Inspiring, Celebrating & Empowering
Solo & Small Law Firms

A Solo Who Inspired

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Many people dream of starting a law firm to make money or achieve work-life balance, but for me, it’s always been about immortality:  finding a way to leave my own little, but indelible mark on the law.  I’m still working hard on that goal, but if you want to get a sense of the heights that you can reach by starting a law firm, take a look at the legacy of this trailblazing, independent African American lawyer, Mahala Ashely Dickerson, who ran her own firm for over 40 years and just passed away at the age of 94 according to this article, Pioneer Alaska Lawyer Dickerson Dies at 94.

According to the article, Mahala was divorced and already had young children (6 year old triplets!) when she went to Howard Law School, graduating in 1936.  She worked in Indiana and Alabama before moving to Alaska with her sons, where she opened a law practice in 1959.  According to the article:

Dickerson had a reputation as an advocate for the poor and underprivileged. She argued many cases involving racial and gender discrimination, taking on the Anchorage Police Department and the University of Alaska, among other institutions.

According to the article, Dickerson was still working twelve hour days at age 71 and finally retired from her practice at 91.  She mentored young lawyers and represented clients who didn’t have the means to pay and for whom she fought aggressively.  Said one attorney quoted in the article:

I remember one lawyer telling me one time, he said, ‘Rex, you see those mountains out there?’ He said, ‘Those mountains are littered with the bones of lawyers who underestimated M. Ashley Dickerson.’

The article concludes:

Dickerson’s legacy will be the way she overcame obstacles, giving back to the community, said Celeste Hodge, former local head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who now runs Mayor Mark Begich’s office of equal opportunity.

What legacy do you want to leave?

  • Carolyn, once again, your blog has inspired me to purchase a book. After reading your excerpt from “A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law” I rushed out and purchased the book, read it in an hour and recommended it to all of my friends, lawyer and non-lawyer. (As a former BigLaw associate this book would have been invaluable twenty years ago; even now it is a very good resource.
    And now, because of you, I have become aware of Mahala Dickerson’s inspiring story and ordered “Delayed Justice for Sale”. I am very surprised that I have never before encountered Ms. Dickerson; although I am intimately acquainted with the legacies of many of her Howard Law School classmates: Thurgood Marshall, Charles Houston and William Hastie.
    What a great biography for any attorney to read and it is especially relevant to me, as a divorced mother of two who is also a Black attorney. When this woman has accomplished so much despite the tremendous racial and gender discrimination of her time, how can I do any less?
    Thanks again Carolyn. Making MyShingle my homepage was a great decision.

  • Kelly Blalock

    I am one of the many non-lawyer Alaskans who was lucky enough to have known M. Ashley Dickerson. We called her Mahala when my father clerked for her in her Wasilla office for two years after getting his law degree from LaSalle out of Chicago (while teaching full time). I developed a great admiration for her innate and overriding respect for all people, and the attitude that we create most of our own barriers, and we can overcome nearly all of those set in our paths by others. I remember being able to just sit down with her occasionally and debate politics and the law, just for fun. I always knew that her brain would challenge me and my mental function to the highest performance it was capable of, and she was still that way the last time we chatted about 2 years ago.

  • Thank you Carolyn. An inspiring story for everyone.

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