Texas.
Law Students' Work on US Supreme Court Case Pays Off; Brief Cited by Highest Court in the Land
Early in 2017, first-year students at the University of Cincinnati College of Law were invited to research a high-stakes question that was pending in the United States Supreme Court: when the prosecution chooses to pursue the death penalty against a defendant who has mental illness but cannot afford to hire counsel, does the defendant have the right to a mental health expert who is independent from the prosecution?
Since 1985, capital defense lawyers across the country have obtained such assistance as a matter of right under the Court’s landmark decision Ake v. Oklahoma. Nevertheless, the Alabama courts held there was no such right. In McWilliams v. Dunn, nationally-renowned attorney Steven Bright of the Southern Center for Human Rights asked the Supreme Court to correct that error.
The students jumped at the chance to research the expert appointment practices that have existed across the country since Ake was decided. Their research supported an amicus curiae brief filed by the National Association for Public Defense and other co-amici in McWilliams. Professor Janet Moore supervised the students in her role as chair of NAPD’s Amicus Committee, which she shares with Professor Jennifer Kinsley of NKU-Chase College of Law.
The students’ work paid off. On June 19, 2017, the Court ruled 5-4 that Ake clearly established the capital defendant’s right to a mental health expert who is sufficiently available to the defense and independent from the prosecution to effectively “assist in evaluation, preparation, and presentation of the defense.” The students were thrilled to see Justice Breyer’s majority opinion cite the NAPD brief as showing that the majority of jurisdictions have already adopted this principle.
In reflecting on the experience, many contributing students found it to be not only a valuable learning opportunity but a highlight of their first year at UC Law.
“Assisting Professor Moore with research for the McWilliams brief was one of the highlights of my 1L year,” reflected rising second year law student Francesca Boland. “When I started law school, I never dreamed that before the first year was over I would provide research support for a Supreme Court brief. This was a fantastic opportunity to put my new skills into action and to get a taste of real lawyering. I am thrilled that the brief played a role in the Supreme Court win!”
David Wovrosh expressed similar sentiments. “It was pretty surreal to see our work cited by the highest court in the land,” he said. “The research really tossed the principles we learn in the classroom into the thresher that is the practical application of law. It was an invaluable learning experience. I could never have imagined having access to such profound and impactful experiences my very first year!”
Marissa Lee also was enthusiastic about her experience: "I'm incredibly appreciative of Professor Moore for giving us the opportunity to do research for an NAPD amicus brief for the Supreme Court. My work allowed me to collaborate with my professor and fellow students outside of class, and my work had a sense of significance. We understood the importance of the case to the defendant in this case and to lawyers representing indigent defendants across the country."
The students’ energetic response to the opportunity offered in the McWilliams case led to the formation of the College of Law’s Bearcat-NAPD Amicus Team. Students continue to actively assist Professors Moore and Kinsley with research and drafting as well as with the many administrative tasks required to conduct effective appellate advocacy. The team is therefore well-positioned to continue following the McWilliams case, which was remanded for further proceedings, and to assist in the many other cases across the country that raise questions about whether courts are enforcing the bedrock constitutional guarantees that the Supreme Court emphasized in Ake: “a fair opportunity to present [a] defense” and “to participate meaningfully in a judicial proceeding in which . . . liberty is at stake” – in short, “[m]eaningful access to justice.”
Why I Choose Cincinnati Law's LLM Program
Why I chose Cincinnati Law's LLM Program
Qing Lyu left China to pursue education in America when her husband came to the States for work. “If you have a law degree in your country, and you know a little bit about American institutions, when you come back to my country, it’s very competitive for you to find a good job.” Although Lyu is not yet sure if they will return to China at some point, she does know that she wants to get work experience in America under her belt before they do.
When asked about the difference in teaching between China and the United States, Lyu explained that professors will lecture, and although you can ask questions, it typically doesn’t happen. In the third year, students take classes that do allow them to talk a little bit, but note taking is still the major point of class. During her studies here, however, “We are asked to engage a lot. To ask questions, discuss with each other, or debate with professors-that’s very different.” Professors, and other students, are more open to questions here as well, and she feels that there is not such a stigma of asking a “dumb question.”
