Another Journey to Justice
Chambord Benton-Hayes’ path started with meeting Johnnie Cochran
Published in 2022 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine on July 5, 2022
Chambord Benton-Hayes was 11 when she read Johnnie Cochran’s Journey to Justice, and she had questions. So she went to an Oakland bookstore to ask the author himself.
It was 1995, and Cochran was arguably the most famous—and most quoted—attorney in the world, having just won a not-guilty verdict for O.J. Simpson after an 11-month murder trial.
Benton-Hayes was first in line, the book clutched in her hand, her questions memorized. And then there he was.
“I asked if the justice system was ever going to be fair for people without money,” Benton-Hayes, now 36, recalls. “I asked if he ever lost a case, and what he did when he lost.”
She remembers his answers, too. Losing, Cochran told her, was part of the practice of law and it only spurred him to do better next time. And if she thought the system was unfair, he said she should be the change she wanted to see. Benton-Hayes remembers his kindness and booming laugh. “He said, ‘You’re going to be an amazing litigator one day,’” Benton-Hayes says. “I smiled, but I didn’t know what a ‘litigator’ was.”
Benton-Hayes grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, raised by an aunt and uncle after the death of her parents. Reading, and then meeting, Cochran was life-changing. She and her aunt soon began looking into law schools. In high school, Benton-Hayes shed her shyness by speaking in public as often as possible. As a college freshman, she advised professors that she’d one day ask them for recommendation letters for law school.
Her first case after joining a Sacramento civil firm in 2013 centered on a city employee who claimed she was forced to quit her job due a hostile work environment. Benton-Hayes’ firm represented the defendant, a municipal water agency. The trial lasted more than a month. Benton-Hayes lost 10 pounds and her suits hung off her in court.
She loved it.
“It was an exhausting daily battle,” she says. “It was also exhilarating to win.”
That case sold her on employment work.
“It’s about storytelling, creating a cast of characters, and being able to explain to a judge or jury what happened in a workplace,” she says. “These cases impact people’s daily lives and how businesses are run. They’re never boring.”
In one case, she asked an employee about his rest and meal breaks, “and he decided to tell me he was having an affair.” Or the time when Benton-Hayes’ interviewee in a deposition began sweating heavily not long after she asked his name and title.
“Within 15 minutes, his shirt was drenched,” she recalls. “You didn’t have to be a body language expert to know he had something to hide.”
After years with the defense, she changed her focus in 2021—she now spearheads a fast-growing solo plaintiff’s employment law practice. She opened Benton Employment Law after she felt “a call to action” to address inequality after the murder of George Floyd. She believed her understanding of how companies work and her C-suite experience would benefit plaintiffs.
“I realized that my skill set would be helpful to certain demographics within the community that need strong representation,” she says. “My clients often feel like they don’t have a voice. My role as a litigator is to understand their complaints, their legal rights and to tell their story in a way they feel seen and heard.”
She believes empathy is one of her greatest strengths, and notes her defense experience gives added insight.
“I know how companies work, so I can usually sniff out where the bodies may be buried or know when someone’s settling a case because there’s another issue they don’t want exposed,” she says.
During her defense days, Benton-Hayes counseled global corporations. While her current client list isn’t always as flashy—though she does represent CEOs and VPs—it feels more critical to her.
She’s currently representing a transgender worker whose company ultimately withdrew an employment contract because of an argument over pronouns. Her client lost the medical benefits necessary to complete their transition and became temporarily homeless.
It’s an important case, Benton-Hayes says, and perhaps the first to center on an individual’s choice to define how they are identified.
“That’s how you acknowledge someone’s humanity,” she says.