In Memoriam: Legal Trailblazer Lani Guinier


It’s been over twenty years since I first heard Professor Lani Guinier speak at a bar association event. Her passionate speech about equal rights was compelling. Over her career as a trailblazing lawyer and professor, she left an indelible mark on generations of lawyers. She passed away recently at age 71 after battling Alzheimer’s disease, but her groundbreaking scholarship continues to have an impact. She was an outspoken legal scholar focusing on issues of race and gender. Her advocacy in the area of voters’ rights is of particular importance given the current climate in which voters’ rights are in jeopardy from state laws erecting barriers to this important component of a free country.

Born in New York in 1950 at a time when women and people of color faced steep challenges in education and professional advancement, Professor Guinier shattered many glass ceilings but also was held back by others. A graduate of Radcliffe College of Harvard University and Yale University Law School, she built an impressive record over her legal career in public service, non-profit and academic roles. After a judicial clerkship with Judge Damon Keith of the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, she became special assistant to Assistant Attorney General Drew S. Days in the Civil Rights Division during the Carter Administration. When the administration changed, she moved on to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she served as an assistant counsel before ascending to head its Voting Rights project, winning virtually every case she argued during her NAACP Legal Defense Fund tenure. Passionate about equal voting rights, she also worked on the successful extension of the Voting Rights Act in 1982.

Like many champions of controversial causes, her professional path was not always smooth, and she was denied opportunities that should have been available to her given Professor Guinier’s intelligence, work ethic, and performance. One of the most disappointing incidents occurred when then-President Bill Clinton succumbed to political pressure and withdrew her nomination for Assistant Attorney General. Clinton bowed to pressure from political opponents who labeled her the “quota queen,” a highly offensive epithet and one that was not based on a truthful assessment of her record or her position on highly contentious issues of racial injustice. Intimidated by Professor Guinier’s scholarship on racial equality and voting rights issues, her adversaries wrongly accused her of advocating for racial quotas in affirmative action. Despite her efforts to disabuse the public of these false assertions, she was not a proponent of quotas in higher education admissions, and President Clinton caved into the pressure. Lani Guinier never had a fair chance to be considered for this high post for which she was so well qualified. Instead, she was vilified. It was and continues to be a shameful moment in our history.

At this crucial time in her career, she was a Law Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, which she held for ten years from 1989 to 1998. Unfortunately, I missed out on the opportunity to study under this remarkable scholar, having graduated several years before she joined the faculty. In 1998, Professor Guinier joined the Harvard Law School faculty as the first woman of color to be granted tenure there. 

She devoted her career to advancing the legal profession and opening doors for other people of color who faced harsh obstacles to advancement. The recipient of numerous honors, she was also a kind and welcoming person to those who had the good fortune to meet her.  As we mourn the loss of a champion of equal rights, our firm continues to advocate for those who have been historically marginalized and urge others to advocate for equal opportunity and fair access to the ballot box.

Lani Guinier, may you rest in peace.