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Morris lecturer to students: 'Be the best lawyer you can be'

November 15, 2012

By taking seriously his responsibility to promoting diversity, President Barack Obama has increased the number of federal judges of color, and appointed African Americans as U.S. Attorney General and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, a College of Law audience was told, Nov. 13.

“Personal responsibility is getting yourself in a position where you can impact diversity,” Lonnie J. Williams Jr. said during the 13th annual John P. Morris Memorial Lecture, presented by the College of Law and the John P. Morris Black Law Students Association. “That’s the future of diversity, and I think you see that at all levels.”

The title of Williams’ lecture was “What is your personal responsibility in addressing the challenges of diversity in our multicultural society?”

Williams, a partner at Stinson Morrison Hecker in Phoenix, expressed disappointment that, with the exception of large corporations that have promoted minority lawyers to general counsel, little has been done to advance people of color in the field of law. “The legal profession needs to mirror society and have representation in all areas – women, minorities, the disabled,” said Williams, noting that progress at universities has been mixed as well.

The son of parents who did not finish high school, Williams excelled at the University of Arizona and at Yale Law School, and he met John P. Morris upon moving to Phoenix.

“He was a tremendous mentor, someone you could talk to, ask questions of, someone who always made it known he was a part of ASU,” Williams said.

Morris experienced discrimination from a young age, but he persevered and performed well at law school and, after practicing law for a time, he came to Arizona State University in 1968 as a founding faculty member of its new law school. He taught until 1993, counseling students throughout ASU and working tirelessly to foster diversity.

In his own quest to even the playing field, Williams has shattered various barriers, having been the first African American to be named partner at a law firm in Phoenix, the president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents and president of the Maricopa County Bar Association. More must be done, he noted.

“I suggest you deal with it (discrimination) by remembering the words of Martin Luther King Jr.,” Williams said, reading part of his October 1967 speech to junior high school students in Philadelphia:

“When you discover what you will be in your life, set out to do it as if God Almighty called you at this particular moment in history to do it. Don’t just set out to do a good job. Set out to do such a good job that the living, the dead or the unborn couldn't do it any better.

“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well. If you can't be a pine at the top of the hill, be a shrub in the valley.”

Williams encouraged students to work harder, mastering legal rules and the written word, discover their passion, and create unique value for their clients.

“You need to pick the area that matches your traits and do it,” he said. “Put in the time, because you have to be in a position where only one person controls your career, and that’s you.”

Earlier in the program, professor and dean emeritus Alan Matheson, a close friend and longtime colleague of Morris’, recalled that the professor mentored ASU law and undergraduate students alike, and never turned anyone away, even when lines of them stretched from his office door.

“He suffered racial discrimination most of his life, and he spent his life moving beyond that, making sure every person in this country had the rights to which they were entitled,” Matheson said. “He was not bitter, he was not a person who held a grudge. He simply went about in a quiet way, helping other people.”