Photo: Vincent Keith
In his 35 years as an attorney, Walter H. White Jr., a State Bar of Wisconsin member, essentially has had two careers in one. He’s a successful international business and finance lawyer, now practicing out of the London office of McGuireWoods. He’s also a dedicated human rights advocate through his participation in the American Bar Association’s Section on Individual Rights and Responsibilities (IRR).
In recognition of his volunteer efforts, the IRR Section recently presented White with the Robert F. Drinan Award for Distinguished Service for “providing leadership to the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties, and social justice.”
The roots of the motivation to pursue these ideals can be traced back to White’s childhood in Milwaukee.
“I did not grow up respecting the ‘rule of law,’” White stated in his award acceptance speech at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Houston in February. “I grew up respecting the lawyers who changed the law to make it more just.”
The perspective formed in his early years was not a matter of “despising the law,” White said in a recent phone conversation. “It was recognizing that the law was fundamentally flawed and needed to be repaired in order to move closer toward what most people want America to be. Recognizing the injustices in America is not a rejection of America.”
He grew up amid those injustices. He heard his grandfather tell his story about going to vote in Indiana and facing a reading test, in English. He sailed through that, so the voting officials asked him to translate something written in French.
He didn’t know French, but his Latin was good enough (he graduated from Amherst College in 1920, did graduate work at Harvard, and eventually taught mathematics at Yale) to allow him to grasp the meaning.
His examiners then stumped him with a text in Chinese. White’s grandfather was turned away, deemed unfit to vote.
Decades later, in the mid-1960s, before the existence of equal-housing laws, White’s parents decided to move the family from Milwaukee to Mequon so their children could attend better schools. Because of hateful threats from a few neighbors, White’s father kept an M-16 hidden in the closet, in case he needed it to protect his family.
Recognizing the injustices in America is not a rejection of America.
Still, White had ample positive childhood experiences, too. He says he was a happy kid growing up in Milwaukee. And after the move to Mequon, he made new friends and got excellent educational opportunities in the public schools there.
While he was well aware of prejudice as he grew up, he also was surrounded by people who were striving for positive change. His grandparents had fought to end school segregation. His parents were active in the NAACP and the Milwaukee Urban League, and they introduced their son to Thurgood Marshall, Fannie Lou Hamer, Benjamin Mays, and other civil rights leaders of the day.
When White was 6 years old, he got the chance to meet Martin Luther King Jr., backstage at a dinner event where King was the main speaker. “He sat me on his lap,” White recalls, “while he was talking to the (then) Milwaukee Journal.”
All these experiences influenced White’s view of what his life should be about. “I accepted that it was my responsibility to make things better,” he says.
Shaping a Career
By age 10, White had serious thoughts about someday becoming a lawyer, fortified by reading about influential attorneys. In high school, he took part in a program at Foley & Lardner in Milwaukee in which teenagers gathered regularly at the firm to discuss cases and legal concepts. And he worked as a messenger at Foley one summer during high school.
Does Walter White’s story inspire you? Hear Alabama public interest lawyer and New York Times best-selling author of “Just Mercy,” Bryan Stevenson’s opening plenary session at the State Bar Annual Meeting & Conference, June 25, in Lake Geneva.
Register at amc.wisbar.org.
Also while in high school, he opted to study Russian instead of the more common foreign language choices of Spanish, French, or German. Little did he know where that decision would lead.
White further honed his Russian speaking skills in Finland thanks to a high school exchange program. Later, while earning an undergraduate degree in Russian and political science at Amherst College, he went to the Soviet Union twice on study-abroad programs.
He got his J.D. in 1980 at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, where he developed a strong interest in international law. He then returned to Milwaukee to work at Michael Best & Friedrich, becoming the firm’s first African-American attorney.
The ensuing years brought additional career moves. He served as Wisconsin’s Commissioner of Securities in the late 1980s; returned to private practice at Quarles & Brady, where he became a partner; and then was recruited by Steptoe & Johnson in Washington, D.C., to head up its international division. The firm sent him, along with his wife and young son, to Moscow. White worked out of the firm’s Moscow office from 1994 to 1999.
After a couple of additional career steps, White ended up in his current position at McGuireWoods in London, where he’s lived for 18 years. He’s a partner at the firm and leads its emerging markets transactions practice, in which he’s served clients in Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia, Africa, and around North America. And he still has clients in his home state of Wisconsin, as well.
All along in his career, White has been active in bar groups, in keeping with that long-ago commitment to work to “make things better.”
“Being active in bar associations,” he says, “is part of the holistic approach to seeking to improve the law.”
