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  • Georgia
  • U.S. Supreme Court
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
  • U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
  • U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia
  • U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York


Leah Ward Sears


Leah Ward Sears joined Schiff Hardin in 2009 after retiring as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. Her experience on the bench provides her a unique and valuable perspective on general and appellate litigation matters. She sets herself apart through a steadfast dedication to her work and an impressive array of professional achievements.

A Trailblazer

Ms. Sears was the first African-American woman to hold a position on the Superior Court of Fulton County, Georgia. In 1992, she was appointed to Georgia’s Supreme Court, making her the first woman and youngest person ever to sit on that court. Ms. Sears was also the first woman to win a contested statewide election in Georgia, when she retained her seat on the state’s Supreme Court. In 2005, Ms. Sears was sworn in as Chief Justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court. “I broke through many glass ceilings that were barriers to women and minorities,” she says.

Ms. Sears also surprised many when she retired from the bench to return to private practice at Schiff Hardin. Ms. Sears is not afraid to challenge the norm, and as a result, she has honed an innovative yet judicious approach to legal strategy.

A Strategist

As a jurist, Ms. Sears developed a reputation for being a creative problem-solver while also valuing clarity and brevity. She provides a fresh look at a case after it’s been tried and presents it in a new way to a court she understands.

“My main goal is to systematically solve my client’s problems with as much success as possible,” she says.

Ms. Sears also applies her capabilities to a formative and budding practice in Africa. She is working to develop strategic alliances with businesses in South Africa and other parts of the continent in order to expand her reach and help a wider range of clients in their legal matters.

A Trusted Adviser

As a result of her illustrious career, Ms. Sears has become a dependable counselor for a variety of legal issues. Her deep roots in Georgia provide her with valuable insight into the legal landscape of the region. Private and public entities reach out to her for legal counsel, especially in high-stakes investigations and other sensitive matters. Her experience with appellate work positions her as an ideal adviser when complex issues are involved and a creative strategy is needed.


"Win an Appeal Without Being a Heel," (co-author) Georgia Bar Journal (August 2014)

"Telephone Talk: Five Tips for Lawyers," (co-author) Fulton County Daily Report (Jan. 30, 2014)

"Rule of Preservation in Appellate Law," (co-author) Fulton County Daily Report (Sept. 17, 2013)

"Specialized Appellate Counsel: An Invaluable Asset," Corporate Counsel (March 11, 2013)

“How can you deal with pro se litigants and keep your cool?” (podcast) ABA Journal (Feb. 4, 2013)

A New Conversation on Marriage,” Fulton County Daily Report (Feb. 5, 2013)

"A Brief is Called a Brief for a Reason," Georgia Bar Journal (December 2012)

"To Sue or Not to Sue, That is the Question: A Prudent Business Litigator Should Always Ask," Fulton County Daily Report (Nov. 29, 2012)

"Raise the Bar on Judicial Diversity," Fulton County Daily Report (Sept. 24, 2012)

"Region Has a Toolkit to Spur New Growth," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Sept. 4, 2012)

"The Case for Diversity is Not Yet Won," Fulton County Daily Report (Aug. 15, 2012)

"How Close Are You and Your Client?" Fulton County Daily Report (July 11, 2012)

"Fathers Matter: Anonymous Sperm Donation and the Age-Old Problem of Father Absence," (co-author) John Marshall Law Journal vol. 4 (2011)

"Second Chances: A Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce" (co-author) Presented to U.S. State Legislatures (September 2011)

"Access to Justice: Fair and For All," Georgia Bar Journal (June 2011)

"Holistic Tack for Criminal Reform," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (March 1, 2011)

"Wise Choices Are at the Heart of Success," Fulton County Daily Report (February 2, 2011)

"10 Appellate Tips From A Former Chief Justice," Law360 (November 8, 2010)

"How About Those Tomato Sandwiches," Wall Street Journal (April 2, 2010)

"The Brass Ring," A Life in the Law: Advice for Young Lawyers, American Bar Association (August 2009)

"Marriage Vital to the Health of Young, Old," Atlanta Journal-Constitution (February 4, 2008)

"The Marriage Gap: A Case for Strengthening Marriage in the 21st Century," New York University Law Review (November 2007)

"A Case for Strengthening Marriage," Washington Post (October 30, 2006)

"How to Get Certs Granted," Verdict Magazine (March 2004)

Speeches and Presentations

"Asian Pacific Lawyers: Reaching Higher Heights," (keynote speaker) 2014 Annual Gala, Georgia Asian Pacific American Bar Association (GAPABA), Atlanta, Ga. (May 15, 2014)

"Civility, Compromise and Zax," TedxEmory Conference, Atlanta, Ga. (April 12, 2014)

"Keynote Speech," Annual Bench and Bar Dinner, DeKalb Bar Association, Atlanta, Ga. (April 3, 2014)

"What Is the Role of Live Theatre in a Democracy?" Woodruff Arts Center "Neil Asks" Series, Atlanta, Ga. (Oct. 21, 2013)

"Criminal Law Issues for In-House Counsel," (moderator) 12th Annual CLE Expo, Minority Corporate Counsel Association, San Diego, Calif. (March 6, 2013)

The Importance of Diversity” Hillside International Truth Center, Atlanta, Ga. (Feb. 17, 2013)

"Defending Our Courts Against Anti-LGBT Assaults: Strategies for Keeping State Courts Fair & Impartial," (panelist) National Conference on LGBT Equality: Creating Change, Atlanta, Ga. (Jan. 25, 2013)

"Appellate Advocacy and Climate Change Coverage Litigation," DRI Insurance Coverage and Practice Symposium, New York, NY (Dec. 6, 2012)

