Before he was a lawyer, Anthony Ashton was a high school guidance counselor and a middle school teacher before that.
Those experiences shaped skills he would need in a second career: the ability to convey thoughts to an audience and to listen analytically to people's problems to find solutions.
Now a partner in the Baltimore office of global law firm DLA Piper, Ashton handles securities and business litigation. He represents both individuals and corporations in class actions, mass torts, consumer protection suits, contract disputes and shareholders' rights cases.
He also serves as chair of Piper's African American/Black Affinity Group and heads the Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the Baltimore offices. For a pro bono project, he recently traveled to Zambia in southern Africa, where he helped train fourth-year law students at the University of Zambia.
As a child in the housing projects in Chicago, I knew that higher education was the key to a better life. I knew that I wanted to be a professional and that lawyers were persons who helped others. For as long as I can remember, significant changes in American society have resulted in and from changes in the law and are driven by those hoping to make this country better through improving the legal system.
The system works only when both sides are properly represented. Despite misinformed cynics and a slew of unfunny and tired lawyer jokes, I still recognize that lawyers are the protectors of liberties. As Shakespeare noted, to eliminate the freedom of the people, you must first "kill all the lawyers."
In your 16-year legal career, what has been your most challenging case, and why?
In January and February of 2011, I had a five-week jury trial in federal court in Greenbelt (a dispute between a defense contractor, the firm's client, and an insurance carrier regarding the contractor's sea vessel that was damaged off the coast of Hawaii).
For more than one month, the case consumed most of my waking hours. Throughout the trial, our team was in court during the day and prepared witnesses and drafted motions in the evenings, at nights and on weekends. In addition, the weekday commute to Prince George's County involved frequent snow, long delays and poor driving conditions. (The jury found in the contractor's favor.)
In June, you and DLA Piper attorneys from London, Sydney, Amsterdam and elsewhere in the U.S. spent a week in Zambia for the pro bono project. In a partnership with DLA Piper's Zambian affiliate firm and senior in-house counsel from Standard Bank, you helped train fourth-year law students. Had you ever done anything like that, and what was the most rewarding part of the trip?
A dedication to educating young people always has been a part my life. I currently serve as the chair of the board of St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, the oldest African-American Catholic school in the country. SFA was founded prior to the U.S. Civil War, when teaching blacks to read was illegal. Against the odds, the school succeeded and continues today.
Similarly, the law students in Zambia are fighting the odds and hopefully will succeed in a very poor country in which opportunities are limited. The pro bono team taught legal, analytical and writing skills to students who had not been provided with these tools that are needed to pass the exams which determine whether they can practice law in Zambia. The current pass rate is very low. Students who fail the exams three times are precluded from taking them again for five years, effectively ending their legal careers before they start. Thus, whether or not students pass these exams determines the type of lives they will lead and the standard of living they can attain.
Hopefully, the students we taught will go on to practice and improve the lives of others. The most rewarding parts of the trip were the outpouring of appreciation from the students who told us that they wished we had come years earlier, and how our brief time there would change their lives; and meeting and working with lawyers from other parts of the world who came together to help those in need.
You serve as a member of the board of the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service, which provides free or low-cost legal help to low-income Marylanders. Where do you see the greatest need for help?
Although, as the largest provider of pro bono legal services in Maryland — MVLS through volunteer lawyers provided more than 13,000 hours of services last year — most individuals of limited means with important civil legal issues such as child custody, housing and consumer debt are still unrepresented.
In more than 70 percent of family law cases, one party is unrepresented. Cases in which one party is represented by counsel and the other is not result in mismatches in matters involving the most significant aspects of parties' lives.
What is one thing people might be surprised to learn about you?
Since 1998, I have played trumpet with a Baltimore R&B group named the Spindles (formerly Frankie and the Spindles). In addition to headlining our own shows, we have opened for national recording artists, including the Chi-Lites, the Drifters and the Whispers.