The Right Battles
How Sharonda Williams helped save the mayor and overhaul the NOLA police department
Published in 2021 Louisiana Super Lawyers magazine
on December 28, 2020
Updated on January 6, 2021
The suit had been hovering like a black cloud for 30 years, long before Sharonda Williams joined the legal team of New Orleans as city attorney. Firefighters were seeking back pay for uncompensated annual leave and longevity increases. A newer lawsuit involving underfunded pensions had further complicated matters for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who inherited the ongoing problems with no way to pay the more than $100 million judgment.
On a Friday afternoon in 2012, Williams found herself racing against the clock to save her new boss from house arrest. She’d been trying for months to defend the firefighter cases on the grounds that the city council had failed to appropriate the funds, thereby rendering them unconstitutional, but the appeals court had just denied her “separation of powers” argument. She scrambled for emergency relief from the Louisiana Supreme Court—which had already ruled against the city several times—seeking to prevent Landrieu’s 5 p.m. arrest at his home.
“It was terrible,” says Williams, 48, now special counsel at Fishman Haygood. “In spite of his support and good-natured way of dealing with it, you still don’t want to be the city attorney who gets the mayor put into house arrest.”
She describes the scenario as “highly unusual. I don’t know of any other circumstances where this has happened or would happen. That was the whole crux of my argument. The state constitution provides that a legislative body makes the decisions about what money they appropriate to pay which things and, in the absence of that, they don’t get paid and the legislative body acts. But the court made a ruling that was inconsistent with that and attempted to put the executive branch under house arrest.”
Landrieu is a lawyer himself and admired the way Williams handled the matter. “She never lost her cool, and she always stayed focused,” he says. “She told me the hard truths when I needed to hear them, and she was very ethical and strong and smart.”
At 4:45 p.m., the phone rang. The state Supreme Court had reversed the order, paving the way for Williams’ team to negotiate with the firefighters for a lower $75 million settlement, to be footed by available city funds and a new tax, and end the decades-long struggle.
Williams ultimately spent more than four years with the city, overseeing the most comprehensive police consent decree in U.S. history and helping to reform the infamous Orleans Parish Prison. In private practice, she has defended building owners in construction litigation claims, property owners in insurance claims after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and tech inventors in multi-million-dollar fair trade cases.
“I try to just be myself,” she says. “There are lawyers who do a lot of showboating, and maybe that’s entertaining to some juries. But I try not to do that. I try to focus on what my client is experiencing and why the client needs this recovery and to exhibit a true level of compassion.”
Adds Landrieu: “She’s not a showhorse, but a workhorse. She’s not afraid to step up to the plate when need be, and she knows when to step back when it’s not her turn.”
Williams, who grew up in Cameron Parish, had it all: good looks, athleticism on the track and the basketball court, and popularity as a cheerleader and queen of both homecoming and prom. A quiet child at heart, she spent a lot of time at home reading and graduated as valedictorian of her class in Creole. In later years, personality tests would pin her as an introvert who occasionally needs a dose of interaction.
Despite her dad’s urging, she bypassed the law for a medical career like her uncle. After graduating early with a biology degree from Xavier University of Louisiana in 1994, Williams conducted genetic research on Alzheimer’s at Duke University before heading to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
That’s where she realized her father had it right all along. “Once I got to the end of medical school, I just did not enjoy any aspect of any field of medicine,” she says. One day, she looked at her then-husband, an attorney, and said, “You know, what you do doesn’t look so bad. I think I’ll give it a try.” Two months later, she was studying at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law on a scholarship, writing for the law review and participating on the trial advocacy team.
Upon graduation in 2001, she went to work as a patent attorney at Kilpatrick Stockton in Atlanta in an effort to combine her science training and law. But that didn’t feel right, either.
What did feel right was litigation. “I like the process of being in a courtroom,” she says. “Arguing things openly and publicly doesn’t suit certain people. But I really, truly enjoy it.”
Williams had worked at Sher Garner during her third year at Loyola, so she already knew the attorneys. In 2003, she joined them and hit the ground running with her first trial. She recalls not the subject matter, but the judge and the seasoned opposing attorney. “What I really learned from that was to have a level of self-confidence and not be afraid of going into court to argue your client’s case even if [you’re up against] somebody who’s been doing it 20 years longer than you. If you are prepared and have done the research, then you have just as much of a chance of winning as anyone else.” The case was eventually settled.