Lyu also attended China University of Political Science and Law, but for her undergraduate education, where she studied both law and economics. For her graduate program, she went to Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, focusing on maritime law.
1. Why did you select the University of Cincinnati College of Law for your degree?
Before I came to the United States, I did some research online. University of Cincinnati College of Law has a long history. It is the fourth-oldest continuously operating law school in the country. And the reputation is very good, this is one of important factors for me. Second, before the new semester, the law school offered opportunities for students to visit courthouses and law offices, which not only chelped us obtain professional knowledge of the US legal system, but also understand what it means to be a real attorney. This is a wonderful start to get ready for the new semester. Moreover, the law school is geographically near the downtown. This is very critical, because many law firms and big companies are in the urban areas. It is a great advantage for us to do some networking or seek for an internship. Cincinnati is also home to many of the top 500 companies, such as P&G, Kroger (the nation's second largest retail supermarket, after Walmart), which means that international students have more opportunities after graduation. After three years in Cincinnati, I know that I made the right decision.
2. What are the strengths of a law degree from the University of Cincinnati College of Law?
LL.M. program actually is not new in the United States, many law schools have this programs as well. I know some law schools, like OSU, have a lot of Chinese students in their LL.M. program. In contrast, the LL.M. program in UC is rather new, however, it is growing very fast. I believe UC law school has many advantages that others do not own, such as reasonable student-to-faculty ratio. Students at the College of Law benefit a lot from an intimate study environment and personal attention from faculty to establish a good relationship. Besides, staffs are also very enthusiastic to help students. My advisor is very responsible and she always gives me advice not just in my study, but also in my life. Some courses are just open to LL.M students, some you can study with other JD students, to really know American law school learning atmosphere.
3. How has the University of Cincinnati College of Law prepared you for your career?
Because of this degree, I am eligible to apply for Ohio state bar exam. In fact, I recently passed the Ohio Bar Exam. Not only Ohio, students can also apply for other state bar exams (depending on the student’s background). Like I said in the previous question, the reputation of UC college of law is very good, it matters a lot. Not only in Cincinnati, but also in other big cities in Ohio. Moreover, UC college of law allows international students to choose their interested classes. Because I am interested in business law, I tried to study more related courses for my career planning. Besides, UC college of law has a lot of professional employment counseling, internship opportunities, and student organizations. They also regularly organize some activities, I can have many chances to network, which is very important for my career.
4. Why should other Chinese students consider the University of Cincinnati College of Law?
First, the law school has a lot of programs that we can participate, such as volunteers opportunities, summer internships. You can even apply for school part-time jobs as well. Second, students can choose their own courses of interest for their career planning. Finally, LL.M. students are from different countries in the world, not just from China, unlike many law schools. Therefore it is a wonderful chance to know the culture differences and make friends, also to practice their oral English and develop social skills.
Going Home Again: 3L Student Musah Abubaker’s Journey Back to Africa
3L Musah Abubaker’s inspiring journey from the United States to Botswana’s Ministry of Education has helped shape his career path.
Cincinnati, OH – “I was fortunate enough to come to the greatest country in the world, and I thought to myself, oh my gosh, finally: I’m able to escape,” recalled Musah Abubaker about his adventure to the United States nine years ago.
Abubakar, now a third-year student, arrived in the United States from Ghana on June 3, 2008. He spent his first few years in the U.S working in many different jobs, including some factories. In 2012, Abubakar went back to school to finish the economics degree he started in Ghana a few years earlier, completing his undergraduate studies at The Ohio State University. However, he was not totally satisfied, and the same ambition that led him to move to the US pushed him to continue his pursuit for grander opportunities.
“I did well in economics at OSU, but I still felt like at that point I couldn’t see myself or call myself an economist,” he said. “I know I’ve studied economics, but I thought about what I can do and be proud that it was my profession. It just kept coming back to me time and time again that I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Abubakar was cautious about the obstacles that would lie ahead. Living in a completely new country only a couple years, he was faced with many uncertainties. “I thought, ‘You are from Ghana with this accent going to law school. What are you going to do with that?’” he said about himself. “I knew that I wanted do it anyway. I knew becoming a lawyer is what I wanted to do. I believed that it was better to try doing what I loved to do and fail, than just run away from it because I had some insecurities.”
