Alexis Hoag ’08, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) senior counsel, received the 2019 Woman of Distinction Award from the Women of Color Collective (WoCC) at a reception on February 13. In remarks to an audience that included classmates, LDF colleagues, and current and former WoCC members, Hoag spoke about her path to LDF and highlighted how being a woman of color has helped her to better represent her clients.
“As women of color lawyers, our experiences allow us to approach advocacy from a unique perspective,” Hoag said. “Being a successful lawyer does not require you to stifle aspects of your identity. You are an asset because of who you already are, not because of some version that you think you need to become.”
As a child growing up, Hoag said, she did not know any black lawyers, let alone any black women who were lawyers. “So it took some audacity for me to decide that I wanted to go to law school,” Hoag said. “I knew lawyers had power and I wanted that. I wanted to know the rules, I wanted to know how systems work, and I wanted to lead and serve and empower people like my family.” Her experience at NYU Law, Hoag said, was critical in helping her do that. Professors such as Kim Taylor Thompson, Bryan Stevenson, Vice Dean Randy Hertz, and Anthony Thompson helped inspire her interest in criminal justice and public defense.
Taylor-Thompson’s Criminal Law course her 1L year was particularly striking, Hoag said: “For the first time… I saw [a model] of myself in the classroom.” Another NYU Law professor, the late Derrick Bell, “taught me that storytelling has an appropriate place in the law. And he shared some of his own struggles as a young lawyer at LDF alongside Thurgood Marshall in the early 1960s,” Hoag recalled.
Following law school, Hoag worked as a law clerk—for Judge John T. Nixon of the US District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville—an experience that she urged the students in the room to consider pursuing. After her clerkship ended, Hoag transferred “across the street” to become assistant federal public defender in the Capital Habeas Unit of the Federal Public Defenders for the Middle District of Tennessee in Nashville. “My goal was to show my client’s humanity to a federal judge, and to convince a court that my client’s life was worth saving. I bore witness, I catalogued trauma, and I showed my client, through the efforts of our team, that their life mattered,” she said.
Hoag was a capital defender for eight years. One day, giving a continuing legal education (CLE) training, Hoag made a troubling observation: “There were few women in the room, and even fewer people of color. And here we all were, presenting the life stories of our clients, many of whom were black, all of whom were poor. And a lot of the practitioners had little exposure to black people, poverty, and otherness.” One client, a black man who had been on death row since 1987, told her that she was the first black person he had met since his imprisonment who wasn’t an inmate or correctional officer. These encounters, Hoag said, catalyzed her decision to work at LDF: “I knew then that I needed to be doing more.”
When she started at LDF in 2017, Hoag noted, she was in good company: Her classmate Natasha Merle ’08 was already working there, and Sherrilyn Ifill ’87 was and is still LDF’s president and director-counsel. At LDF, Hoag has continued to represent individuals who have received death sentences as well as to advocate for criminal justice reform. Most recently, two weeks before accepting the Woman of Distinction Award, Hoag argued before the Ohio Supreme Court in State of Ohio v. Glen E. Bates that a man on death row was convicted and sentenced by a jury with racial bias. (At publication time, the court had not yet ruled in the case.)
WoCC co-chair Gabriella Larios ’20, in presenting Hoag with the award, said that she was inspired by Hoag’s career and hoped to follow in her footsteps. “I see you here in 12 years,” Hoag replied. “The Women of Color Collective at NYU fills me with hope and joy. You all are creating community, you are celebrating each other, and you’re creating institutional change… so I thank you for that.”
Posted March 18, 2019