Williams’ careful approach helped in that case and others, as she navigated construction and insurance coverage disputes, medical malpractice cases and bankruptcy adversary proceedings in her eight years at Sher Garner. She also learned how to navigate gender issues. “Sometimes it’s hard for women to walk the line of being assertive with your position and not turning off certain segments of the population,” she says. “I think, and I hope, that I am not the person who comes across as overly and unnecessarily aggressive. I am a let-me-pick-my-battles type of person. It’s not going to be a fight about every single thing.”
That includes being straightforward with juries about her clients. “I want them to get the full picture, but in an honest way,” she says. “Sometimes I have to get in my office and give myself a personal pep rally to make sure I’m fully committed to my client and their needs.”
In her most complex case at Sher Garner, Williams’ team sued on behalf of two NOLA technology companies whose successful wireless video surveillance system had allegedly been misappropriated by the computer giant Dell and the city of New Orleans. The fair trade violation resulted in a “generous” pre-trial settlement with one defendant and, in late 2009, a favorable $16.3 million jury verdict from the other. It also led to an FBI investigation and subsequent criminal prosecutions of the former city IT officer and then-Mayor Ray Nagin.
In 2010, when Landrieu was elected mayor, his office began recruiting Williams. By the time she finally said yes the following year, she was ready for “a new challenge.”
She got it—and then some—as chief deputy city attorney, then city attorney.
The culture shock hit her the moment she opened her new office door. Gone were the modern TVs and other law firm amenities. “Sometimes it was, ‘Gosh, we may not be able to pay for paper,’” she recalls. “What I learned from it was how to be more efficient with my time and my resources for clients.”
One of the first things Landrieu had done when he took office was invite the U.S. Department of Justice to evaluate the entire New Orleans Police Department. “There were people who were shot on the Danziger Bridge by police officers as they were trying to cross the bridge to get to safety [after Hurricane Katrina],” Williams says. “There was an incident where a gentleman was burned in his car as part of the police coverup after Katrina. There were a lot of things that happened after Hurricane Katrina that were just terrible in terms of police practices and behaviors, and the mayor took all of those things very seriously and wanted to reform the department.”
Landrieu’s directive: Transform the city’s law department into the equivalent of a functioning firm and manage the many improvements as set forth in the DOJ’s police consent decree, from body cameras and bias-free training to a revamp of the entire training academy curricula and a tightening of rules governing off-duty work. There were nearly 500 paragraphs of requirements in all. “You name it, it had to be done,” Williams says.
Under a second decree, she also helped reform Orleans Parish Prison, considered one of America’s worst. A number of inmates had committed suicide without proper supervision or mental health services. Some were able to sneak out at night to party on Bourbon Street, and video footage revealed one drinking beer in his cell, with a gun.
Negotiating with the DOJ nearly every day was a source of frustration. In every reform measure, the department demanded “the Cadillac” of services, Williams says, but expected the city of New Orleans to come up with the money. Adding to her workload, she frequently tried a variety of cases for the city.
“On a daily basis, not only was she juggling huge numbers of complex matters that were diverse in subject matter,” says Landrieu. “But she was also litigating and negotiating with as many different kinds of partners as you possibly can. You generally don’t see this in law firms. She had all of them, all at once, and she was honest, tough, smart, capable and really somebody that I would not like to go to battle without.”
The police and prison reforms are still ongoing. As for the current national debates about police violence, Williams says, “I don’t want to politicize the argument, but it’s hard for me not to. I think things have gotten worse. I thought we were on a path to improvement at some point, but now I feel like all the progress is just being dialed back.”
Once she finished mediating the firefighter pay issues, Williams resigned. “I was exhausted,” she says. “I really needed to kind of step back and recharge.”
In 2016, she joined Fishman Haygood and is now entering the home stretch in several high-dollar cases. Williams also serves as general counsel for the Orleans Parish School Board; incoming chair of the Pro Bono Project, which handles wills, successions and landlord issues for clients who can’t afford a lawyer; and as past president of Bridge House/Grace House.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Williams has had to curtail her traveling hobby and has been balancing sparse meetings at the office with those via Zoom at home, where she lives with her pug, Callie. After losing a family member to the virus, she says, “I think my sensitivities are heightened, and I’m trying to steer clear of those kinds of [shared] spaces to the extent that I can.”
When she does go to trial, she is mindful of not acting too “lawyerly.”
“I hope that I’m able to connect with people in a jury box based on who I am, not on whatever picture I can paint for them about my personality,” Williams says. “At the end of the day, it’s not really supposed to be about me. It’s supposed to be about my client.”