A Conversation with Leroy Pernell, Interim Dean and Professor of Law Florida A&M University College of Law
(The second in a series of profiles of FAMU Law Faculty, Leadership, and Program Directors)
Interviewer: What does it mean to be a “Rattler for Justice”?
Dean: To me, being a Rattler for Justice means you are committed to understanding the past, how to apply it to the present, and plan for the future. It is a concept that means that you are committed to making a transformative difference in the world around you.
Interviewer: What is the greatest benefit of selecting the FAMU College of Law?
Dean: I think one of the greatest benefits of selecting the College of Law is its commitment to mission and its commitment to preparing students to be the best they can be. When you’re a student at FAMU, you know that you have a family that’s supporting you and you have a faculty that encourages you.
Interviewer: What specific approaches to excellence would you share with a young person today who has aspirations of becoming a “Rattler for Justice”?
Dean: The first approach to becoming a Rattler for Justice is commitment. And, that means commitment for the long haul. You must be prepared for times when you have to stand up and believe in what you’re doing, even when no one else believes in you. And that is one of the toughest things that can happen. Sometimes, you have to be prepared not only to succeed, but also be prepared to fail. You won’t always be right, and you won’t always achieve what you want. But if you stay committed to the long-term goal, I think that prepares you more than anything else.
Interviewer: Is there an episode that took place that encouraged you to become a lawyer or was it something you always knew you wanted to be?
Dean: Well, I think what encouraged me to become a lawyer, is that I grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, in an impoverished community and I saw what it meant for people not to have a voice.
Interviewer: Interesting. Where do you get your courage?
Dean: I don’t think of it as courage. That’s a concept that doesn’t naturally occur to me. But what I do think of is commitment. I’m a very spiritual person, so a large part of who I am means I stand for what I believe in and fight for what is right — regardless of the obstacle. I don’t know if you call that courage. But I call it focus, and I call it understanding. That achievement is never easy. It doesn’t mean you’re not scared or worried, and it doesn’t mean that sometimes you don’t get tired. But it does mean that you’re willing to see it through to the end.
Interviewer: How would you like to be remembered?
Dean: I have a total of 21 years of being the dean of a law school. And I think that sort of puts me at a point where I would like to be remembered as somebody who cared for more than just the institution. I’d like to be known as someone who was a champion for a community, for a region, for a nation. I would measure my success to the extent to which I have had some type of positive impact on a broader field.
Interviewer: Where do you see the College of Law five to 10 years from now?
Dean: What I see ahead for the College of Law, is a primary role that’s built on our history and the skills of the students that we educate. A primary role in tackling major social and political issues, as well as legal issues of our time, a function that is a unique combination. Not only being a historically black law school but as one of the leading diversity law schools in the country. We combine perspectives from so many different directions that our voice is a unique one. And I think we are at a time when unique voices are very much needed. We can’t solve old problems with old ideas and I think this law school is what’s new. This law school is what the future is all about. You know, the American Bar Association has pushed for a long time, this notion of mission and diversity they want all the law schools to achieve. Well, the model for that diversity is Florida A&M University College of Law, and so when we have that type of resource and that type of perspective, our future is that we will do things. We will continue to do things that no other law school can do and when they want to try to do some of those things they will have to turn to FAMU to learn how to do it.
Interviewer: What advice would you give your 19-year-old self today?
Dean: A lot of people talk about being first-generation college. I am first generation high school in my single-parent family. There were those who would say that was a limitation, that I shouldn’t expect to do more than a certain number of things. And, so if I had to, in fact, speak back to my nineteen-year old self, I would tell him, “Stay the course 19-year-old self. Don’t let other people define you. Don’t let other people limit you. Take greater advantage of opportunities.” My 19-year-old self was looking at the real possibility of having to fight in Vietnam, a conflict that I knew as a 19-year old, was wrong. And my concern was not necessary physical safety because I was in Bedford Stuyvesant, you know, where it was much more dangerous. But I knew it was wrong. My 19-year old self didn’t know what to do about that, didn’t know what to do about people who were suffering and maybe suffering. But I still believed in the future, in a purpose and greater ideal of this country. I’d like to think in the end my 19-year old self made the right choices.