Photography by Jamie Betts
Photography by Jamie Betts

On a December afternoon, six Richmond Law alumni returned to campus and gathered in the school’s Moot Courtroom.

Given their proximity in age (only four years at most separated them) and having frequently crossed paths in courtrooms and professional circles through the years, an easy camaraderie was evident. Some had become acquainted in the early stages of their legal careers, but others had known each other as classmates at various levels of education, through their families, and in one instance, literally since birth.

But the common thread shared by each member of this small cohort of African American Richmond Law alumni — Mary Malveaux, L’93; Linda Lambert, L’95; Brice Lambert, L’97; Randall Johnson, L’98; Vanessa Jones, C’97 and L’01; and Jacqueline McClenney, L’03 — are commitments to public service and to greater Richmond, the region in which they were raised.

As they distinguished themselves as attorneys, each was presented with the opportunity to further contribute to the community in a different role — as a judge. And while their individual paths to the bench have been different — whether they now sit on the state’s Court of Appeals or courts in the city of Richmond and the adjacent suburbs of Chesterfield and Henrico counties, or whether they juggle private practice as a substitute judge — their devotion to serving the region has never waned.

The Hon. Brice Lambert, L’97 and Linda Lambert, L’95
At his July 2019 investiture ceremony, the Hon. Brice Lambert, L’97, was introduced by his law partner, someone who was familiar with both the breadth of his legal knowledge and formative childhood moments: his sister and law partner, Linda Lambert, L’95.

While Brice left private practice to sit on the bench of the Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court and Linda became a solo practitioner, they both continue to work in the family business — local advocacy.

After each of their graduations from Richmond Law, they received continuing legal education by learning the ins and outs of the profession alongside their father, Leonard Lambert Sr., who founded Lambert & Associates. The elder Lambert — who, in 1973, became the first African American in the city to hold a judgeship when he was appointed a substitute judge for the court where his son now presides — taught the pair by example and through the respect he commanded in Richmond’s legal and civic communities.

“Growing up, we never felt pressured to go into the profession,” said Linda, who also serves as a substitute judge on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court of Henrico County. “We knew our dad was a lawyer, but I don’t think until we got a little bit older and got a little more hands-on did we actually realize what he was doing professionally and for the public and for the community and just how engaged he was.”

But simply having a law degree and an established partner for a father didn’t pave the way to instant success when they started out as practicing attorneys.

“We still had to make a name for ourselves,” Brice said. “The name might have opened a door, but you still had to prove yourself because people aren't going to want you to represent them unless you know what you’re doing.”
Over the years, the siblings have carved out their own reputations in their hometown, though the process isn’t without its challenges. For example, Linda’s dual roles of attorney and substitute judge are a balancing act, as Brice recognizes from his own experience.

“What’s difficult is you’re still a lawyer,” he said. “You have clients who are still waiting to hear from you, but you’re on the bench all day. You can’t just field phone calls, text messages, and emails all day. You’ve got to wait, and then when you get off, put your lawyer hat right back on. That’s when you realize, even though there's stress and there's pressure with being a judge, it’s very different than being in private practice. To me, [being a judge] is less stressful, just because of the pressure that clients can put you under.”

But even with different circumstances, their father’s ethos, particularly when it comes to preparation, has helped Brice find his way early in his full-time tenure on the bench.

“I’m here to serve the public,” he said. “The least I can do is show up on time and be prepared and make sure everyone feels like they had their day in court, which I think has to do with treating people with respect, regardless of why they’re there.”

After all, as Linda noted, “We are, in essence, a reflection of him. We don't want to do anything to stain that reflection.”

 

The Hon. Jacqueline McClenney, L’03
The stories she heard as a little girl — about her grandfather, the president of a historically black college, participating in the civil rights movement — and witnessing her own father’s local activism inspired the Hon. Jacqueline McClenney, L’03.

“Their life stories are imprinted in the fabric of everything that I do,” said McClenney, a Richmond General 
District Court judge.

What she took from her family lore, including that of her mother, an elementary school principal, was a devotion to her community. After college, McClenney threw herself into multiple civic endeavors in Richmond, including serving two terms on the city’s school board and chairing the board of Venture Richmond, a prominent community improvement organization.

But the primary way that she’s advocated for her hometown is through the legal profession. While she never planned to become a lawyer, McClenney now acknowledges that childhood memories of her father, Earl McClenney Jr., L’80, studying for the bar exam were likely a subconscious influence. The father-daughter Richmond Law alumni pair each became students after having launched professional careers.

“My father finished law school when I was 9,” said McClenney, an ordained minister who practiced criminal defense and represented abused and neglected minors before sitting on the bench. “I remember reading his bar books as a little girl.”

Her deep connections to the community mean some of the people she sees in her courtroom have a familiarity with her outside of the judicial system. While the in-court encounters don’t always come under the most pleasant of circumstances, McClenney is confident her background and reputation inspire confidence in the objectivity of her decisions.

“I want people to respect not me, but the position,” she said. “I hope when people cross that threshold, if they have a story, they’ll think, ‘She’s going to hear what I have to say.’”

