Lauren Champaign: Righting Wrongs & Giving Back

2024 Feature Nominations

Attorney at Law Magazine sat down with Lauren Champaign of Foley & Lardner LLP to discuss her drive to become a lawyer, her time working with Obama for America, her pro bono efforts and the Racial Justice and Equity Practice Group she helped launch. Driven by her desire to improve the lives of people through the law, she has actively pursued a career in corporate litigation, combining her passion for social causes with her legal expertise.

AALM: What first intrigued you about pursuing a legal career?

LC: I was intrigued by the ability to advance and improve the lives of Black people through the law. As soon as I was old enough to tell people what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always say “a lawyer.”

I observed the challenges Black people face in different regions in the United States through moving around frequently as a “military brat.” I also observed these challenges in my hometown on the barrier islands of Charleston, SC. In the Gullah Geechee community — an area along the coast of South Carolina (and also Georgia) where Black people retained much of their African heritage by creating almost a Creole culture and language known as Gullah – I saw the law as an avenue to address many societal ills. I saw how Black people were cut off from the legal system and also how it could be used to help them. I read about the works of Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall, which helped me see the impact lawyers can make.

AALM: Tell us about any mentors you’ve worked with through your career and the best advice they shared with you.

LC: My mother has been my greatest mentor and strength. Without her strength, guidance, intelligence, and fierce determination to make sure my brother and I understood our worth – while also making sure others saw it too – I would not be here. There were so many times where, despite my high grades and test scores, school administrators would try to track me to lower-level classes or take opportunities away from me in discriminatory ways. But my mother never let it happen and she, along with my dad, set high expectations that led to me graduating with honors at every level.

While attending the University of South Carolina, one of my mentors was Cleveland Sellars, the former director of the USC African American Studies Program. Sellars was the only person convicted and jailed for events at the Orangeburg Massacre, a 1968 civil rights protest in which three students were killed by state troopers. He ultimately was unfairly and discriminatorily targeted due to his work to advance civil rights as a leader in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Another was Dr. Bobby Donaldson, one of USC’s first African American professors, who currently oversees the university’s Center for Civil Rights History and Research.

While my family (particularly my mother and father) had already instilled in me a confidence in my abilities, and also a respect for the rich history and culture from which I came, these men continued that on the collegiate level. While my parents ultimately obtained college degrees, they did not have the same journey to that achievement, so I was essentially a first-generation student when I went to USC with no one to prepare me for college life, and certainly not grad school. These two men filled the gap and I am so grateful for their guidance.

At Foley, I continue to have mentors in that same tradition. Phil Goldberg, Jeanne Gills, Jeff Soble, and Michael Lockerby are all phenomenal lawyers who have taken me under their wings and provided true sponsorship. There are far too many gems of wisdom to describe one, but the best overall guidance I’ve received is about managing relationships, including being hyper-responsive to clients and how to best guide and train junior associates.

AALM: How is your career different today than you envisioned while attending law school?

LC: I thought I would be a civil rights attorney in the vein of my legal heroes, Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall. Yet, when I started working at Foley, I realized corporate litigation was not only challenging but also interesting. I did not think I would enjoy the work or being in a corporate litigation setting as much as I do. I also learned the broad extent to which many corporations support and give back to social causes. I have been involved in both client and Foley initiatives committed to the goals of racial equity and diversity and inclusion. In that way, I have been able to continue to give back while working at a corporate law firm.

AALM: How are you involved in the local community?

LC: Earlier this year, I was elected to a three-year term as a member of the board of directors of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, a 501(c)(3) prison reform coalition active in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. The organization represents people of faith who educate and advocate for correction systems that avoid unnecessarily punitive practices such as solitary confinement and that instead focus on rehabilitation and successful reentry.

I am also part of the leadership council at Miriam’s Kitchen, a nonprofit dedicated to providing people who are homeless (particularly veterans) with nutritious meals, securing permanent secure housing and advocating for the Washington, D.C. government to make investments in the housing programs that are most proven to end homelessness. I’ve served with Miriam’s Kitchen for more than seven years and I launched an annual Family Picnic fundraiser to secure new sponsorships to support additional residents in their transition from a life on the streets to a safe, stable home.

