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Editor’s Note: This is the latest installment in a series of one-on-one interviews with leaders of corporate legal departments in the U.S. This month we spoke to David A. Green, who is General Counsel of the National Bar Association, the nation’s oldest and largest national network of predominantly African American attorneys, judges and law students. Mr. Green is Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University School of Law. The interview has been edited for brevity.
Q: Where were you born and raised?
A: I was born in New York City, and was one of five children. I was raised by a single mother, and we lived in a public housing project in the Bronx. I was always pretty focused on academics and excelled in school, so I was eventually invited to enroll in a program called “A Better Chance” that was designed to provide greater educational opportunities for students from low-income families. At the age of 15, I moved to Massachusetts and enrolled at a prestigious high school in Amherst.
Q: Tell us a little bit about what that experience was like and how it shaped your future.
A: Well, it was quite a culture shock at first. I went from living in a neighborhood in New York that consisted of African Americans and Latinos to a neighborhood in Massachusetts that was predominantly white. In fact, one Halloween some children arrived to trick-or-treat at the house where I was living and I was surprised to see they were all African Americans. As I looked onto the sidewalk behind them, I recognized the face of Camille Cosby, their mother and a local resident. Mrs. Cosby was a generous donor to Amherst’s “A Better Chance” program and brought her children to our house specifically to say hello to us. But my time there in Amherst really opened up tremendous opportunities for me. After the first two quarters, I made the honor roll every quarter and gained a lot of confidence in my ability to use education as a key to unlocking new doors.
Q: How did you decide where to attend college and law school?
A: Ah, that’s a much simpler story. As a teenager, I used to watch a lot of college basketball on TV and I always admired the Georgetown Hoyas because they had a legendary coach who was African American (John Thompson), and their team members were all people of color. One day, my high school guidance counselor met with me to review a list of elite colleges and universities where he thought I should apply, and I was shocked to see Georgetown on the list. I decided right then that, if I got accepted to Georgetown, that’s where I would go. Not only did I earn my undergraduate degree at Georgetown University, I also earned my law degree at Georgetown University Law Center.
Q: By the way, I understand there is a pretty cool story about the Hoyas basketball team and how life came full circle for you as a student.
A: Yes, after my first year, I was doing well in school academically, but was struggling financially. The director of minority student affairs told me about an opening for a student manager in the basketball program, which came with a significant scholarship grant that would cover the rest of my financial need. I interviewed for the job with none other than Coach John Thompson, and was hired. In addition to the financial help it provided, I became good friends with Coach Thompson and players such as Patrick Ewing, Horace Broadnax and Fred Brown. Several of those guys are close friends of mine to this day.
Q: What did your early career journey look like?
A: After law school, I really wanted to pursue a clerkship, so my first job was as a Law Clerk for U.S. District Court Judge John Garrett Penn in Washington, D.C. After two years there, I took a job as an Associate in the D.C. office of Kaye Scholer, a big New York-based law firm, but ultimately decided that private practice was not the path for me. My plan was to go into academia and be a law professor, so I landed a two-year teaching fellowship at Temple University’s law school and focused on my research and writing credentials.
Q: As it turned out, though, you were destined to gain some experience as a prosecutor first. How did that come about?
A: Around that time, President Clinton was in office and was actively trying to increase racial diversity in the Department of Justice. So in 1994, I was offered an amazing opportunity to serve as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Wilmington, Delaware, which I just could not refuse. I was the second African American to ever be appointed as AUSA in Delaware, and spent five terrific years in that job. I litigated an important case to increase racial equity in the hiring practices used by police departments in Delaware, secured a criminal indictment of prison corrections officials for violation of civil rights, and worked on several cases related to fair housing, disability rights and health care fraud. It was very rewarding work.
Q: Then in 1999, you landed that academic job you had wanted for so long.
A: Yes, I was eventually hired as a Professor of Law at North Carolina Central University School of Law, and it has been my privilege to teach a wide range of courses to our students here for 22 years. Along the way, I’ve also served in a variety of administrative positions as well—Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Chair of the UNC System Faculty Assembly, and even Assistant Dean for Admissions on an interim basis. We focus on serving students who are first-generation college graduates such as myself, which is something that is deeply meaningful to me. One of my highlights was being able to arrange for the first Supreme Court justice to visit a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) law school when Chief Justice Roberts presided over an in-school moot court competition in 2009. I’m also very proud of achieving an 86% bar passage rate during my time as Associate Dean.
Q: How did you become involved with the National Bar Association?
A: I’ve actually been a member of the NBA since I was a law student back in 1986, and I’ve been a longtime admirer of the organization’s work to represent the voices of African Americans in the legal profession. In fact, I volunteered on various committees and served as the Deputy General Counsel of the organization during the 2004 – 2005 bar year. Then in 2020, I was appointed by the NBA Board of Governors to serve as the General Counsel for the 2020 – 2021 bar year.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your role as the GC of a professional association.
A: Well, for starters, it is a strictly volunteer role—as are those of the seven Deputy General Counsel who serve the NBA underneath my supervision—so that can make it tough and demanding on personal schedules. But the truth is that we handle the same day-to-day legal work that any in-house legal department faces, from employment and HR stuff to contracts and legal disputes. Perhaps the one additional wrinkle is that we are a nonprofit organization, so a good deal of our time is spent working on legal issues related to fundraising and resource development.
Q: What are some of the key strategic priorities the NBA is tackling right now?
A: The NBA has a long history of leaning directly into the difficult social issues of the day, and the current moment is no exception. We are focused on what our president, Tricia “CK” Hoffler, has referred to as the Three Pandemics of 2021: COVID-19; Voter Suppression; and Police Reform. For example, the NBA conducts nonpartisan training exercises for corporate lawyers to educate registered voters about their voting rights, then staffs a hotline to answer questions from voters and direct them to more local information. President Hoffler created a task force made up of civil rights attorneys and a former police chief to provide recommendations and valuable insights related to police reform initiatives. These are the kinds of practical, on-the-ground programs that we think can make a meaningful difference in confronting some of the pressing social challenges of our times.
Q: In closing, do you have any thoughts about specific trends that in-house counsel should be monitoring in the months and years ahead?
A: There are two major themes that I think are going to become increasingly important for in-house counsel to address. First, we are witnessing a highly coordinated political movement in America to intentionally make it more difficult for citizens in certain states to cast a legal vote in elections. This is fundamental to who we are as a people and where we stand in the defense of democracy. Will corporate America stand up and speak out? What does corporate social responsibility require of companies in America, and will in-house counsel use their voices inside their boardrooms on this issue? Second, in spite of some hard work by well-meaning people, we continue to see a real challenge with building a pipeline of diverse attorneys working in corporate legal departments. What does it take for a young person of color to make themselves an attractive candidate for an in-house legal department job? What skills do we need to help them cultivate? These are difficult issues with no easy answers, but it’s incumbent on us to try to make the world around us more just tomorrow than it is today.