Connie Rice Prominent Civil Rights Attorney and Co-Founder/Co-Director of the Advancement Project
Connie had always believed her destiny was to become a litigator for the District Court, but her life-path suddenly changed when a law professor refused to write a letter of recommendation saying that she was not good enough for the Court of Appeals.
I have known women like my grandmother and aunt, who before they died, told me with tears in their eyes that I had given them so much happiness because I did what they had never been able to do. They loved watching me live life on my terms and regretted never having the opportunity to claim their destiny. These older women said they enjoyed living vicariously through the accomplishments of younger women like me.
I was in the eleventh grade when I heard African-American congresswoman, Barbara Jordan’s impassioned speech during the Nixon impeachment hearings prompted by the Watergate scandal in 1974. Absolutely mesmerized by this courageous woman’s power to marshal the history of the country and command the attention of the congressional room, I listened in awe:
Earlier today, we heard the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. “We, the people.” It is a very eloquent beginning. But when that document was created on the 17th of September 1787, I was not included … I felt … left out by mistake. But through the power of amendment, interpretation, and court decisions, I have been included in, “We, the people.” … I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.
By the time the hearings were over, I was transformed into a budding civil rights activist. I had claimed my destiny! It didn’t matter that no one else in my family had ever gone to law school before. At the age of seventeen, I knew what I wanted to do with my life—become one of the top civil rights attorney’s in the country and fight for underserved, poor, and minority populations.
When I started law school on a scholarship, it was required that I work thirty hours a week. Swept up in working on projects in poverty law and civil rights around the country, I actually worked sixty to eighty hours a week. As a result, I wasn’t aware of all the ins and outs of graduating law school, and I underestimated the importance of getting a clerkship after I finished.
I also didn’t understand that getting a clerkship is an extremely competitive process. But I did learn that that I would need an outstanding recommendation from a professor. So I chose one whom I thought knew me well and had seen first-hand how hard I worked and how well I performed under pressure.
A great debater and fascinated by trials, I always dreamed of becoming a litigator. I felt confident that I could be very persuasive in front of a jury. When I asked my professor for a letter of recommendation, he said, “Of course, I will write you a letter. But it will only be for the District Court. You’re good, but not good enough for the Court of Appeals.” I just looked at him and said, “Why did you have to tell me that? Now I can only apply to the Court of Appeals!”
I always thought my destiny was to be a litigator for the District Court, but in one moment everything changed. Because my professor said that I wasn’t qualified for the Court of Appeals, I had to prove that I was qualified. It became absolutely imperative to stand up for my own ability and show that he was wrong.
My first interview with a Court of Appeals circuit judge was with an amazing man who was truly a legend in his time. We talked about everything, but what I appreciated most was his sharp intellect and feeling that he was comfortable dealing with smart, independent women. After an hour, I knew that we were meant to work together. So I said, “You need to hire me now. You know that I am the right clerk for you.” He looked at me in total surprise! But I got the job.
In retrospect, my pride in having to show my professor that he was wrong paid off by forcing me to raise the bar. Landing that clerkship, I earned a credential that catapulted me to the top of my profession. I also learned that as you rise in power, you don’t have to lose empathy or compassion. Real leaders become even more understanding and caring about the people they are privileged to serve.
My clerkship lasted for two years. It was an honor when the judge asked me to stay on for life, a rare opportunity in law. But if I wanted to become one of the top civil rights attorneys in the country, I couldn’t play it safe. I needed to take a risk, move on and get out in the world. “Thank you for everything,” I said to my brilliant mentor, “but I can’t accept your offer. I have a destiny to claim.”
I have never forgotten the many brave women who paved the way for my success. They were the ones who opened the doors for me to walk through. I have chosen a life of risk, but today, thanks to their courage, that is okay. I am fortunate to have been born in this country during a time when women have the opportunity to soar.
Love yourself enough to find your passion. Claim your destiny, whatever it might be, and do what truly matters to you.
Connie Rice is a prominent civil rights activist and attorney and co-founder/co-director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles. She has received over 50 major awards for her work in expanding opportunity and advancing multi-racial democracy. Connie has been named one of California’s Top 10 most influential lawyers. She is the author of “POWER CONCEDES NOTHING: One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America, from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones.”