May 23, 2019
In 1989, at an alumni weekend at Yale University, Judge A. Leon Higginbotham delivered a moving speech entitled “The Dream With Its Back Against the Wall.” During the speech, Judge Higginbotham talked about the remarkable story of his journey to Yale Law School and paid tribute to the individuals who paved the way for him, or as Judge Higginbotham described them, “the special persons who walked with us when the future was uncertain.”
After graduating from Yale Law School, and being denied entry by every major law firm in Philadelphia because of his race, Judge Higginbotham went on to break barriers in public service, to establish himself as a model lawyer in private practice, to serve as a trusted presidential advisor and to become an influential federal judge—all while being a steadfast civil rights activist. After retirement from the bench, Judge Higginbotham joined Paul, Weiss as senior counsel in 1993 and spent the rest of his life as a private practice lawyer. Notably, he worked with Nelson Mandela and Paul, Weiss partners to achieve fair elections in South Africa through the South Africa Free Election Fund, and as an educator, scholar and writer.
In line with his lifelong commitment to achieving equality, Judge Higginbotham devoted his life to mentoring and inspiring the next generation of young African-American lawyers at Paul, Weiss. During his time at the firm, he developed a close relationship with former Secretary of Homeland Security and current Paul, Weiss partner Jeh Johnson, as Secretary Johnson recounts:
“Judge Higginbotham reached out to me his very first day at Paul, Weiss in February 1993. Though we barely knew each other, he wanted me to know he was a supporter on my road to becoming the firm’s first black partner later that year. Over the course of the next five years, Leon became an inspiration, a mentor and a friend. The very last thing he said to me when I saw him in December 1998 was ‘I’m proud of you.’ I have never forgotten Leon, and I visit his gravesite almost every time I visit Martha’s Vineyard.”
Born and raised during the Great Depression and the Jim Crow era, Judge Higginbotham persevered by living a life of resilience in the face of racism, with determination to always do what is right and a deep commitment to defending the weak, poor, disadvantaged and powerless through the law.
Read Judge Higginbotham’s “The Dream With Its Back Against the Wall” speech.