New Orleans is a wonderful place to meet interesting people and experience some of the best life has to offer. On April 26- 28th, I had the great fortune to serve as the Chair of the DRI Intellectual Property Litigation Seminar in New Orleans. This happened in conjunction with the DRI Business Litigation seminar, creating one big Super Conference at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside.
Many takeaways from the Super Conference came from our keynote speaker, Lesli Harris, an intellectual property lawyer and a current member of the New Orleans City Council. She represents District B, which includes downtown New Orleans. We asked Harris to speak at our conference because of her interesting legal history and decision to become an elected public servant in her community. I was tasked with interviewing Harris before a room full of business and intellectual property litigators. I would like to share what I learned about this impressive lawyer, thinker, and public servant.
Meet the Speaker: Lesli Harris
Originally from Bridgeport, OH, she attended the University of Virginia based on her drive to succeed and the support of strong women in her family. She earned an art history degree but realized this would not lead to employment with a high earning capacity. So she changed tack and went to law school at the Tulane University School of Law. She reasoned that she could use her art background to eventually practice intellectual property law.
In her first job out of law school in 2002, she practiced commercial litigation with a prominent law firm in New Orleans. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, and the city went through an extremely difficult period. Harris’s law practice became dominated by insurance defense cases, and she became frustrated. She felt she had lost her way. So, she took a leave of absence.
Of course, a “leave of absence” for a lawyer is attending the New York University School of Law. She earned her Master of Law degree (LLM) in Trade Regulation with a concentration in intellectual property law. She was able to land a litigation law clerkship at NBC Universal in New York.
Eventually, she returned to New Orleans to practice commercial litigation and entertainment law. She has represented a wide range of clients, including Kevin Costner, the New Orleans Saints, and a variety of startup companies. She also served as the Chief of Staff and Executive Counsel to the President of Loyola University during the 2020 pandemic. In this role, she learned how to put systems and processes in place to protect students, faculty, and staff.
Throughout her legal career, she felt pressure to fit in with the other lawyers at the firms she joined, where she was usually the only black woman lawyer. So, she straightened her hair and made sure she always wore skirts with panty hose. When she brought new clients into the firm, she was not always given credit for her achievement, which made her very unhappy and frustrated.
A friend eventually encouraged her to run for the New Orleans City Council, touting her resourceful problem-solving skills. The City of New Orleans was still struggling with the problems created by Hurricane Katrina and subsequent hurricanes, plus a broken infrastructure and high crime rates.
Harris ran against an incumbent City Council member. She had to learn how to raise funds and campaign for political office… and she won! Her campaign theme was “WE DESERVE BETTER.” At her inauguration, she wore suffragette white along with Helen Moreno, the only other female council member, to bring attention to the fact that they were the only two women out of seven members on the New Orleans City Council.
Harris has learned that serving on City Council is really a full-time job. One major focus for Harris during her council time has been the homeless population and developing solutions to the affordable housing crisis.
Be Unafraid of Change
Many lawyers think about changing the area of law in which they practice. Some consider leaving law for other careers in business, but many are afraid to take the risk of a major change.
Lesli Harris not only changed the area of law in which she practices – she has taken risks by jumping into new fields totally out of her expertise in serving Loyola University and now the City of New Orleans.
In her interview, Harris encouraged young lawyers to get involved in community boards of directors and their local bar association. She strongly believes that lawyers should use their legal skills and knowledge to benefit their communities.
She also encourages young lawyers to take risks and try different areas of the law and different jobs. And she was realistic in her encouragement: she readily admitted that she does not lead a balanced life. Her schedule and her husband’s schedule are both extremely busy, but she believes that she is making an important difference in serving her community.
All in all, I believe Harris is an excellent role model for young lawyers who are smart and willing to challenge themselves to take risks and break down barriers. Consider her story when you feel afraid of change.
Saying Adieu to NOLA
I ended my trip to New Orleans at the Jazz and Music Heritage Festival, where I saw Lizzo perform – another young woman of color breaking down barriers and making a difference. I thoroughly enjoyed my time interviewing and getting to know Lesli Harris, then listening to the music of Lizzo. Like I said, New Orleans is a great place to meet interesting people and experience some of the best life has to offer.