Lifetime Achievement Award: William B. Hill Jr.
"I have stayed “versatile” over these four plus decades because I still find the practice of law, in all of its different presentations, to be simply fascinating."
By Jonathan Ringel | June 28, 2018 at 02:31 PM
William B. Hill Jr. has split his career between the public and private sectors, first with the Georgia attorney general’s office, where in 1987 he argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the first time the state of Georgia had been represented on oral argument by an African-American lawyer, and, arguing without notes, he won.
Three years later, Hill was appointed to a state court judgeship and later named a superior court judge who dictated his rulings from the bench immediately following every hearing.
“Hill is just extraordinary in every respect in terms of legal acumen, in terms of leadership, in terms of energy and Puritan work ethic and dedication to perfection,” said Ray Persons, a senior partner at King & Spalding.
Hill has said the case and the trials that affected him most took place during his years as the director of the criminal division of the AG’s office.
As a shareholder at Polsinelli, Hill has successfully represented a diverse range of business clients, including companies in the automotive, pharmaceutical and hospitality industries. He also is an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law.
The attorney who nominated you for the Lifetime Achievement award noted that, in 1987, you became the first African-American lawyer to argue for the state of Georgia at the U.S. Supreme Court. What was that experience like? Did it matter that, despite winning a 6-3 decision, Justice Thurgood Marshall—the first black justice on the U.S. high court—voted against Georgia’s position?
Preparation for oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court was time-consuming and stressful. But, once seated in that surprisingly small courtroom, watching a higher level of professionalism and easy civility play out, the stress and anxiety left me and I felt at ease. The feeling of being at ease was so real that when my opponent’s yellow light came on—signaling the near end of his allotted argument time—I decided then and there to argue my case without notes. When I stood up, I left my black three-ring binder on counsels’ table. The only item I placed on the podium was my watch. It was the most relaxing appellate argument I’ve ever done.
Because my argument was in a capital case, the expectation was always that Justices [Thurgood] Marshall and [William] Brennan would vote against the state’s position. Justice Marshall’s dissenting votes in capital cases always mattered because he gave a judicial voice to that different position necessary for a national conversation on capital punishment.
Who were some of your mentors, and what did you learn from them?
(1) William B. Hill, Sr. My father taught me how to be a good man, a good husband, and a good father.
(2) Prof. Alan Moger (Washington and Lee University) taught me the necessity for, and the value of civility.
(3) Harrison Kohler, Esq., taught me how to be a trial lawyer.
(4) Judge Charlie Carnes—taught me how to be a judge.
(5) Melba Wynn Hill—my wife—taught me how to be a better man, a better husband and a better father.
In your career, you have practiced criminal law for the government, served as a judge and handled a wide variety of matters in private practice—including criminal defense and representing entities in the auto, pharmaceutical and hospitality industries. How have you kept yourself versatile?
I have stayed “versatile” over these four plus decades because I still find the practice of law, in all of its different presentations, to be simply fascinating.
What has been your biggest accomplishment in the law, and what was your biggest challenge in achieving it?
I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to successfully try cases all over the country. Trying mesothelioma cases in New York is not the same as trying race discrimination cases in North and South Carolina or rollover cases in Missouri. In order to be successful at this, you need to have a healthy respect for geography. You need to always know where you are and who you’re talking to.
My biggest challenge in cultivating this talent, was surviving all of the beatings along the way.
You teach law students. What do you tell them they should do to achieve success in the law?
I tell those who are young in the practice to relax, surround yourself with good and caring colleagues and find good mentors. You’re going to be doing this for the rest of your life, so you may as well have a good time. After all, how many people do you know who aren’t good at what they like doing?