Back in 2009, Chidi I. James knew he wanted to helm the Virginia State Bar.
That was the year he joined the VSB Committee on Lawyer Discipline and eventually chaired its oversight subcommittee. As he sat in committee meetings, he was inspired by a wall of photos of past presidents. One was his law partner, John A.C. Keith, who served from 1998-99.
Now, James’s longtime dream has become a reality.
At the 2022 VSB annual meeting, James is set to become the first African American man to become president-elect of the VSB, an achievement he feels is very significant.
He credits Doris Henderson Causey with paving the way as the VSB’s first African American president during the 2017-18 term.
James, a partner with Blankingship & Keith in Fairfax, still gets amused when someone mistakenly presumes that “Chidi” (pronounced “chid-ee”) is his last name and “James” his first.
Of Guyanese descent, James says his father did not want to give him one of the English names common to the country which was a British colony until 1966. Instead, his father gave him a name common to the Igbo tribe of Nigeria, which translates to “God exists.”
Although he’s never shied away from using his name, James says the election of former President Barack Hussein Obama instilled him with greater confidence that American society was ready to accept leaders who have unfamiliar, non-western names.
Goals and initiatives
James told Virginia Lawyers Weekly he is “very happy and honored to have the opportunity to serve as VSB president.”
His broad goal will be expanding the bar’s reach across Virginia, both in terms of diversity as well as overall membership involvement.
“Virginia has approximately 32,500 active members of the bar and the VSB is going to need more volunteers, more committee participation in the future,” he says.
To that end, James plans to travel across the Commonwealth to meet with local bar associations whose members he says are “used to volunteering and working to improve the legal system.”
COVID taught us how technology can enable remote legal proceedings, and it taught us the importance of the warmth and connection of being face to face with others.
– Chidi James
And local bar members, he added, often “know other people who will roll up their sleeves.”
James also intends to visit minority bar associations to discuss joint operations and “build up the VSB’s minority leadership bench.”
Law school visits are also part of James’s plan; the VSB Diversity Conference invites two minority students from each Virginia law school to attend the VSB annual meeting each year.
James is already aware of one hurdle for the coming year — finding a new executive director after Karen Gould recently announced she would retire in July 2022.
While he admits it will not be easy to replace Gould, who served as director for 15 years, he is confident the nationwide search of a committee formed by former VSB president James Myerson will succeed.
Another challenge he foresees will be adjusting to the new normal of hybrid programming in the COVID era. Fortunately, he noted, the VSB’s technology has proven reliable, and the bar has received positive feedback after recent programs.
Pointing to record attendance at the March 2022 annual convention of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, James said “people are hungry to get out and be face to face.”
“COVID taught us how technology can enable remote legal proceedings, and it taught us the importance of the warmth and connection of being face to face with others,” he said.
James practices mostly personal injury cases, including wrongful death, products liability and inadequate security.
Previously, he clerked for judges of the Arlington County Circuit Court and completed the Judge Advocate General School at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. He is currently assigned to the National Guard Bureau Legal Service Office in Arlington.
James grew up primarily in Houston, and also lived in Cleveland and Chicago. He is a graduate of Texas A&M University and George Mason University School of Law, where he was the founding member of the Trial Advocacy Association and President of the GMUSL Student Bar Association.
He is married to a local psychologist and has three children in college.
Of work-life balance, James says he keeps busy — but had the freedom to decide the morning of his interview with Lawyers Weekly that he would mow his lawn in advance of expected rain showers rather than go to the office.
“I find more time for yard work now that I no longer ferry my kids to sports or coach their recreational leagues,” he quipped.