Abubakar determined to come to the College of Law and enrolled in Fall 2015. Soon after, he became a fellow with the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights. And he was eager for the opportunity to make a difference in the world.
“I really believe anyone who belongs to the law community should have a passion to make a difference,” said Abubakar. “If that desire is not there, anyone will be demoralized by the experience.”
Back to Africa
After completing his 1L year, Abubaker had the chance to extern abroad through Urban Morgan’s well-known international training program for students. He decided to return to the continent he left years earlier, to work at the Ministry of Education and Skills Development in Botswana.
The Ministry of Education and Skills Development, a governmental organization in Botswana, provides guidance to decision makers and planners at all levels of government to improve the education sector in Botswana with the goal of developing an efficient education system. The Education and Training Sector Strategic Plan was approved in 2015, which allowed the Ministry to oversee the challenges facing the education system and propose various strategies, programs, and activities to adress these challenges over a five-year span. Abubakar was one of many who contributed to the facilitation of this plan by visiting schools, talking to teachers and students, and reviewing documents for his supervisors.
Abubakar takes pride the fact that he was one of many people able to shape the future of the country. “I got up every morning, knowing that the work that I’m doing at the Ministry is not just for some kind of self-gratification; it is something that is really needed,” he said. “People really appreciated it. I felt like I was really contributing to the development of this young country that just celebrated their 50th anniversary of independence last year. It was really rewarding, knowing that after one year of law school, the work I was doing made an impact on this country.”
You Can Go Home Again
Abubakar spent ten weeks at his externship in Botswana, all of which amounted to an unforgettable experience. Though the externship consumed most of his time in Africa, there was another destination on his agenda. Botswana is over 2,500 miles away from his home country of Ghana. The distance did not deter him from visiting his childhood home, however.
“Eight years. I hadn’t seen my brothers or my sisters until then,” he said. “The whole experience was very big for me, because it gave me the opportunity to meet with my family after eight years. That is not necessarily part of what I did at the Ministry of Education, but that, of course, was very important to me.”
As he traveled around Africa, he couldn’t help but see the potential in the youth. Abubakar knew that he was once just like them, and he knew his story could serve as an influence for those around him. “Sometimes I just wanted to see the rest of the country, and I enjoy interacting with ordinary people,” said Abubakar. “Sometimes I would go out with my friends and talk to the community. I met these kids and I thought they were quite interesting, you know, because I’m from Ghana.
“As soon as saw them, it came into my mind that I used to be just like these kids too. I used to run around, dress similar, act similar. I said, ‘Let me take a picture and maybe they can too be inspired by it.’ They were just random kids but I thought that could have easily been me 18 years ago.”
Abubakar’s life adventures reminds everyone around him that dreams are attainable. Though the pursuit of happiness may come with sacrifice, Abubakar’s story serves as a message of reassurance that hard work, dedication, and bravery can pay off in ways unimaginable.
The Future as a US Citizen
Abubakar took the step to become a US citizen. After completing this challenge, he sees more and more doors opening for his future in law.
“Lately I’ve been thinking about finding a job as a foreign service officer,” he said. “I believe my work in Botswana helped me to see that that type of job will probably be most suitable for me. If I hadn’t been there I probably wouldn’t have even had that realization.”
Abubakar remains thankful and appreciative of the experiences he has had in the US. He believes the externship, particularly, has completely changed his world-view. Looking toward the future, he feels closely tied to American values, and hopes to continue the fight for human rights and justice across the globe.
“It was important for me to study abroad,” said Abubakar. “I think going to Botswana opened doors for me that I couldn’t even have imagined. I’m able to imagine the world beyond Cincinnati, beyond the Untied States, and now I know that I can be of help and of service to people. That is one thing that I have found. I believe being there gives you a broad view of the world – at least broader than what I’ve imagined. So now that I am fully as American as possible, I want to find a job representing the interest of America.”
