Anita Hill announced today she is returning to Washington part time to take a position at the plaintiffs firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, saying she wants to merge her academic experience with the on-the-ground practice of civil rights litigation.
Hill, who teaches social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University outside Boston, will be of counsel in the civil rights and employment practice group. She said she was attracted to the firm's pursuit of class action litigation.
She will continue to teach at Brandeis, where her courses have recently included race and the law, and social justice and the Obama administration. Hill started at the firm earlier this month. She said she will be at Cohen Milstein in person as much as she is needed there and as her schedule allows.
In an interview Thursday afternoon, Hill, 54, said she wants to provide a unique perspective on what she described as "systemic" discrimination. Discrimination, she said, “is not just about individual’s behavior, one employer, or a manager, discriminating or treating an employee different.”
“I see it as a much larger problem than a single case or a single area of the law,” she said. “I think discrimination is complex and that it shows its face in many ways. I want to see what I can contribute when looking at cases. Is this an area that we have been overlooking? Perhaps economic inequality or cultural inequality that perhaps we haven’t thought about in addressing plaintiffs’ rights.”
At Brandeis, Hill has worked with economists, sociologists, historians and anthropologists. “What I am trying to do is build on that knowledge base and bring that to the practice,” she said.
Hill said she regularly receives letters and phone calls from people who express stories of inequality. Some are seeking legal help. Others share their personal experience.
“I can bring that conversation to the firm,” she said. “It’s not just me coming out with ivory tower ideas. I come in with a connection to people who are experiencing perhaps a violation of their rights or the sentiment their rights are being violated.”
Cohen Milstein name partner Joseph Sellers, who heads the firm’s civil rights and employment practice group, said Hill first approached him last summer about joining the firm. Sellers said he and Hill have had regular meetings since then.
There are no boundaries in terms of hourly expectations and how much time she will spend in the office, Sellers said. He said he expects Hill to be a part of litigation strategy and will help inform legal teams on non-monetary remedies in civil rights actions.
“She brings a new dimension to the way we will practice law at the firm,” Sellers said. “She approaches the issue of discrimination from a systemic perspective. Rather than looking specifically at issues of employment discrimination or housing, she looks at discrimination as a broader phenomenon.”
Sellers was lead counsel for the female plaintiffs in the landmark gender discrimination class action Wal-Mart v. Dukes. The Supreme Court said in a major ruling in June the female plaintiff-employees of Wal-Mart do not have enough in common to pursue a national class.
Hill declined to comment on the high court’s 5-4 ruling, which some observers said could make building class actions more difficult.
“The only thing I would say is I continue to believe that class actions are an important element in combating discrimination,” she said. “They will continue. A lot of people were discouraged (by the ruling) but those cases will continue.”
Hill’s return to a law firm comes several months before the 20th anniversary of her testimony at Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, where she accused the future U.S. Supreme Court justice of sexual harassment. Hill, in the interview, declined to discuss Thomas and the Supreme Court.
Hill said at the Senate Judiciary Hearing in October 1991 that Thomas’ unwanted advances and commentary about pornographic movies marred her professional relationship with him.
Born on a farm in Oklahoma, the youngest of 13 siblings, Hill received her law degree from Yale in 1980. After graduation, she worked in Washington at the firm of Wald, Harkrader & Ross.
In her 1997 book “Speaking Truth To Power,” Hill said she regularly walked to her office, near Dupont Circle, from her apartment in Adams Morgan. (She declined Thursday to discuss her experience at Wald.)
At the firm, she focused mainly on business law. By the spring of 1981, Hill said she had not developed a niche at the firm and began looking for other professional outlets.
“Some of the work was intellectually stimulating, but I felt very little personal investment in it or in the process by which I might ultimately become a partner,” she said in her book.
Hill was introduced to Thomas in 1981, and she soon became special counsel to him during his role as the assistant secretary of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
Thomas, in an interview with the CBS News program “60 Minutes” in 2007, said Hill “was not the demure, religious, conservative person that they portrayed.” Hill said in published reports at the time that the intensity of Thomas’ position, years after the fact, surprised her.
Last year, Justice Thomas’ wife, Virginia, left a voice message with Hill at her Brandeis office seeking an apology from her. “I would love you to consider an apology sometime and some full explanation of why you did what you did with my husband,” Virginia Thomas said, according to published reports.
“I appreciate that no offense was intended, but she can’t ask for an apology without suggesting that I did something wrong, and that is offensive,” Hill told The New York Times.
Sellers said today he and Hill have not discussed her Capitol Hill testimony.
“She feels and I feel really strongly that what we want from her is not to relive what happened in 1991,” Sellers said. “The fact she may have gotten a lot of attention a long time ago is, I think, not irrelevant but is not the reason we hired her. We are looking at the future, not the past.”