Washington's Inaugural Address
MBAWNY helped Sarah Washington as a law student; now she’s paying it forward as its next president
Published in 2020 Upstate New York Super Lawyers magazine on September 1, 2020
When she was a child, Sarah Washington’s father would often predict her future. “He would say, ‘You’re a Philadelphia lawyer, kid,’” she remembers. “Negotiating and proving my point, even as a young kid, was always something that just came naturally to me.”
She didn’t know any lawyers. An only child growing up in Buffalo’s inner city, Washington helped take care of her father, who had multiple sclerosis, and her great-grandmother, who had dementia, who also lived with them. In high school, she had friends whose parents were attorneys, but that didn’t translate to access. No matter. “I’d always known I wanted to be an attorney,” she says.
At the same time, she knew finding mentors with similar experiences was invaluable, and as a 1L at University at Buffalo School of Law, she reached out to the Minority Bar Association of Western New York and the Rochester Black Bar Association. Not only did she find potential mentors, but the nonprofit made for a good place to ask the basics: “What is billable time?”, “Should I always wear a blazer to court?” and “When I walk into the courtroom for the first time, do I sit on the side closest to the jury box?”
Now she’s helping other minority students find their way. A commercial litigator, Washington has remained involved with MBAWNY, and in January 2021, she’ll become its president. “Thinking about everything the association helped me do as a law student, and at my first job after law school, and then eventually landing at Goldberg Segalla, put a passion in me to want to give back,” she says. “Having somebody who looks like you or who may have a similar inner-city background or financial upbringing to help you navigate things so you don’t have to navigate them alone … is important.”
Nationally, only about 6 to 7 percent of law firm equity partners are minorities, and Washington has felt the impact personally. “I’ve walked in court and people have assumed that I am the secretary or the paralegal,” she says. “Same thing when you walk into a deposition in another law office. People can’t believe I’m the attorney sometimes.”
Calls for diversity are not just a matter of social justice; they make business sense, too. “The parties we represent are diverse,” Washington says. “We have clients in major corporations who demand diversity within the firms that represent them. If law firms don’t move toward this idea, they’re going to lose business in the coming years. That’s just the reality.”
Part of the solution is giving underserved youth opportunities to interact with lawyers and see the law in a positive light, something Washington has done for the last four years as chair of MBAWNY’s annual toy drive. The organization collects over 200 toys for pre-K and kindergarten students at inner-city Buffalo public schools. “For some of those kids, those are the only toys they get during the holiday season,” Washington says. Giving that kind of joy to kids is priceless, but having the chance to introduce them to lawyers and what they do is just as much a gift.
“For me it is a way to inspire young students,” Washington says, “and to instill in them that it is possible for them to also become an attorney, or whatever they desire to grow up to be.”
When she’s not litigating or leading MBAWNY, Washington can often be found at the side of a swimming pool, officiating events for USA Swimming along with her husband. “My daughter is a competitive swimmer,” she says. “I decided to become a USA Swimming official so I could actually be on the deck and partake in these meets.”
It can be difficult, she says, especially when calling a fault on younger kids. “You have to know that you’re there to help them learn, because you don’t want them to keep making the same mistakes,” she says.
Is officiating swimming anything like being a lawyer? “You have to be confident in making your calls when you’re an official and you have to be confident in making your arguments.”
Diversity in Law
Below are the 2019 demographics of resident active attorneys in the U.S.
Source: American Bar Association