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Diversity & Inclusion 2022: Willie J. Epps, Jr.

U.S. Magistrate Judge, U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri

Willie EppsWillie Epps feels that trailblazers can sometimes be overlooked. That’s something he hopes to change.

“My research for the Missouri Law Review shows how Black attorneys fought prejudice within the profession even as they represented Black clients before a sometimes hostile judiciary,” he writes. “This scholarship also spotlights a generation of Missouri Black lawyers who shattered ceilings, sparking progress within the profession.”

Epps chronicled that progress in an exhaustive and groundbreaking 2021 article that examined the history of African-American Missourians in the legal profession going all the way back to 1871. Moreover, Epps has become a part of that history. Elected as student body president at both Amherst College and Harvard Law School, his introduction to the law began in the U.S. Air Force with a stint in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Later, he’d be appointed an assistant special counsel in the investigation into the tragic Branch Davidian raid in Waco, Tex., after serving as special assistant U.S. attorney in both Texas and Massachusetts.

Subsequent to four years as a solo practitioner, Epps assumed a vice-presidency at Charter Communications as chief compliance officer. Prior to his appointment to the U.S District Court, Epps, a fellow of the Missouri Bar Foundation, earned partnerships at both Shook, Hardy & Bacon and Dowd Bennett before becoming associate general counsel at Edward Jones. He was appointed the federal bench in 2017.

Who has most inspired you in your work for Diversity & Inclusion, and why?

A ton of mentors and friends have inspired me. I will start with John W. Kurtz, a white Kansas City plaintiff’s lawyer, who mentors dozens and dozens of young people of color, some of whom now work in our legal profession. Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a retired Black Harvard Law School professor, who poured love and guidance into hundreds of us, including more high-profile lawyers such as Barack Obama, Michelle Robinson Obama, and Ketanji Brown Jackson, when no one knew their names. Judges Duane Benton and Lisa Hardwick for hiring the most diverse law clerks and supporting them with invaluable advice after they leave chambers. Keith and Dana Tippin Cutler for Courageous Conversations, a nationally recognized training program in micro-aggressions and implicit bias.

What must Missouri’s legal community do to promote meaningful and long-term diversity within its legal/justice system?

We must be intentional and sincerely inclusive. We must set meaningful and bold goals. We must implement best practices and demand results. We can make Missouri the envy of the nation if we put our minds to it.

2022 Diversity & Inclusion Awards