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Vernon Jordan Broke Barriers as Corporate and Civil Rights Icon

March 3, 2021, 12:08 AM

Vernon Jordan, a civil rights pioneer and power broker, played a trailblazing role in opening up the doors of the corporate and legal world, a legacy Black attorneys said they would build on, following his death Monday.

“Many of us have and will continue to take that torch and break down barriers and glass ceilings, because we had a Vernon Jordan who showed us that we could,” said CK Hoffler, president of the National Bar Association, the nation’s oldest organization of black lawyers. “Now, we take the lessons that he taught us and forge ahead to become the Vernon Jordans for the next generation.”

Jordan, who started his career as a civil rights advocate and became a trusted adviser to President Bill Clinton and a fixture on corporate America’s boards, died at the age of 85. Black lawyers said his legacy went far beyond the corporate boardroom or the White House, praising the personal impact he made on those who met him.

An Example of Excellence

Jordan graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1960. Over the years, he maintained strong ties to his alma mater, inspiring young Black attorneys to serve their communities, while always being ‘excellent,’, said Danielle Holley-Walker, dean of Howard University School of Law.

“Vernon Jordan was a symbol of the fact that we could succeed everywhere from civil rights law, all the way to being a counselor to presidents of the United States. Rising Black lawyers can continue his legacy by being excellent in everything that they do,” said Holley-Walker. “And remain deeply committed to advocacy for racial justice, like he was.”

“We hear the saying ‘I’m the first, but I won’t be the last’ and, to me, that was what his entire life was really about. And he instilled that into Howard law students and law students across the nation,” she added.

A Corporate and Civil Rights Pioneer

Jordan first made his mark on the civil rights movement as a top official for many organizations including the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund. He would later become the executive president of the National Urban League, where he fought for equal rights for Black Americans in jobs, voting rights, and education.

Jordan would move to Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer and Feld LLP in 1981, where he served as a senior managing director and partner for more than three decades. During his time at Akin Gump, Jordan would co-chair former President Bill Clinton’s transition team in 1992 as a longtime adviser to the Clinton family. Jordan would also serve on the boards of many prominent companies, including American Express Co., Xerox Corp., Revlon Inc. and Lazard.

“He actually went into Corporate America, compared to others who, you know, either remained in private practice or government or the judiciary and things like that,” said Jean Lee of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association.

“He really just stood out to me because he was not only doing the work of many civil rights icons, like John Lewis, and Justice [Thurgood] Marshall and Dr. [Martin Luther] King,” Lee added. “But somewhere in the 80s, he realized as Black Americans and Black lawyers became more prominent, there needed to be more economic power.”

Jordan was also a co-founder of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a public policy think tank in Washington D.C.

“As Black communities moved from activism to governance, from political representation to economic influence, and from operating outside of power structures to navigating the corridors of power in ways that advance Black communities, Vernon Jordan was at the forefront,” said Spencer Overton, president of the Joint Center.

“Thanks to his vision and that of our other founders, the Joint Center exists today.”

A Personal Mentor

Tony Pierce, partner in charge of Akin Gump’s Washington, D.C. office, saw Jordan as a mentor. He said the civil rights giant was invaluable, not only to the firm but to him personally.

“From the day I saw Vernon in the firm in September 1985, when I was interviewing for my summer associate position, he has been one of my main mentors and advisers not just on a professional level, but also on a personal level,” Pierce said.

“I can’t think of anyone that has had a big impact on my understanding of how to advise clients in a meaningful way and in a business-like way than Vernon, because he would put all the intricacies of the law aside and made sure the client understood the impact of the legal issue on their business. It was something he excelled at and I learned from his example.”

Pierce said the best way for Black attorneys to honor Jordan’s legacy is by being mentors to up-and-coming lawyers as Jordan had been to him.

“One of the main things myself and other attorneys in my generation can do is continue his legacy of mentoring to ensure their success and personal growth,” Pierce said.

“If we just did that, we would certainly honor his legacy.”

— with assistance from Ruiqi Chen

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Lisa Helem at lhelem@bloombergindustry.com

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