A conversation with Beverly Ledbetter ('72) reveals a few things about her: she’s loyal, which she’ll readily admit. She’s also incredibly smart, a trait she’ll play off with her standard humility. Her career has led her to become general counsel for Brown University, a prestigious position she’s decided to keep even when presented with other career opportunities, including a nomination to serve as assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration. The most amazing thing about her successful legal career is perhaps how it started almost by accident.
Ledbetter lived in university towns around the country, but predominantly grew up in Texas. As a young African-American attending public schools in the South, Ledbetter grew up with segregation—both formal and informal. Her parents were both educators and she lived in college towns, including Boulder, for most of her adolescent life. When it came time to choose a college to attend herself, Ledbetter had many options, and she settled on Howard University.
“There were many [Howard] alumni in the Houston area where I lived, and they were a very welcoming group,” Ledbetter said. “At that time there were concerns about how welcoming a majority community is to minorities.”
Ledbetter studied chemistry at Howard, and received a Bachelor of Science degree. Her education was far from over. After a short hiatus, she returned to Colorado to pursue graduate studies. At the time, CU Boulder had initiated outreach programs for first-generation Black and Hispanic college students. As a part of this program, she taught mathematics to minority students. During this time, her education took an accidental turn that shaped the rest of her career—a moment Ledbetter remembers in incredible detail.
While attending a minority career fair to represent a science program at CU, Ledbetter was seated at a table next to the dean of Colorado Law. Most of the fair’s attendees were attracted to a flashy demonstration at an engineering booth across the room, so Ledbetter and the dean had quite a bit of time to talk. At the end of the event, the dean felt Ledbetter would be a good fit for law school and informed her of the LSAT that was being offered at the law school a few weeks later. He encouraged her to take it. Ledbetter did not have a current interest but knew that her cousin, who ran a pharmacy in Denver, had spoken earlier about his interest in law school, so she asked him to take it. They compromised. They would both take it, then go to the Colorado football game after the test. When the day came, Ledbetter’s cousin couldn’t go. So Ledbetter went to the LSAT—having not prepared a second—and did exceedingly well.
She was accepted to Colorado Law, and decided to start attending while still teaching part-time. The thought is almost unbelievable today. Taking the LSAT with no preparation and receiving a high enough score to be accepted to Colorado Law would in and of itself be akin to a miracle. But it was just another day for Ledbetter. She graduated in two and a half years, and remembers her time at Colorado Law fondly, particularly the help of then-Associate Dean Mildred Danielson.
“She was so good,” Ledbetter said. “She [and the rest of the staff] were extremely accommodating. They seemed genuinely pleased to have a diverse student body. It was a place that cared about people.”
“People talk about how terrible law school is,” Ledbetter continued. “I loved law school.”
Danielson helped steer Ledbetter to apply for an opening in the general counsel office at the University of Oklahoma. Notwithstanding that many of her classmates had received letters of rejection, and assuming that her attempt would end similarly, she applied. She was selected for an interview, and drove 10 hours from Boulder to Norman overnight, with her dogs in the backseat. Going into the interview, Ledbetter was exhausted and unsure if it would go well.
“When we came back from lunch with the chief counsel and an associate, we passed by my car, and I said, ‘Thank you for the interview. I look forward to hearing from you,’ but the interview wasn’t done yet,” she recalls. The chief counsel replied, ‘Wait a minute! Can’t you come back to the office?’
“I wanted to know why they were dragging me back to the office. I was dead tired. I was about to fall asleep. He showed me a stack of resumes and mine was up on top, and then offered me the job.”
Ledbetter accepted the position at the University of Oklahoma. She worked as legal counsel and taught occasionally as an adjunct for six years. Her work included national representation on committees setting affirmative action standards for universities, as well as handling almost every type of law you can imagine. Ledbetter could have pursued other opportunities several times, but her loyalty to the school and its administrators kept her from ever being interested in leaving. When the administration at the University of Oklahoma changed, Ledbetter was more amenable to new opportunities. Brown University was creating an office of general counsel and offered the position to her as its first GC. She accepted, and in late 1978, headed to Brown to begin the role that she’s held ever since. Ledbetter has supplemented her role as GC with teaching, including being a visiting professor at Harvard. She’s even been admitted to practice law in front of the United States Supreme Court, though she’s quick to point out she’s never argued a case there.
She also mentions she’s fiercely loyal and hasn’t had any reason to leave Brown yet. That includes a time when she was tapped to serve as an assistant attorney general. The nomination never went forward but Ledbetter wasn’t disappointed. What was it like to be nominated? “Frightening,” Ledbetter said. “I wasn’t prepared for it, and I didn’t pursue it.”
Later, she was contacted about serving as head of a federal office. She quashed the discussion. “You really need to be a political being. I am not. I didn’t really want to leave higher education.”
Ledbetter continues to live in Providence, Rhode Island, and it’s hard for her to imagine leaving. She loves the job and the work that accompanies it. She says she handles every practice area of law except tax, and she loves the variety of work. She says she’s grateful for the opportunity Colorado Law gave her to succeed in the industry, but looking over Ledbetter’s career path, it’s clear she’s as brilliant as they come. Perhaps it’s Colorado Law who’s just as fortunate to have her.
What is your fondest memory of being a student at Colorado Law?
The time that the professors and deans took to make a difference in the lives of the law students.
What do you know now that you wish you had known in law school?
How to take advantage of the many opportunities that a background in law makes possible.
What advice would you give to current students as they’re preparing to graduate?
Embrace the moment—the world is waiting for you to make a difference.
Who was the biggest influence on your career?
Too many to note properly but like so many others, my parents are first on the list. Their example in all things – professional and personal – made life both exciting and fulfilling.
Of what accomplishment are you most proud?
The small ways that I have been of assistance to the volunteer sector, including my work with the Urban League, Girl Scouts, local community service organizations, and Black women’s organizations such as Alpha Kappa Alpha and The Links, Incorporated, and the professional groups that gave me many leadership opportunities. (Ledbetter is a past president of the National Association of College and University Attorneys. She also was a municipal judge—associate justice, city of Providence housing court—for five years.)
Note: In March 2017, Ledbetter will be honored at the Colorado Law Alumni Awards Banquet with a Distinguished Achievement Award for demonstrated excellence in the profession. Learn more.