As an intern with federal district court Judge Clarence Cooper of the Northern District of Georgia during summer 2013, Jessica Nwokocha was able to work closely with someone she had long considered a role model. Nwokocha grew up in Atlanta, where Judge Cooper has spent his entire legal career, and had asked the judge for advice before entering law school. “I kept in touch with him, and when I contacted him about an internship, he remembered me,” she said.
“The experience of interning with Judge Cooper was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He was the second African-American federal judge ever appointed to the federal bench in the Northern District of Georgia, the first African-American judge appointed full-time to the Atlanta Municipal Court, and he had worked as a prosecutor, as a county judge and as a state appellate judge,” she said. “Judge Cooper was the first African-American to serve in many of those positions. He can really speak to what it takes to be a good, ethical lawyer and to what it means to be a trailblazer.”
Nwokocha particularly appreciated the writing experience she gained working with Judge Cooper’s career and term law clerks. “Writing as a law clerk is much different from writing in law school, and I learned a lot from the judge and his clerks about what it takes to be a good writer—getting to the point and saying what’s important,” she said. “And, outside of the work, just by being involved in conversations in chambers, I learned from a judge’s perspective some do’s and don’ts when you appear before a federal judge—approaches that work and things you really want to avoid doing.”
Because Judge Cooper’s career began in the 1960s, during the height of the civil rights movement in Georgia, Nwokocha enjoyed hearing the judge’s recollections of historical events. Hearing about Judge Cooper’s experiences as a young attorney “put a lot of things into perspective for me as an African-American woman and aspiring lawyer,” she said. “I particularly respected him for making it a priority to give African-American law students a chance to clerk.”
To gain litigation experience, she interned in the Fulton County District Attorney’s office and for Fulton County Judge Kimberly Esmond Adams during summer 2012.
When considering law schools, Nwokocha focused on the Southeast. “After four years in D.C., I wanted to be closer to home—and I love living in the South,” she said. After narrowing her choices to two law schools, “I chose Vanderbilt because of its collegial environment. We use that term a lot, but it’s true. Students and faculty were very welcoming, and I knew it was a place where I could thrive and learn the law really well. The class sizes here are smaller, and you have more interaction with professors.”
Nwokocha worked for a year between college and law school as a data specialist in a middle school, an experience that helped prepare her for the rigors of law school. “At 22, I took on a lot of responsibility,” she said. “The school got an entirely new data system, and I not only had to learn it, but I had to teach it to the faculty and staff. I was telling people who were much older than me what to do. It was really rewarding to earn their respect.”
At Vanderbilt, Nwokocha joined the staff of the Journal of Transnational Law, the Moot Court Board, and the Black Law Students Association (BLSA). “During my third year, I took on the role of one of the academic excellence co-chairs for BLSA,” she said. “It was very important to me that African-American law students at Vanderbilt do well. I’m the first person in my family to go to law school, and I don’t have parents who are lawyers who can give me insight. It is crucial that students who share a similar experience are provided with academic support.” One such initiative involves exposing BLSA members to the process of “writing on” to a journal’s staff.
Nwokocha also served as president of the Honor Council, having been first elected to the council as a 1L. Elected by students, Honor Council members address academic discipline issues. “It’s always been important to me to be honest and fair, and I wanted to be part of the process of making sure that we are ethically and morally sound as a law school,” she said. “Vanderbilt has done a very good job in that area.”
After earning her J.D. in 2014, she joined Butler Snow in Birmingham, Alabama, as an associate, and she is now a member of the Alabama Bar.
In October 2015, Nwokocha began serving a one-year clerkship for Judge Cooper of the Northern District of Georgia. “It’s great to have another opportunity to work for Judge Cooper, this time as a clerk,” she said. “I’m learning a lot and getting a lot of good writing experience, and I’m exciting about how I’ll be able to put everything I’ve learned to use in practice.”