By: Kyler Davis, communication intern
Publication Date: June 1, 2017
Eden Thompson Recognized as Next Generation Leader by the American Constitution Society
Recent graduate Eden Thompson was chosen through a nationwide contest to be a Next Generation Leader by the ACS.
Cincinnati, OH- “I’ve always had an interest in the humanities, and helping people,” said Thompson. “I have just always had a general interest in the law.”
Eden Thompson, third-year College of Law student and president of UC’s chapter of the American Constitution society, was recently selected to be a Next Generation Leader by the American Constitution Society (ACS) national body. This selection will grant her unique networking opportunities, including future involvement in ACS sponsored events and other resources to facilitate her future in law. Thompson was one of the 28 students selected by the ACS national body.
“I got involved with ACS my first year, as a 1L representative. The next year I became secretary, and by the third year I was president,” said Thompson. “I applied for the Next Generation Leader program, which identifies upcoming law school graduates who have demonstrated special leadership in their work with the ACS student chapters.”
Initially studying political science and history at Miami University, Thompson’s love for law sparked in her undergraduate studies during her constitutional law class. Now, her acknowledgement by the ACS serves as a reminder to continue to raise important questions regarding constitutional interpretation to improve the lives of all people. With a clerkship lined up after graduation, her future already seems to be reaching new heights.
“This clerkship is my dream job to start out with,” said Thompson. “But my dream job has always been in litigation - either working for a law firm or getting a job in the federal government.”
As Next Generation Leader, Thompson plans to continue her involvement with ACS in networking with the national body to plan events, debates, and discussions along with her exclusive access to the many resources and large networking team available.
About the American Constitution Society
The American Constitution Society believes that law should be a force to improve the lives of all people. ACS works for positive change by shaping debate on vitally important legal and constitutional issues through development and promotion of high-impact ideas to opinion leaders and the media; by building networks of lawyers, law students, judges and policymakers dedicated to those ideas; and by countering the activist conservative legal movement that has sought to erode our enduring constitutional values. With over 200 student and lawyer chapters in 48 states, ACS offers a platform for discussion on the issues of the day, as well as provide opportunities for networking, mentoring, and organizing.
About The Next Generation Leader Program
In 2007, the American Constitution Society launched its Next Generation Leaders (NGL) program, which identifies and provides support to recent and forthcoming law school graduates who have demonstrated special leadership in their work with ACS’s student chapters, and who have the interest, skills and ability to remain vital members of the ACS community for years to come. NGL applicants undergo a competitive application process. Each year, 20-25 students are selected as NGLs, and one NGL is selected to serve a 2-year term as a student member of ACS’s Board.
By: Kyler Davis, communication intern
Publication Date: June 1, 2017
Connected: The Unique Ties of Cincinnati’s Mayoral Race
Forecasting election outcomes can be tricky business, but here’s one prediction guaranteed to come true: The next mayor of Cincinnati will have strong ties to UC Law.
That’s because among the three leading candidates in 2017’s mayoral race, two are UC Law graduates, and one cofounded a major UC Law initiative.
Incumbent John Cranley, who’s running for a second term as mayor, helped start the Ohio Innocence Project at UC Law in 2003, serving as administrative director until 2006. Candidate Yvette Simpson, currently in her second term as a city councilwoman, received her JD at UC in 2004. Former candidate Rob Richardson Jr., who recently completed a nine-year stint on UC’s Board of Trustees, graduated from UC Law in 2005.
Cranley, Richardson, and Simpson faced off in a primary election on May 2. The top two vote-getters—Cranley and Simpson—will now compete in the Nov. 7 general election.
Besides their UC Law connection, the three mayoral candidates shared many other things in common. They’re all lawyers, Democrats, and natives of Cincinnati. They also hold similar views on core civic issues, such as improving public transit, helping families get out of poverty, and partnering with regional institutions such as the University of Cincinnati. Yet each followed a unique path to UC Law, and eventually to this three-way race for mayor.
