A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Fisk University, Harris became Vanderbilt’s first-ever African American female graduate. Her 37-year legal career included government service and work as a corporate counsel at several major financial institutions. Harris has been active in community service, serving on the YWCA’s national board and helping to found CABLE, a Nashville networking group for professional women, where she also served as president.
“Janie was a pioneer at Vanderbilt Law School and in the legal profession, and throughout her career, she worked to roll out the welcome mat for the next generation of professional women,” said Chris Guthrie, Dean and John Wade-Kent Syverud professor of Law. “It’s a great pleasure to honor her for her career contributions and tremendous legacy of community service.”
Harris spent 12 years working for the federal government as an attorney in the Government Accountability Office and in the Department of Defense’s Missile Defense Agency, and as a trial lawyer in the Department of Labor’s Office of the Solicitor. She then moved into the private sector, focusing on employee benefits law as in-house counsel in the trust departments of several major financial institutions, including Regions Bank, Bank of America and U.S. Bancorp. “Fortunately for me, I entered the profession just when some employers were starting to recognize that race and gender had no bearing on a lawyer’s competence,” she said. “And, fortunately for them, Vanderbilt had trained me to be an extremely competent lawyer.”
Having benefited from the YWCA’s Y-Teen program while growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Harris began volunteering with the YWCA while working as a corporate legal counsel in Nashville. “I realized what it meant to break barriers, and I wanted to empower the next generation,” she said. “I also wanted to ensure that disadvantaged women of all races are able to thrive and contribute.” After retiring in 2001, she quickly became active in the YWCA Greater Baltimore area, ultimately serving as president of its board.
Harris has lived in Nashville since 2004. She is a past member of the law school’s Board of Advisors. She was honored as Vanderbilt Law’s first African American woman graduate at the Black Law Students Association Dinner in 2015.