DRI Auto Insurance Legal Considerations Conference (panelist) (August 2012)

National Black Summit of Black Women Lawyers (keynote speaker) (April 2012)

Appellate Judges Education Institute’s Summit (panelist) (November 2011)

“Second Chances: A Proposal to Reduce Unnecessary Divorce,” (panelist) Brookings Institute (October 2011)

Extra-contractual Legal Summit, Hartford Legal Department (speaker) (October 2011)

ABA Forum on the Construction Industry (panelist) (October 2011)

Susette M. Talarico Lecture, University of Georgia (keynote speaker) (September 2011)

2011 National Child Support Enforcement Association Annual Conference and Expo (keynote speaker) (Aug. 1, 2011)

ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Spring Minority Counsel Program (keynote luncheon speaker) (May 2011)

Leadership Executive Round Table, Emory University (keynote speaker) (February 2011)

Georgia Bar Appellate Practice Section Panel (panelist) (February 2011)

National Legal Aid and Defender Association (keynote speaker) (November 2010)

Cordell Hull Speakers Forum, Cumberland School of Law (keynote speaker) (October 2010)

Second Annual Ronald M. George Distinguished Lecture, Golden Gate University School of Law (October 2010)

Georgia State University Constitution Day (luncheon speaker) (September 2010)

State of Georgia King Holiday Remembrance Celebration (keynote speaker) (2010)

NOLHGA 18th Annual Legal Seminar (keynote luncheon speaker) (July 2010)

Third Annual Zawadi Africa Educational Fund Leadership Conference (keynote speaker) (May 2010)

Speeches to the people of Oman, Grand Mosque (April 2010)

State of Judiciary Speech, joint session of Georgia State House and Senate (2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009)

Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum on Leadership in a Flat World (Sept. 8, 2009)

"Last Press Conference as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia" Atlanta Press Club, Atlanta, Ga. (June 2, 2009)

"Why Marriage is Important to Democracy," Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. (March 14, 2008)
Annual Nabrit Lecture, Howard University Law School (March 2008)

Chautauqua Institution, Chautauqua, N.Y. (July 2007)

13th Annual Justice Brennan Lecture, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University (February 2007) Jeanette Rankin Foundation Speaker, Atlanta Press Club (July 2005)

Previous Experience

During her tenure on the Georgia Supreme Court, Ms. Sears spearheaded two major initiatives: the Georgia Supreme Court's Commission on Children, Marriage, and Family Law and the Committee on Civil Justice. The Commission on Children, Marriage, and Family Law was established to address the legal and administrative issues stemming from the increasing fragmentation of Georgia's families, while the Committee on Civil Justice was established to develop, coordinate and support policy initiatives to expand access to the courts for poor and vulnerable Georgians.

Awards and Honors

Fellow, American Academy of Appellate Lawyers
Atlanta Tribune Hall of Fame Honoree (December 2012)
Fastcase 50 Award (2012)
Emory Makers of History, Emory University (December 2011)
Judge Learned Hand Award, American Jewish Committee Atlanta Chapter (October 2011)
Common Cause Georgia Democracy Award (June 2011)
Law and Justice Award, Women Looking Ahead Magazine (April 2011)
Day1 Community Leader of Faith Award (February 2011)
Spirit of Excellence Award, American Bar Association (2011)
James Weldon Johnson Medal for Law, Emory University (2010)
Justice Award, Millennium Gate Museum (2009)
Grass Roots Justice Award, Georgia Justice Project (2009)
Rosalynn Carter Fellow in Public Policy, Emory University (2007 – 2009)
Honoree - Second Annual Wayne A. McCoy Memorial HistoryMaker's Program (2008)
100 Most Influential People in Georgia, Georgia Trend (1992; 2004 - 2008)
YWCA of Greater Atlanta Women of Achievement Award (2007)
Legal Trailblazers Award, National Bar Association (2007)
Law Dragon Leading Lawyers in America (2006)
Trumpet Award Honoree (2006)
Atlanta’s Top 100 Black Women of Influence, Atlanta Business League (2005)
Georgia Super Lawyers – Appellate, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Government Relations

Ms. Sears has also received honorary degrees from the following colleges and universities:

  • Savannah State University (2013)
  • Spelman College (2009)
  • John Marshall Law School (2009)
  • Clark Atlanta University (2008)
  • Piedmont College (2006)
  • LaGrange College (1998)
  • Morehouse College (1993)


University of Virginia School of Law(LL.M., 1995)
Emory University School of Law(J.D., 1980)
Cornell University(B.S., 1976)


Former adjunct professor, Emory University School of Law
Visiting Professor, University of Georgia School of Law

Professional Memberships

American Academy of Appellate Lawyers

American Bar Association
Board of Elections
      Past Chair
Georgia Fellows

Atlanta Bar Association
Judicial Section
      Past Chair
Minority Clerkship Program
      Past Chair

Conference of Chief Justices
Former Board Member

Federal Defender Program, Inc.
Board Member

Gate City Bar Association

Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys
Founder and Former President

Georgia Justice Project Advisory Inaugural Board

Lamar Inn of Court

Judicial Council of Georgia

National Association of Professional Women

State Bar of Georgia

Civic and Charitable Memberships

Alliance Theatre, Woodruff Arts Center
Advisory Board Member

The Carter Center
Board of Trustees

Emory University
Alumni Trustee (2012)

Institute for American Values
Board Member

Battered Women’s Project (Columbus, Georgia)

Morehouse School of Medicine

Center for Child Abuse & Neglect
Board of Directors

Atlanta Chapter of Links, Inc.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority