Q&A With NCAJ Rising Star Cheyenne Chambers
By Amber Nimocks
Profiles in our quarterly Trial Briefs magazine feature members at varying stages of their careers. Know an NCAJ member we should profile? Email me at email@example.com.
Cheyenne Chambers’ voice is among the many calling for change to the justice system during this season of reckoning. For her, calling attention to racial inequities is nothing new. “I have been outspoken on such topics well before I joined the legal profession, and that is due to how my parents raised my sister and me,” she said. “When I was a child, my parents supplemented my education because they recognized that my assigned textbooks failed to disclose the complete story of the Black experience in America. For instance, in elementary school, my mom gave a detailed presentation to my classmates (and the teacher) about the history of Kwanzaa. Also, my dad and I would watch the nightly news together and then discuss current events at length, which allowed me to share a different perspective on matters of racial injustice in the classroom.
Cheyenne N. Chambers
Tin, Fulton, Walker & Owen, PLLC
NCAJ member for: two years
Education: Case Western Reserve University, the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law
“So, by the time I was in high school, I felt comfortable enough to express my concerns to administrators about issues like the cancellation of a schoolwide Black History Month presentation. (After days of complaining adamantly, I was granted permission to put together a showcase in the main hallway celebrating the legacy of HBCUs.) And even as a law student, I was quite vocal about demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, as well as raising awareness about the Law Journal’s lack of racial diversity with respect to its student membership. Long story short, it was only a matter of time before I would contribute to the present-day national conversation on race — including by way of publishing an article with the American Bar Association, which addresses the lack of diversity among federal judicial law clerks.”
A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Chambers attended Case Western Reserve University for undergrad, and earned her Juris Doctorate from the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Her practice focuses on appellate and trial litigation in the areas of civil rights, criminal (appellate only), constitutional, employment discrimination, and immigration (appellate only). She lives in Charlotte. Chambers answered some questions for us here.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
When I started high school, my career goal was to become a history professor. But that changed in the 11th grade over the course of two days in my Advanced Placement U.S. Government class. While learning about the federal judiciary, my teacher staged a First Amendment moot court before the “U.S. Supreme Court.” On day one of the exercise, my teacher, carrying a yard stick in his hand, walked around the classroom and named eight of my peers to the bench. After what seemed like a very long pause, I then felt the yard stick tap my shoulder — I was appointed to serve as the ninth justice.
When I went home that evening, I researched the history of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Establishment Clause, and I drafted some questions to ask during the moot. I also stumbled upon some articles about Justice Thurgood Marshall, and I thought, “Oh, this is pretty cool.” And before the night was over, my mom helped me put together a professional outfit; she even let me borrow a pair of her eyeglasses, to complete my distinguished look. As I sat alongside my eight classmates the next day, I was quickly fascinated by the rhythm of the moot. I also remember how relaxed I felt. I enjoyed presenting questions to my attorney classmates, hearing different perspectives on the same issue from the bench, and engaging in the post-argument conference to reach a conclusion. At that moment, I told myself that I want to become a federal appellate judge.
How did you become involved in appellate practice?
Thanks to one of my favorite college professors, I received some early exposure to appellate advocacy. During these pre-law courses, my professor, who is an attorney and a former federal judicial law clerk, would organize “class-wide” moots based upon landmark U.S. Supreme Court cases. For example, when reviewing privacy rights in Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965), I was assigned to present argument on behalf of the State, and I fielded pointed questions about penumbras from my professor and a dozen of my classmates.
Because of this invaluable experience, years later, the highest grade I would receive in law school was in Appellate Advocacy. I also enrolled in several law school courses that touched upon various elements of appellate litigation, including Advanced Constitutional Law, Constitutional Litigation, Federal Courts, and a U.S. Supreme Court Seminar taught by the Honorable Jeffrey S. Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.
My interest in appellate practice was further confirmed during my judicial clerkship with the Honorable Paul J. Watford of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. When preparing for oral arguments, Judge Watford always encouraged my co-clerks and me to challenge his initial thoughts about a case. So, for a year, I had the unique (and awesome) opportunity to “spar” frequently with a seasoned appellate litigator, turned federal appellate judge.
What gives you hope that the judicial system will respond with substantive change going forward?
Seeing young people across the country exercise their First Amendment rights gives me hope. Too many forget about this, but some of America’s most influential civil rights leaders started their advocacy work in their teens and 20s. Just look at the late U.S. Congressman John Lewis.
What career accomplishments are you most proud of so far?
Because of my interest in appellate litigation, I am proud to have two successful appellate arguments so early in my career — one before the Supreme Court of North Carolina, and the other before the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
(Because attorneys of color are underrepresented in appellate practice, I would be remiss not the mention that I look forward to the day when our paths to the lectern are much easier traveled.)
I am most proud, however, of my work as a mentor to several young attorneys, law students, and pre-law students. I love watching my mentees pursue their dreams and accomplish goals along the way. I always try to be their biggest cheerleader, whether that means providing them with a judgment-free zone to vent about obstacles that they are facing, helping them explore different ways to succeed, or connecting them with my mentors or other members of my professional network. And, over the years, being a mentor has really forced me to “practice what I preach.” In fact, just the other day, during a phone conversation, I reminded a mentee to believe in herself. Then, after the call, I said to myself, “Cheyenne, always believe in yourself.”
What do you value most about your NCAJ membership?
I enjoy helping other attorneys prepare for their oral arguments through NCAJ’s volunteer moot court services. I also appreciate how NCAJ is rising to the occasion of the times by creating meaningful programming and other educational opportunities that will lead to effective and long-lasting change within our profession.
What have you learned so far about the practice of law that you would pass on as advice to a lawyer who just passed the bar this year?
Do not neglect yourself. The legal profession is a service industry, and if you are not careful, you may find yourself spending so much time trying to meet everyone else’s needs, while leaving little (or no) time to check in on your physical, mental, or spiritual well-being. Remember, you cannot pour from an empty cup.
Where did you grow up? What drew you to settle in North Carolina?
I spent the first 11 years of my life growing up in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood of Cleveland, Ohio. Then, my family moved to Twinsburg, Ohio, home of the Twins Days Festival, otherwise known as the world’s largest annual gathering of twins. My move to North Carolina was actually a decision that I made with my immediate family. We wanted to be closer to extended family who already lived in the Carolinas, and the much warmer weather was definitely icing on the cake.
Describe a perfect day off.
That’s easy. My cellphone and laptop are turned off for the entire day. Because I spend so much of my time responding to multiple “rings,” “chimes,” and “beeps,” I really treasure silence. My perfect day off also includes yoga or meditation, some affirmation journaling, and a good smoothie.