Additionally, I volunteer with ​College Bound, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that offers public and public charter school diverse students in grades 8-12 academic enrichment and resources to prepare for and succeed in college.

AALM: Can you tell us about your pro bono work?

LC: Pro bono work is extremely important to me. A few years ago, I was able to secure U-Visa for a Mongolian student who was assaulted and later cooperated with police, allowing her lawful residence and an opportunity to complete her studies and build her life in the United States.

I’ve taken on several pro bono matters for prison inmates, including when I represented several deaf inmates in Maryland who were victims of ADA violations, securing $142,500 in settlement funds and various reforms in the prison system for treatment of deaf and hard of hearing inmates.

Although my practice focuses on commercial litigation, I’ve still pursued my passion for civil rights. I hope to continue to use my privilege as an attorney at a prominent firm to help right the wrongs of systemic and institutional racism through my continued charitable work, pro bono work, and efforts to increase minority lawyers in the legal profession.

AALM: Can you tell us more about Foley’s Racial Justice and Equity Practice Group? Why was it created and what is its purpose?

LC: In 2020, amid the pandemic and calls for action on police violence and racial discrimination, two colleagues and I wrote an open letter to the firm outlining an action plan that ultimately resulted in the launch of Foley’s Racial Justice and Equity Practice Group (RJEPG).

Today the RJEPG is responsible for (1) identifying potential engagements focused on racial justice and equity, including projects dedicated to fair housing, racial disparities in the provision of health care services, legal support for Black owned businesses, and criminal justice reform; (2) facilitating training for Foley lawyers and staff; (3) coordinating staffing for the various matters; and (4) providing a vehicle for the exchange of information accumulated in the course of the representation of parties in matters involving unfair and unequal treatment based on race or ethnicity.

Since its inception, the RJEPG has billed more than 3,400 hours of work on racial justice and equity issues and it has become the firm’s largest pro bono group with over 300 members.

AALM: Please tell us more about your prior experience with Obama for America, and how your efforts were featured in The Washington Post and PBS Now.

LC: During the 2008 election, I served as a regional field director and field organizer for Obama for America. The Washington Post and PBS NOW covered my organization in the key primary state of South Carolina. The Washington Post featured me in a story (“In S.C., Beauty Salons Are Also Political Soapboxes,” October 17, 2007) on President Obama’s (then Senator Obama’s) barbershop and beauty salon organizing efforts, following me to the different salons where I organized and also learning more about my motivations for joining the campaign and ultimately deferring my acceptance at Georgetown Law. The PBS NOW feature also involved a crew chronicling my work as a field organizer in Charleston, SC. Ultimately, I trained thousands of volunteers during four state primaries over the course of the election primary cycle and worked with a special committee in the campaign’s Chicago headquarters for a brief period.

During the re-election campaign in 2012, I was the deputy Get Out the Vote (GOTV) director in Philadelphia. In this capacity, I worked in the campaign’s state headquarters, managing five regional GOTV directors and collaborating with the deputy field director, state field director, and state GOTV director. I’m proud that our efforts ended up contributing to a sizable victory in the state and larger turnout than 2008.

AALM: Tell us a little about your life outside the office.

LC: My husband is also an attorney and we have two children, a 4-year-old daughter and a 10-month-old son. When we are not running around for my daughter’s activities (language classes, soccer, dance, piano, endless birthday parties, etc.), my husband and I love to travel, eat out at restaurants, and give back to the community through church and the many social organizations we support.

AALM: What is something your colleagues would be surprised to learn about you?

LC: I loved R&B and hip hop singer, Aaliyah, growing up, and I wanted to be one of her backup dancers — even more than I wanted to be a lawyer. Aaliyah was a beautiful soul who inspired so many young girls like me. I danced for a large part of my adolescence (ballet, hip hop, jazz, tap, etc.), and it is one passion I really wish I had not let go.

Attorney at Law Magazine

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