Ben Wilson, affectionately regarded as the dean of Black partners at major law firms, announced Friday that he would step down from his role as chairman at Beveridge & Diamond, effective January 2022.
His retirement caps a distinguished career that saw him start the African American Managing Partners Network and the Diverse Partners Network, oversee landmark environmental cases, and mentor generations of young Black lawyers and law students.
“He’s a consummate gentleman, a professional, and someone who cares deeply about the development of minority attorneys, particularly African American attorneys,” said Ron Machen, co-chair of WilmerHale’s white-collar practice and former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
Wilson spent a career going out of his way to promote attorneys from diverse backgrounds and creating opportunities for them to succeed, said Machen, who is a longtime friend of Wilson and a member of the networks.
“You actually gain confidence in yourself because he has so much confidence in you. He’s just beloved and he’s going to be sorely missed.”
In addition to being one of a very small number of Black attorneys at the helm of an Am Law 100 firm, Wilson is unique in his integrity and relentlessness in pursuing diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession, said Fred Nance, global managing partner at Squire Patton Boggs.
“There’s no one quite like Ben,” Nance said. “He’s been a fearless, dynamic leader and an inspiration to me personally well before the ‘Summer of George Floyd’ when it was easy to be discouraged by the sluggish pace of substantive progress. Every lawyer of color in America is the better for Ben having been among us. “
Wilson’s impact can also be found in his mentorship and guidance to less experienced attorneys, said Michele Coleman Mayes, general counsel at the New York Public Library.
“Ben exemplifies what is meant by a servant leader,” Mayes said.
“I have no doubt that he has made sure there will be opportunities for others to follow. He has left standards to us to uphold as he carved an unforgettable mark on the legal profession.”
Lifting As He Climbed
Wilson founded the Diverse Partners Network in 2008, and the African American Managing Partners Network in 2009. The organizations started in Washington, D.C., but with Wilson’s help quickly expanded.
A. Scott Bolden, the managing partner of the D.C. office of Reed Smith, said Wilson’s relationships, credibility, and energy allowed him to do something that had never been done before—organizing Black partners at major law firms to communicate, connect, and do business together.
“He’s had a huge impact. Not just on Black partners, but on all partners of color in Big Law,” said Bolden, who was one of the earliest members of the network. “It was an idea whose time had come, and he knew that.”
“In this rough and tumble world of Big Law, and the competition for business, and a shrinking pie of business, Ben Wilson never saw it like that,” Bolden said.
“He saw it as - we’re going to share business, spread business, and we’re going to all eat, and get bigger, better, and brighter, because of our collective expertise and our collective organization.”
Wilson said he will continue his work with the Diverse Partners Network—soon to be the Diverse Lawyers Network—following his retirement in January. That will include the network’s accompanying newsletter, which goes out to over 6,000 lawyers around the country and includes live legal job postings, upcoming events, and the professional victories of network members.
“If someone wins a case or gets a promotion, I want someone other than their mother to know about it,” Wilson said.
Beveridge & Diamond will continue to support the network’s efforts, though Wilson said he isn’t staying on at the firm in any capacity.
A Storied Career
Wilson, who graduated from Harvard Law in 1976 and started his career at King & Spalding the same year, said he was drawn to environmental law because “we aren’t trying to beat the other side—we’re trying to solve a problem, trying to make sure the water and air and the earth are protected.”
In 1979, Wilson joined the U.S. Department of Justice, which is where he says he learned how to try and argue cases.
“It’s a remarkable thing when you can go into a court and say you represent the United States,” Wilson said. “And it’s a great responsibility, because your goal is to do justice.”
While at the Justice Department Wilson argued before the Federal Circuit, the United States Court of Claims, and federal district courts around the country.
Wilson joined Beveridge & Diamond as the firm’s first Black partner in 1986.
In 2017, Wilson was named chairman of Beveridge & Diamond in Washington, D.C., following nine years as managing partner.
Wilson points to two recent cases as some of the most important in his career. He served as a court-appointed monitor in the Duke Energy coal ash spill remediation project and as Deputy Monitor for Emissions & Environmental in the Volkswagen AG emissions proceedings.
But his legacy at Beveridge & Diamond goes well beyond landmark cases.
“Ben is the most selfless, tireless advocate for young lawyers of color that I’ve ever met,” said Stacey Halliday, a principal at Beveridge & Diamond and a mentee of Wilson. “He’s the beating heart of our practice. He’s the reason we’re so passionate about what we do.”
“Ben signs off almost every email to the firm with ‘together we can do great things,’” Halliday said. “It’s that reminder that we’re all in this together, that we’re a team. He’s the consummate football coach; always keeps our heads in the games and keeps our spirits high. And that will be sorely missed.”
A Teacher, a Coach and a Historian
“Ben is one of the most genuine and selfless individuals I’ve ever met in my professional life and in my personal life as well,” said Julius Redd, another Beveridge & Diamond principal and Wilson mentee.
“He genuinely cares about the individuals with whom he works, and he works tirelessly to ensure that the next generation of Black and Brown attorneys have a chance to succeed in this profession.”
Yolanda Young, Executive Director at Lawyers of Color, a social justice organization focused on the legal community, who considers Wilson a mentor, said Wilson kept both his childhood and his family at the center of his life.
