Rhonda Cunningham Holmes '97Where has your career path taken you?
After law school, I worked for five years on complex commercial litigation cases at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, until I decided that I didn’t really have a passion for corporate litigation. Since I had an M.B.A. I decided to shift my focus to business-related work, so I secured a position as a Vice President at Chevy Chase Bank, where I created and managed a new business group within the commercial banking division. After about four years there, I realized I wanted to also utilize my legal skills. Consequently, after an extended search, I identified an ideal position that had the added benefit of allowing me to work in the public interest realm, and I joined the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs as Deputy Director.
When I accepted the position at the Committee, I was already familiar with the work done there because I had been a firm representative to the Committee when I worked at Morgan Lewis. After learning about new cases while at Committee meetings, I was the one responsible for bringing that information back to my firm to determine if any of our attorneys were interested in pursuing those matters.
What does the Committee do?
At the Committee we focus on the following legal areas: EEO, disability, housing, immigrant and refugee rights, prisoners’ rights, and public accommodations. We also have a program with the D.C. public schools. What attracted me to the position at the Committee was its dual focus on business management and legal skills. I oversee all of the Committee’s administrative and financial operations, but I am also involved with new case development and placing those cases with firms.
The Committee conducts the initial intake to determine if there is a viable legal claim. If so, the Committee then partners with a firm that handles the case, at no cost to the client, though the Committee remains active and participates in such aspects as case development, litigation strategy, mediation, and negotiation. We interface with more than 100 different law firms that collectively contribute more than 50,000 hours annually.
The Committee gives young attorneys great experience—taking depositions, interviewing experts, working up a case—while at the same time providing them with the opportunity to correct injustices that might not otherwise have been pursued. The Committee generally focuses on impact litigation, where making new law is a possible outcome and a large legal team is a necessity.
Have there been any challenges in your work as a lawyer?
One challenge I had after law school graduation was how to pursue my dedication to public interest law while working at a large corporate law firm. I addressed that challenge by maintaining an active pro bono caseload, primarily involving family law and landlord/tenant issues. I handled one case involving a woman who was being abused by her husband, who was also the father of her children. My work on the case allowed her to eventually file for divorce and leave that situation. I helped another client gain additional financial support for her children, in part by demonstrating her role as the primary parent. These are the types of cases that all attorneys, regardless of the area of law in which they practice, can manage. And the results make a significant difference in the lives of the clients.
Another way that I engaged in public service work before joining the Committee was by serving for three years on the Legal Aid Society’s board while working at Chevy Chase Bank. In fact, getting the Bank to serve on the board expanded the company’s breadth of community involvement and supported the board’s initiative to broaden support for the Legal Aid Society to entities beyond law firms.
The primary impact of the Stein Scholars Program?
I went to law school with an interest in public interest law, but also in ethics. The Stein Scholars Program opened my eyes to some of the ethical challenges in the practice of law. Now that I am working in the world of civil rights, I see nuanced ethical dilemmas more frequently than while I was at a corporate law firm. My background has allowed me to work through these issues with fellow attorneys by providing me with tools and knowledge upon which to draw.
The Stein Scholars Program also solidified my public interest commitment. It provided me with an opportunity to gain training. It also prepared me to be able to see difficulties affecting various communities and the skills to be able to address those issues.
Any advice for current Stein Scholars?
One thing I wished I had done while at Fordham Law was taken a clinic because clinics provide terrific practical experience. I also think it is important for students to spend as much time as possible writing, as that is such an integral part to being a good lawyer. I also encourage Steins to take advantage of being in an educational environment with so many great professors. Because of the nature of the Program, Steins are in a unique position to really get to know some amazing professors. Take as much advantage of this as possible beyond the classroom: work on projects and articles with faculty, have conversations about shared interests in social settings, and seek out mentors.
Finally, even if you don’t immediately start your career as a public interest lawyer, there will always be opportunities to allow you to circle back to that foundation. Moreover, there are numerous ways to give back, including pro bono work, serving on boards, and assisting and mentoring law students who have an interest in public interest law. Always keep your eyes open for opportunities to make a difference and help promote access to justice.