Meet Leah Ward Sears

The former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court joins SGR

SGR is pleased to welcome Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, as a partner. In 1992, after four years as a Fulton County Superior Court judge and at just 36 years old, Sears became the first woman and the youngest justice appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia. In 2005, Sears was elected by her peers as Chief Justice, becoming the first African- American woman to serve as chief justice of any state supreme court in the United States.

After stepping down from the bench, and working seven years in the Atlanta office of a Chicago-based firm, Justice Sears has made her way to SGR – ready to put down roots in an Atlanta-based law firm. “I have wanted to be in a law firm’s ‘mother ship,’” Sears explains. “Plus, while I’m well known nationally, I’m known best, and my sphere of influence is greater, I believe, in the South.”

SGR began as an Atlanta firm that now has grown to AmLaw 200 status encompassing a national, and even international, client base. Justice Sears’ practice has a similar footprint: grounded in Atlanta but with a presence reaching far beyond the region. “My appellate practice is a national practice with a lot of local action,” notes Sears. “I’ve worked on the World Trade Center litigation out of New York; I’ve worked on a large global-warming matter where an island is melting off the coast of Alaska and insurance companies were arguing in the Supreme Court of Virginia about who has to pay for that. I’ve worked on asbestos-related appellate work across the country, and I’ve done work for the Atlanta Braves baseball team.”

A “Trusted Adviser”

Justice Sears views her role with clients as one of trusted adviser. “It’s being up front and honest with your client, good or bad,” she explains. “It’s like being a good wife or husband. It is being so invested in the well-being of your client, like you are their confidant. It’s a relationship where you might say, ‘I spent some time to find this for you, and it’s a little bit different than what you were thinking about, but I think this is a better direction to go in and I’ll back you up on it.’”

Sears brings the invaluable perspective of someone who spent 17 years on Georgia’s highest court. “I know how many judges think and what motivates them,” Sears says. “During oral argument, I can tell from the questioning how things are going. I know what judges want to read and what they want to hear and don’t want to read and hear. I know that not all judges think the same – some work off of hunches; others are influenced by emotions or politics – and I know the way they solve problems.”

Giving Back

SGR has a long and rich tradition of giving back to the community. E. Smythe Gambrell, one of the firm’s name partners, was an early champion of legal assistance for the poor and founded the Atlanta Legal Aid Society in 1924. Justice Sears similarly believes in the importance of service to the community. “I think of lawyers as leaders,” she observes. “Every lawyer needs to do more than just make money. We have a lot to give.” She currently serves on the Board of Trustees for Emory University, The Carter Center, the Oakland Cemetery Foundation, the Georgia Historical Society, and the Boy Scouts of America (Atlanta Area Council). “When I volunteer time, it is something I have a passion for,” explains Sears.

Family First

Spend only a few minutes with Sears, and you will quickly appreciate how important her husband of 17 years, Haskell Ward, and her two adult children, Addison and Brennan, are to her. When asked about having twice been on the short list of potential nominees to fill vacancies on the U.S. Supreme Court, Sears recounts how, after weeks of intensive vetting, she was scheduled to be interviewed by President Obama. “He wanted me to come up on a Sunday, the same day my daughter Brennan was graduating from Spelman College,” Sears says. Brennan had struggled at times with her coursework, and Sears had spent many weekend hours helping to tutor her. “She was a late bloomer, but bloom she finally did. So, I really needed to be there when she graduated!”

Sears’s eyes fill with tears as she finishes the story. “I told the people in Washington, ‘I don’t have Air Force One. This is my only daughter. I’m so sorry – I can see the President on Monday or Tuesday.’” Sears remembers her husband telling her, “If you were a man, you’d be going to Washington,” concluding, with a mother’s pride, “but Brennan has never forgotten it.”

Diversity and Inclusion

Sears is not one to shy away from issues relating to women and minorities in the workplace. Her firm stance on gender equality extends even to how she is addressed. “Let’s say I was sitting next to [former U.S. Attorney General] Griffin Bell. He had less judicial experience than I had, but no one called him ‘Griffin.’ But they’d call me, the woman, ‘Leah.’ Or I will be sitting with my [male] former colleagues and it will be ‘Justice Fletcher,’ ‘Justice Carly’ and then ‘Leah.’ I was one of the first female retired justices – there are going to be a lot more – and they don’t deserve to be called any differently than the guys are. I’m just asking for the same due as everyone else.”

As for minority retention and success, Sears believes the key is in active mentorship. “There has to be a conscious effort and program to bring people along. It can’t be ad hoc, get them in and see if they make it or not,” she says. “That kind of guidance is what did it for me. As with a baby, you can’t just say, ‘Here is your bottle, good luck, see you in 18 years,’” Sears says. “If you open the door and make a real effort and investment, the right people will show up and they will succeed.”