A homegrown panel
Left to right: Linda Lambert, L'95, the Hon. Brice Lambert, L'97, the Hon. Jacqueline McClenney, L'03

The Hon. Mary Malveaux, L’93
Because she has a mother who was a pediatrician and a brother who also became a doctor, the Hon. Mary Malveaux, L’93, refers to herself as the “black sheep” of her family. But if there was a catalyst for her chosen path, it was tied to her family.

Malveaux describes the journey of her aunt, whom she observed attend law school and become an attorney, as instrumental in her interest in the law, particularly criminal defense.

A Richmond Law externship with the Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office led to her first job out of law school. The reputation she built locally as a prosecutor and a defense attorney led to her becoming the first African American woman to serve on the county’s General District Court in 2011 and eventually as its chief judge.

“I did not think about [becoming a judge] as I was practicing law until a couple of people who were older and more established asked if I’d ever thought about it,” she said. “It did not really enter my consciousness, so to speak.

“Once I started to think about it and I had other colleagues that did end up going to the bench, getting a little bit of a glimpse of that, I recognized it was a different way of practicing law.”

In 2016, Malveaux was elected to the Virginia Court of Appeals. Her priorities have shifted from hearing case after case and managing associated tasks to spending the majority of her time writing opinions and preparing to hear oral arguments alongside a panel of colleagues.

“It’s really interesting and fun, an intellectually satisfying and interesting job, but it’s different in terms of the pace,” she said. “It allows us to be able to step back, and you’ve got a little bit more luxury to really delve into cases that we’re reviewing.

“I think behind the curtain is different from what you see in front of the curtain.”

As time goes on, you realize you're no longer one of those young people, that you are now in a position where people are looking up to you. And I'm very conscious of that.

The Hon. Randall Johnson Jr., L’98
The Hon. Randall Johnson Jr., L’98, never intended to follow in his late father’s footsteps. Not during his childhood on Richmond’s South Side, not when he first enrolled in college, and not even while he was working as a prosecutor in the Commonwealth's Attorney’s Office in Richmond.

But looking back, he realizes he was being prepared for his future all along.

“Growing up in his house, I knew the lifestyle of a judge,” he said of his father, a civil rights attorney who became a Richmond Circuit Court judge. “Just intuitively, I knew what you should and shouldn't do because you have to conduct yourself in a certain way off the bench if you're a judge. So when I became a judge, it wasn't a shock to me.”

Later, as a young prosecutor in the city, Johnson sought his father’s counsel about his trial performances.

“In between cases, if I knew he was off the bench, I would go back and we would sit almost on a daily basis, talk about things, and he would know how I did in court sometimes where I didn’t,” said the younger Johnson, who was appointed a Henrico Circuit Court judge in 2019 after serving as the chief judge of the juvenile and domestic relations court in the same county.

“The other judges would say, ‘Yeah, I just had Randy in court, and he messed this up,’ or, ‘He did well in this.’”
From those conversations, Johnson, who also teaches lawyering skills as an adjunct professor at Richmond Law, gleaned the value of passing down knowledge to the next generation.

“You look up to these people, and as time goes on, you realize you’re no longer one of the young people, that you are now in a position where people are looking up to you,” he said. “And I’m very conscious of that.”

A homegrown panel
Left to right: the Hon. Mary Malveaux, L'93, the Hon. Randall Johnson Jr., L'98, the Hon. Vanessa Jones, C'97 and L'01

The Hon. Vanessa Jones, C’97 and L’01
As a young woman working in administrative and paralegal roles at various law firms, the Hon. Vanessa Jones, C’97 and L’01, had an epiphany: “After observing and working with several lawyers, I believed I could work in the same capacity. So, I decided to further my career and fulfill my purpose.”

She enrolled in Richmond’s University College (now the School of Professional and Continuing Studies), taking classes in paralegal studies at night while continuing to work full time during the day. After earning a bachelor’s degree, Jones, now a juvenile and domestic relations court judge in the Richmond suburbs of Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights, became a student at Richmond Law.

“When I entered Richmond Law, I immediately noticed that there were other non-traditional students with different educational backgrounds and work experiences,” she said. “In my opinion, it was beneficial and advantageous to have worked in the legal community and to have had a basic knowledge of the law.”

At Richmond Law, Jones’ involvement in the Journal of Law and Technology, mentoring from faculty, and judicial clerkship with the Henrico County Circuit Court only added to her preparation. She poured herself into the legal profession, learning the ins and outs of the trade in civil and criminal law, including with the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in Richmond, making lasting professional connections.

She embarked on a career as a family law attorney, working for more than a dozen years in the field before she was unexpectedly approached about becoming a judge. With the knowledge that she’d be hearing cases similar to those she tried — involving issues such as child custody, child and spousal support, and domestic violence — Jones ultimately decided, “I can provide justice in a different way.”

Given the unconventional route she took to the bench, her rationale was fitting.

Aggrey Sam is the editor of Richmond Law magazine.