BLSA Honors Mentors, Including Herschella Conyers and Roderick Palmore

Meredith Heagney
Law School Office of Communications
May 8, 2014

Generations of the Black Law Students Association gathered during Reunion Weekend to honor their mentors at the first BLSA Alumni Recognition Dinner. In particular, the group honored Clinical Professor Herschella Conyers, ’83, with a new award, but the entire event was a tribute to BLSA’s many invaluable mentors, several of whom were in attendance.

“You’ve got to pick a good mentor,” Conyers told the crowd of about 60, who gathered at a downtown restaurant on April 25 to watch her receive the Earl B. Dickerson Leadership in the Law Award. “Why? Because if you do, one of these days you can call your mentor a friend.”

That’s what happened to her, she explained, pointing to her mentor, Professor Randolph Stone, seated at her table. Stone and Conyers run the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Clinic together, but first met when Conyers was a clinic student herself. She later worked for him when he was public defender of Cook County. 

The award’s namesake, Dickerson, class of 1920, was the first black graduate of the Law School; the chapter is also named for him. The chapter also honored alumnus Roderick Palmore, ’77, with the award, but Palmore could not attend the Reunion Weekend dinner. Palmore is executive vice president, general counsel, chief compliance and risk management officer, and secretary of General Mills.

Both Conyers and Palmore have committed themselves to mentorship through their highly successful careers, said Jackie Newsome, ’15, BLSA president. And BLSA alumni had told current students that they wanted more chances to get involved. So the dinner was the perfect place to honor mentoring relationships and encourage more. “We wanted to let them in and show them we’re all one big family,” Newsome said. “This is a time for us to get together and engage one another and support one another long-term.”

It’s particularly important because African-American lawyers are still a very small percentage of the legal population, Newsome said. And indeed, the National Association for Law Placement found that in 2013, just 13 percent of attorneys at U.S. firms were of a racial minority, based on their study of 110,000 attorneys. They defined “racial minority” as all non-white attorneys, so the percentage of black lawyers was just a fraction of that 13 percent.   

Malaika Tyson, ’11, a patent attorney at McAndrews, Held & Malloy, chatted with her mentor, Jeanne M. Gills, ’94, before dinner. Tyson said that Gills’ “perspective being a black female lawyer was different than some of my other mentors.” Gills, a partner and intellectual property lawyer with Foley & Lardner, agreed. “Knowing someone has walked the same path you’ve walked, there’s a level of comfort,” she said.

In her remarks after receiving the award, Conyers paid tribute to one of the first people who ever believed in her potential: her grandfather, who was a janitor at the University of Chicago. He encouraged her education, regularly asking her to recite the William Ernest Henley poem “Invictus.” He talked often about campus buildings.   

“My grandfather could imagine that I could be there. And that’s my blessing,” Conyers said. “He could see me walking the halls. And because he could see me, I was there.”

Conyers referred to the words of 19th century abolitionist and Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker, who was later paraphrased by Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“I have had the privilege of teaching you and working with you, and I have been paid to bend that arc,” Conyers said. “This award says you appreciate my efforts, and I will carry on.”