CHICAGO – Juan Thomas was a senior in college, a bit adrift and unsure where life might take him next, when he woke up to the news one morning that Carol Moseley Braun had beaten serious odds to win the 1992 primary for Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat. The Chicago-area native decided then that he would return to his home state to help her become the first black woman senator. “It gave me a sense of purpose and direction,” Thomas said.
Twenty-five years later, after several forays into politics, Thomas feels a new, weighty purpose as president of the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest and oldest network of black lawyers and judges.
The Chicago attorney has taken the helm of the 92-year-old organization during what he believes is a time of national crisis — “a crisis of consciousness, a crisis of character and a crisis of competence,” he said.
One of Thomas’ first orders of business as he began his one-year term in early August was to announce that chapters will provide pro bono legal services to peaceful counterprotesters arrested at white supremacist rallies. That offer does not extend to those who resort to violence.
Thomas, 46, is founder of the Thomas Law Group and of counsel to Quintairos, Prieto, Wood and Boyer. He graduated from Morehouse College, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta, and got his law degree at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
Thomas has served as a township clerk, as a member of a school board, and as labor counsel to the Illinois secretary of state. He traces his political experience to high school, when he was president of the Illinois Association of Student Councils.
“I was kind of a nerd, if you will,” he said. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: How do you view the role of the National Bar Association in the context of the current state of the country?
A: At no point in my lifetime have we seen what we are seeing today, what I consider an attack on our democracy, our rule of law, when people in high office question the competency of judges because of their ethnicity, when we have a president that will deliberately create terms like “fake news” and attack the media. There is a serious problem in our society when that becomes normalized. I believe black lawyers need to be the conscience of the nation and speak out because so much of what our country is has been built on the backs and the sweat and tears of people of color.
Q: What’s an urgent priority you want the association to address?
A: We just launched our political action committee, and we are trying to raise money to help elect candidates who support our legislative and policy agenda.
Q: How do you think companies’ diversity and inclusion policies are going?
A: There’s still room to grow. For me, it’s truly about inclusion, and are we allowing people to be who they are. I don’t like these white supremacists marching either, but that’s easy to call racism. What’s much more impactful is the implicit bias, the different standard of review. It’s not that you deny me because I’m black; you evaluate me differently because I’m black.