Going to UC might have seemed like a no-brainer for Richardson, whose parents, aunt, and sisters all attended the school. But his struggles with learning disabilities as a young student made the path to higher education seem less than certain.
“I wasn't a kid that naturally got school. I struggled pretty early on,” he recalled. “Because of that, and because I was probably bored by school, I didn't do as well taking the tests. That pretty much ruled out college for me.” One conversation with a teacher particularly discouraged Richardson as an eighth-grade student. “I told her I wanted to prepare for college. She told me, ‘Why? You’re not going to do that. You’re going to fail.’ That's a crushing conversation to have.”
Fortunately, Richardson’s mother countered his teacher’s message with these words of encouragement for her son: “People are going to have lower expectations of you. Some because you're an African American man, too. Don't let yourself be defined by anybody's narrow expectations. You define yourself for yourself, by yourself.”
Richardson eventually studied electrical engineering at UC, earning his B.S. degree in 2002. At that point, he knew he didn’t want to pursue a career as an engineer, though he had learned a great deal about solving problems. He decided law school was his next logical step, because “legal training teaches you how to identify problems, how to look at them from multiple sides,” he explained. “If you're going to be in public office, it helps to understand how policy, how the law works, and then you can change it.”
Soon after earning his JD, Richardson was appointed to the UC Board of Trustees, where he recently led the search for the 30th President, Dr. Neville Pinto, and advocated for systemic, top-down reforms to UC police policy following the killing of Samuel Dubose. Currently, he’s a marketing construction representative, and serves as Of Counsel with the law firm Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, specializing in labor and employment and securities litigation
In his first run for political office, Richardson hoped to take a fresh approach to governing the city. “We know that the best ideas often come from the people and places that have been ignored by the power brokers in City Hall,” he said. “It’s our responsibility, as leaders in our city, to be stewards and partners in innovation, inclusion, and creativity.”
Simpson’s journey began at the age of eight, when she pulled a book from the library shelf. Of all the titles in the “when I grow up” series, she chose the one about growing up to be a lawyer. Pictured on the cover, she recalled, was a man arguing his case before a judge. “And I said: ‘That’s gonna be me, except I’ll be wearing a skirt.’”
Simpson’s grandmother and other mentors encouraged her to stick with her dream, even as the young girl’s family struggled to make ends meet and many friends and family members dropped out of school or fell prey to criminal activity. She ended up with a full scholarship to Miami University, where she became the first in her family to graduate from college.
She made her younger self “very proud” by earning her law degree at UC. As a student, Simpson co-chaired the Student Legal Education Committee, was an executive member of the Moot Court board (and was inducted to the Order of the Barristers), served on the honor council, was a senior articles editor for the Human Rights Quarterly, and worked as an associate with both Baker & Hostetler LLP and Frost Brown Todd LLC.
Having gotten “a taste of leadership and involvement” at UC, Simpson said, “I loved it.” Just a few years later, in 2011, she was elected to City Council. Now she hopes to become the first African-American woman mayor in the city's history.
The classic novel that inspired Cranley to become a lawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, centers around an attorney who helps free an innocent man. Years later, while working as a lawyer and serving on Cincinnati City Council, Cranley wanted to bring that kind of legal heroism to Cincinnati.
“I’d seen these Innocence Projects pop up in other states and I saw that there was none in Ohio and it would be great for UC,” Cranley said. He and his friend Professor Mark Godsey founded the Ohio Innocence Project at UC Law. Cranley ran the organization for its first few years. In one case, he successfully argued before the Ohio Court of Appeals, Fifth Appellate District to overturn Christopher Lee Bennett’s conviction of aggravated vehicular homicide.
Today, OIP is known as one of the most active and successful Innocence Projects in the world, and to date has secured the release of 25 individuals on grounds of innocence who together served more than 450 years in prison for crimes they did not commit.
“It’s an amazing success story,” Cranley said. “There’s no question that it gets back to the tradition of wanting to see the world better and to deal with injustices and build a more just society.” He took office as mayor of Cincinnati in December 2013, and hopes to be re-elected for a second term this fall.
By: Susan Wenner Jackson
Published: June 1, 2017