Black History Month Spotlight Series: Gwendolyn Washington

February 27, 2024

As part of our Black History Month celebration, we’ve asked our colleagues to reflect on the significance of this month.

Cleary Gottlieb pro bono attorney Gwendolyn Washington shares some of her thoughts below.

Tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Cleary.

I am the pro bono attorney for Cleary’s D.C. office. My goal at Cleary D.C. is to offer a diverse array of pro bono service projects that resonate with attorneys and then help those attorneys to successfully incorporate pro bono service into their respective practices.

My career background has been in the public interest sector of the law, with a focus on criminal defense and the civil consequences of involvement with the criminal justice system. Outside of my practice, much of my efforts have been devoted to the promotion of public interest work and pro bono service. Prior to coming to Cleary, I served on the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Committee for two terms and served as the Co-Chair for the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers. Currently, I am an adjunct professor for Howard University School of Law’s Clinical Law Program’s Public Interest Externship Program.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month is important as it serves to remedy the omissions and minimalization of the histories and contributions of marginalized communities in American society over the last four centuries.

For me, Black History Month, and the celebrations of various cultures throughout the year, means inclusion and recognition of the invaluable contributions to society that have been made but overlooked due race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and/or ethnic origin. Inclusion of these once-omitted contributions and histories is essential to greater unity and to the collective advancement of society as a whole.

Who are some Black leaders, activists, writers/artists, or professionals who have inspired you?

I’m most inspired by Pauli Murray, and their struggles to overcome “Jane Crow” during the 20th century as a trailblazing attorney, a civil rights activist, an acclaimed academician, a noted poet, and as a groundbreaking clergyman.

What advice would you give to young Black professionals starting their careers who look around and might not see many people like them? Is there any advice you wish someone had given you?

Your mentors and sponsors shouldn’t always look like you, nor always come from the same background as yourself. You should always seek mentors from varying backgrounds. Mentors and sponsors are people—regardless of these varying backgrounds—who are willing to share their pearls and gems of wisdom with you. Make the most of each gift of wisdom.

Your network should always be diverse so that you may gain a better and greater informed perspective on the world around you. Make mentors whenever and wherever you can throughout your career. Also, be a mentor to others. Networking is key to a successful career.

When you’re underrepresented in your chosen field, why is it important to have mentors and sponsors who are invested in you and your career?

It’s important to have mentors and sponsors regardless of representation in one’s chosen field. Regardless of one’s position in their career, mentors and sponsors are particularly important to growth and professional development.

What is your favorite thing about working in the legal industry and why did you choose to work at Cleary?

My favorite thing about working in the legal industry is my public interest work, specifically, helping those in need to access justice. For this reason, it’s the only type of work that I have done in my career.

I met the phenomenal team at Cleary while I served as the Pro Bono Director of Rising for Justice. I was instantly attracted to the culture of humility and kindness at Cleary. I feel lucky to work at Cleary, sharing my love of public interest work and pro bono service.