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Born and raised in inner-city North Philadelphia, John G. McNeill recalls a lawyer who visited his elementary school of predominately Black teachers.

“One of my teachers in fourth grade brought in this white lady who was a lawyer to talk to our class,” McNeill said. The lawyer didn’t talk about the courtroom dramas on TV. “She talked about the little things, like looking at documents, lease contracts, apartment contracts, and installment agreements.”

As the lawyer talked about the importance of looking at documents, young McNeill thought about conversations overheard while listening to his father – a hardworking man with little education – and his father’s friends. “I’d heard them all my life talking about all these little things that they just didn’t understand,” he said.

McNeill said he wishes he could remember the name of the woman who presented that day because she planted the first seed that led to him becoming a lawyer.

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from the University of Wyoming, McNeill enrolled in law school at the UK College of Law, now the UK J. David Rosenberg College of Law, graduating in 1982. He became the first African American lawyer in the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government Department of Law. In 1985, he joined Landrum, Shouse and Patterson (now Landrum & Shouse LLP) as the first African American associate in any majority law firm in Lexington.

UK Rosenberg College of Law Alumni Association inducted McNeill into its Alumni Hall of Fame in 2016.

“I’m a firm believer in ‘nobody accomplishes anything solely on their own,’” McNeill said. “At different stops along the way, I’ve been blessed enough to have had some great mentors.”

McNeill’s parents stressed the importance of education and hard work his entire life, so he felt prepared for high school and college. “And then when I got to law school, it was a little bit different because everybody was smart. Everybody was the best and brightest,” he said.

The only African American faculty member in the law school, William “Bill” James, became one of McNeill’s mentors. James was the first African American librarian at the University of Kentucky, joining the university as the director of the College of Law Library in 1974. McNeill said James also mentored the other five Black students, and the small group of students supported each other.

“Bill James was a very, very important person to me because he would check up on us … to make sure we were doing the right things,” McNeill said.

He said his law professors were also supportive and accessible. McNeill said students should be receptive to help, especially in law school where students can sometimes fall quickly behind.

“I never perceived, as a Black student at the law school, that the white students were against us,” McNeill said. “I didn’t perceive that. Now, whether or not folks thought we weren’t as smart as they were – that may be.”

McNeill is a member of the original Henry Clay Chapter of the American Inns of Court and the revitalized Central Kentucky Inns of Court. He served as an adjunct law professor at UK, teaching in litigation skills, from 1990 to 2002. In 2014, UK honored him with the Torch of Excellence Award at the 24th Annual Lyman T. Johnson Celebration.

Asked to  share advice for current law students, McNeill said “the first and only focus should be getting good grades … you have to be disciplined, you have to be focused and, during that first year, I don’t care how smart you think you are, do not presume that you’re the best person in the room.”

McNeill said Black students sometimes cluster together, but students should look for study groups that fit their needs. “That may be an African American study group, but it may not be. And if it isn’t, go where it best suits your needs to succeed, your success, because that is what it’s all about.”

By Shawntaye Hopkins
Feb. 23, 2021