Journey to the Top

"We were keenly aware that we were one of only a few African Americans at the school."

When Grace Speights, JD ’82, studied for three years at GW Law, she often heard in the back of her mind the voice of her mother, who had worked in a drapery factory and hadn’t finished high school.

Her mother, Ellen Venters, told her “to be successful, it takes long, long, long hours. It takes hard work, and it takes not giving up,” she recalls.

Those words of encouragement helped her persevere in law school and beyond. Today, Ms. Speights has worked so many hours so successfully that her résumé could fill pages. She has been named one of Washington, D.C.’s 100 most powerful women, a member of the Who’s Who of Black Lawyers, and one of the best attorneys in America. Just this year, she was awarded the NAACP’s Champion of Justice Award and the Washington Bar Association Legal Fund’s Maden Haden Trailblazer Award. 

As a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, in Washington, D.C., Ms. Speights regularly counsels the country’s top Fortune 50 firms, including Lockheed Martin and Wells Fargo, in employment law and corporate diversity best practices. She also represents clients in class-action suits involving discrimination. Her latest high-profile client is celebrity chef and TV personality Paula Deen.

As busy as she is, she finds time to support her alma mater. She hosted an “Evening With GW Law” at her firm for admitted students interested in learning more about GW and was recently elected to the GW Board of Trustees. 

Ms. Speights grew up in south Philadelphia, in a neighborhood where gang violence was the norm. Once she dodged bullets on the way to ballet class. Her mother raised her alone, holding down a job in a factory that made fiberglass draperies. 

“She came home every day scratching and itching because of the fiberglass,” Ms. Speights says. “We lived in a poor neighborhood in a rented townhouse, but I thought we were rich. We had a house, it was clean, it was neat, we had food, and my mother worked. I had nice clothes. She would bring home scraps of material and make clothes for me.”

Mother and daughter negotiated the different public school choices throughout Ms. Speights’ middle school years, and when the young Speights stood out among her peers, they entertained offers from elite boarding schools in New England. Her mother, though, wanted her home for high school. Ms. Speights enrolled in Philadelphia High School for Girls, one of the country’s oldest single-sex public schools. 

She thrived there, as well as at the University of Pennsylvania, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. Law school then beckoned, and she was offered a full scholarship to attend GW. Immediately, she found a home—GW felt like the University of Pennsylvania, a diverse urban school, she says—and a lifelong best friend, Donna Hill Staton, JD ‘82. She and Ms. Staton were among about 20 African American law students in their class at that time. 

“I think most of us felt very comfortable in the setting,” Ms. Speights says. “Number one, the District of Columbia had one of the largest professional, well-educated African American communities in the country. We took advantage of the city to make a lot of connections. The school was very supportive, the Black American Law School Association was very supportive, and the only African American professor, Professor [James Philip] Chandler, had his door open. I didn’t feel isolated, even though I was in a small minority.”

Ms. Speights and Ms. Staton helped one another research clerkships and both were selected for the law journal International Law and Economics. “We were keenly aware that we were one of only a few African Americans at the school,” says Ms. Staton, who ultimately became Maryland’s first African American female deputy attorney general. “We were raised in the 60s and 70s, and recognized all the sacrifices of others before us.” 

The two lived together much of their time during law school, but as close as they were, “Grace was very modest about her achievements,” Ms. Staton says. “I never knew she was a superstar until she graduated with the Order of the Coif, the highest honor from GW Law. She was very determined, focused, disciplined, and organized. She has a very generous spirit. She is a person that has friends who date back from kindergarten.”

Ms. Speights loved many of her GW professors: Among them was Roger Schechter, who taught antitrust law. “We called him Boy Wonder because he didn’t look a day older than we were,” she says. 

She feared Professor John Cibinic, who taught Contracts her first year. “The whole Socratic method was scary, but he took it to the next level,” she says. “He came up with questions that were so difficult and that we could not get from the case. He wanted to develop our analytical skills.”

A clerkship with the late Chief Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, taught her how to apply the legal theory and lessons she learned in law school to real situations. In 1984, she joined Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, and in 1991 became the firm’s first African American woman partner. 

When Ms. Speights looks back at law school and her career in law to date, it’s easy to hear the words of her mother, who is now 88. “No matter where you go, work hard, do a good job, and don’t burn any bridges,” she says. “Don’t put your fate or future in other people’s hands and don’t wait for people to give you things.”

by Laura Hambleton