The Soloist

Felicia Washington Mauney blazes her own trail

Published in 2008 North Carolina Super Lawyers — February 2008

Felicia Washington Mauney has never been afraid to go it alone.

As a teenager, she decided she wanted to leave her eastern North Carolina hometown of Kenansville to attend the prestigious North Carolina School of Science & Mathematics in Durham. But, even though she was at the top of her class, she was passed over for her school’s nomination in favor of two boys. “I thought they had made a mistake,” says Washington Mauney, 43, matter-of-factly, from her 45th-floor office in downtown Charlotte. “My parents always gave me that support and confidence that if I wanted to do it, I could. I was raised to move to the beat of my own drum.”

So Washington Mauney nominated herself. Two years later, in 1983, she was part of Science & Math’s second graduating class, heading for college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “I’ve always been comfortable being the solo whatever-it-was,” she says.

When she joined Kennedy Covington fresh out of the University of Virginia School of Law in 1990, Washington Mauney was the firm’s only black attorney. Seven years later, she became the first black woman to make partner at a large North Carolina law firm. “In that way, this firm made history,” says Washington Mauney, who now serves as chair of Kennedy Covington’s diversity committee and does similar work with the American Bar Association. “I’m proud of the fact that we try to be intentional about making sure we’re inclusive.”

As a young litigation associate in the early 1990s, Washington Mauney developed a niche in employment and immigration law. She saw that her firm was farming out work for clients employing foreign nationals and thought, “‘I can do that,’” she says.

So she set out on a course of self-study, attending seminars and reading up on immigration and employment issues. That expertise has been a boon for both her firm and her career as the field has exploded. Employers increasingly need guidance in navigating the Americans with Disabilities and the Family and Medical Leave Acts, as well as understanding a wave of post-9/11 immigration issues.

Much of her work now involves counseling clients on rapid changes in immigration law and the way it’s administered. For example, tightened caps on the number of visas the government awards to foreign workers in “specialty occupations” make it crucial for her clients in engineering, manufacturing and medicine—many of whom rely on the expertise of foreign nationals—to get their visa applications in early.

Attorney Frank Emory of Hunton & Williams in Charlotte, who had once been the only black attorney at a large law firm, was an early mentor. “Her situation looked a lot like mine, and I wanted her to succeed,” says Emory. “And when I met her it was obvious to me that she would. She was bright and savvy, and she has a quiet confidence about her that inspires the trust of her colleagues and, most importantly, clients.”

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