“Ben has always been centered not only on diversity but on social justice. The mentors he had in his father and grandfather, the experiences he had growing up in Mississippi, he never forgot that.”
And Wilson’s focus on his wife, Merinda, who was Sidley Austin’s first Black woman partner, and family set an example for attorneys too, said Young. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say how much his personal and family life—the wonderful love story that is he and his wife, the way he keeps them at the center of who he is—is a model for other attorneys. It’s often so difficult for us to maintain that balance. It’s wonderful to have that example.”
Brandon Harrell, deputy general counsel for the 2028 Olympic Games, said Wilson’s impact stretches beyond the legal field. Harrell said he met Wilson while he was still in law school, and Wilson offered him an opportunity at Beveridge & Diamond when he graduated.
“I learned how to balance not just the legal profession, but how to be a husband and a father and manage a career,” Harrell said. “How to do it in a graceful manner, and how to carry yourself.”
Wilson, for his part, said the most impactful decision he’s ever made was asking his wife—whom he met at Harvard—to marry him.
“When things didn’t work out, she would say ‘next time.’ When I wanted to quit she would say ‘not yet.’ Everything starts with her,” Wilson said.
Bolden said Wilson’s knowledge of history and love of storytelling set him apart and made an immense impact.
“He speaks often and eloquently about the history of this country, and in particular African American history,” Bolden said. “Whenever I hear Ben Wilson speak, publicly or privately, I always learn something. I always learn a bit about the history of my people, and about the impact and the importance of being a lawyer that happens to be Black.”
“I win or lose, not based on the color of my skin, but the content of my character, and my preparation, and my expertise. And Ben Wilson taught me that.”
Bolden said Wilson will always be “a servant to the human civil rights movement.”
“There’s something else that’s waiting for Ben Wilson to do, given his talent and his commitment to our community, and to people of color, and to DEI. He may not know what it is yet. I don’t know what it is yet. But there’s something else. There are some people that life’s circumstances and the Lord don’t allow for retirement. He’s one of those people.”
Hopes for the Legal Profession
Wilson said he’s leaving active practice with immense pride in the legal industry and hope for the future. He’ll continue to serve on several corporate and nonprofit boards, including Northwestern Mutual, PG&E Corporation, the Environmental Law Institute, and the District of Columbia Bar Foundation.
“These are tumultuous times, but I am heartened,” Wilson said.
“I am, quite frankly, inspired by the example of this next generation of lawyers,” Wilson said. He said he was encouraged by their example following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
“Over 50 law firms worked together to defend demonstrators in Lafayette Square. I know associates who raise money for social justice organizations, who take on cases representing immigrants. And what’s exciting is that these are freshly minted, up-and-coming young attorneys. To hear those voices speaking up is encouraging.”
Wilson pointed to lawyers he has mentored, including Redd and Halliday as the reason he’s not worried about the trajectory of the industry in his absence.
“I would rest my case on the work that they’ve done, and hope that I in some small way helped them,” he said. “The legal profession means everything to me, other than my family, there’s little that has been more important in my life.”
But there’s still work to be done in the legal field, Wilson said.
“The legal profession needs to live up to what it says it is—that we are fair, that we are just, and that we’re going to make sure people have a meaningful opportunity not only to be recruited, but that they’ll get meaningful work when they’re there, and can share in the credit for bringing new work.”
A Mentor to Many
“Ben’s impact has been multi-layered,” said Young. “I’m sure there are hundreds of young lawyers who attribute some significant part of their professional development directly to Ben, from students he’s taught to associates he’s mentored.”
Young said she’s confident Wilson has prepared many Black attorneys to take his place when he steps out. “He could easily stay in his role another ten years. He’s vivacious, energetic, and sharp as a tack. He doesn’t need to step away now, but he wants to make that space.”
Jean Lee, President and CEO of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, said Wilson’s impact on the organization, whose mission is to advance diverse attorneys, has been immense.
When Lee became CEO of MCCA in 2016, Wilson took her out to lunch in Washington, D.C., and asked her what he could do to help her be successful in the role. “At the time, he was one of the few people who actually reached out, and wanted to offer himself,” Lee said.
His advice was to always be kind, even when people aren’t kind back, to “stay true to yourself” and to “always turn the other cheek,” Lee said. “If you’re being truthful and honest, eventually they’ll understand who you are.”
The future of the legal profession is incredibly important to Wilson, Harrell said. Wilson “changed the game in so many ways” and opened many doors.
“In my eyes, Ben Wilson is the Michael Jordan of the legal profession,” said Harrell, the deputy general counsel of the 2028 Olympic Games. “He’s set the bar so high.”
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for Ben,” Harrell said. “And I think that applies not only to me, but to thousands of attorneys out there.”
Wilson’s retirement is a celebration of his legacy and a celebration of “passing the torch” to the next generation, Harrell said.
“I think that’s what Ben would want from us...to continue to pay it forward and to open doors for others. We know we can do it, and we have that mindset because of Ben, because of what he achieved, and he’s put us in a position to achieve that too.”
“If I could say one thing to Ben, it would be ‘thank you.’”
Lisa Helem contributed to this report.