PHILADELPHIA --- In early 1994, University of Buffalo law school graduate Wanda Richards excitedly attended her first local bar association event. As she sat down at her table, she noticed herself as the only African-American attorney present. This didn’t bother her until she said good morning to others at the table, and no one responded.
“I sat in that event and watched people, that were my colleagues, interact with everyone but me,” Richards said. “I expected a handful of people who wouldn’t be friendly, but to experience complete silence was very different and very telling for me.”
The Brooklyn, NY, native then came to discover there were two practicing African-American attorneys in the local area. She had the pleasure of meeting both, and they encouraged her to talk with Judge Horace Davenport, the first African-American judge elected to the Montgomery County court in 1975.
With inspiration from Judge Davenport and others, Richards’ passion for helping others blossomed when she relocated to the suburbs of Philadelphia in 1994. She served on the boards of local non-profit organizations, including one that assisted homeless individuals and another that provided aid with life skills for individuals with mental health issues. In addition, she mentored children through the local bar association’s partnership with Big Brothers & Big Sisters.
One example of Richards’ ongoing commitment is the two-year mentorship that developed from attending an event for lawyers in 2013. Richards met a first-year law student, and they engaged in a simple conversation about law school and practicing law. Today, Richards regularly chats with the now third-year law student to hear about school and life and offers advice on the next steps of her career, professionally and personally.
“My goal is to mentor anyone that wants help. There were no lawyers in my family to give me professional advice, but I’ve been blessed with people who took the time to have a simple conversation with me and give me that little push to get to the next level,” Richards said. “I’m more than committed to give back that help.”
For a woman of color, Richards didn’t follow a traditional career path. She graduated high school at 16 and started college to become a doctor, inspired by the African-American doctors who cared for her family. When the lab work helped her realize that practicing medicine was not her calling, she pursued accounting. Her love of business eventually led her to corporate law.
During Richards’ career in the Mid-Atlantic region, she has also worked in a compliance role for various financial institutions. This expertise allowed her, as a board member, to play an active role in enhancing the compliance program of an African American-owned bank. She joined PNC in 2010 and has leadership roles in PNC’s African-American Employee Business Resource Group and the legal department’s Diversity and Inclusion Council.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2016, Richards participated in the Legal Pro Bono Project organized by PNC’s legal department. The company’s attorneys volunteer to counsel area residents who can’t afford legal services. Richards volunteered to assist senior citizens with advance planning documents, including wills and living wills.
Although she supports the project throughout the year, participating on Martin Luther King Day was special to her. Before the group of attorneys from PNC and other firms met with their assigned “clients,” each volunteer read a line from Dr. King's famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
People have obviously read it before, but everyone reading it out loud made the words feel more powerful. It was a nice tribute and a unique way to honor Dr. King.
In addition to the volunteer activity, she attended a MLK celebration luncheon honoring Judge Davenport, who had inspired her as a young lawyer. She felt her career come full circle as she watched him accept the humanitarian award from Judge Garret Page. Judge Page was one of the two African-American lawyers she met years ago.
“Although I see progress for people of color in law, there is a lot of work to be done. Programs like the PNC’s diversity council and other types of initiatives spearheaded by legal groups, such as the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, can only help push us all forward.”
The numbers aren’t promising, and other African-American women in the legal profession will face the same struggles I did. Will they be the only one sitting in a room somewhere like me? Yes, but they are there. Everyone – male, female, black, white – can be a mentor. Just saying hello is a start to making a big impact – it did for me.
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