A Friendly Push
White’s active involvement in various bar associations started soon after his law career began. He remembers getting a call early on, while he was at Michael Best & Friedrich, from Quarles & Brady’s John Daniels, encouraging him to join a Milwaukee Young Lawyers Association committee.
That phone call wasn’t just a nudge. “It was a push,” White says with a laugh. “I wasn’t about to say ‘no’ to one of the few partners of color in the state” at that time.
Things took off from there. He eventually was elected president of the Milwaukee Young Lawyers, and he became active in the State Bar and the ABA. Among his many State Bar activities, White has been active in the International Practice and Civil Rights & Liberties sections; served on the Board of Governors; and is a Fellow of the Wisconsin Law Foundation.
In the mid-1980s he served on the ABA’s newly formed Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession. He continues to view diversity as a vital issue for the legal profession.
For the law to be fair, he says, it must benefit from the perspectives of all people in our society. “Solutions come from people who truly understand the problems,” he says.
That applies inside law firms, as well. “I don’t believe any law firm in today’s world can function at its optimum unless it has diversity,” he says. “It’s difficult for me to believe you can make decisions about people’s lives without the perspectives of women and people from diverse cultures, ethnicities, and religions.”
But there’s another side to the diversity question, in White’s view. The legal profession must face up to the darker side of its own history. The ABA used to exclude women and minorities from its ranks.
“We have to confront the fact that our profession is not nondiverse because of benign neglect,” White explains. “It happened intentionally. So the profession has the responsibility to reach out and remedy this extraordinary tradition that not only undermines its raison d’etre, but also inhibits the profession from properly representing all people.”
Over the years, White’s ABA involvement continued to expand. He became chair of the ABA Young Lawyers Division and later the Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section. The latter focuses on “the full gamut of human rights issues,” White explains, including discrimination based on gender, race, or sexual orientation; educational rights for people with disabilities; the death penalty; detainees at Guantanamo Bay; and more.
During his tenure as its chair, the Young Lawyers Division worked with the IRR Section to launch an exchange program with Soviet lawyers and judges. This was part of the U.S. effort to support glasnost and perestroika under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
“We made several trips to the Soviet Union with a focus on human rights and economic development,” White says. He also led a delegation in 1990 to observe the first elections ever in Soviet Georgia.
In these and other expeditions, White’s Russian skills came in handy. “My interest in Russian,” he says, “and my years of study made it possible for me to relate to my peers in the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation. I received respect and built trust because I knew something about their culture, history, and literature. Language was just a part of it.”
He came to be well known, abroad and at home, as a representative of the ABA and the American legal profession. As the ABA press release about White’s winning of the Drinan Award states: “He has worked on almost every major resolution that IRR has proposed since the 1990s.”
Plus, he’s been able to see history in the making. A few examples: He watched the excitement of the Georgians as they streamed to the polls in October 1990 in the first multi-party election on Soviet soil, and he wrote a book about it. He was in Moscow when the coup d’etat against Gorbachev failed in 1991. A few months later, he was in the Kremlin when the Soviet flag was replaced with that of the Russian Federation.
“There were many moving moments,” he says. “I had the privilege of witnessing a once-in-a-century, perhaps a once-in-a-millennium, transition.”
The reputation White gained through such experiences led to a presidential appointment. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed White to the board of the Central Asian American Enterprise Fund, a U.S. government-sponsored fund for developing entrepreneurship and private businesses in the five countries of Central Asia. White served on the board for seven years.
More Work to Do
These days White remains an active member of the IRR Section, for which he’s now a special counselor — a sort of advisor emeritus, he explains. He continues to keep a watchful eye on human rights and social justice developments, including back in his home country.
“In many ways, we’ve come so far,” he says. “But the backlash is still very significant. I’m constantly appalled by the extent to which people will go to justify discrimination.”
Dianne Molvig is a frequent contributor to area and national publications.
He need only think of his grandfather, and many more like him, to feel personal disappointment about states instituting new restrictions on voting after the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, weakened the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
He points to such occurrences as the recent effort in Indiana to allow businesses to refuse to serve gay customers. White sees it as an attempt “to restructure the law to facilitate discrimination under the guise of religious freedom.” Then there’s the potential rejection of open-housing laws in Texas Department of Housing v. Inclusive Communities Project.
Our society, White says, is becoming more and more divided by differences in perspectives.
“A substantial part of American leadership today believes that America as a society is a zero-sum game,” White says. “But justice is not a zero-sum-game concept. Providing some people with rights and liberties does not mean you are taking rights and liberties away from someone else.”
Indeed, there’s much left to do to advance human rights everywhere. When White is asked what’s next for him, he laughs and responds, “I’m not finished yet. There are still many issues that need to be addressed.”