Overview

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 singular and valuable perspective on general and appellate litigation matters. The appellate practice she has built is unique in that it operates in both state and federal appellate courts. It is also quite possibly the only one led by a former chief justice of a state supreme court.

A Trailblazer

Leah 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. She was also the first woman to win a contested statewide election in Georgia, when she retained her seat on the Supreme Court. In 2005, she was sworn in as Chief Justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court. Since then, she has twice been on President Barack Obama’s short list for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Leah surprised many when she retired from the bench to return to private practice at Schiff Hardin. But as someone who has broken through many glass ceilings that were barriers to women and minorities, and as someone with a powerful desire to be a catalyst for change, she is not afraid to challenge the norm. This spirit is behind her innovative yet judicious approach to legal strategy.

A Strategist

As a jurist, Leah has first-hand knowledge of the difference between the techniques that succeed in trial and appellate courts, and she often saw lawyers inexperienced in handling appeals stumble badly. With 17 years on the bench, she instinctively views cases from the perspective of an appellate court judge. This allows her to provide clients with a fresh look at cases that have been tried and to develop the strategies needed for winning on appeal.

A creative problem-solver who values clarity and brevity, Leah also applies her capabilities as a private provider of alternative dispute resolution services for the management of commercial and civil disputes.

A Trusted Adviser

Leah’s illustrious career has led clients to seek her out for advice on 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 planning for the possibility of appellate litigation at the trial level or when complex issues are involved and a creative strategy is needed.

  • Experience

    • Successfully defended insurance company client, which had issued a mortgage bond, in the argument that it was entitled to summary judgment as to a claim against the bond because the acts that gave rise to the judgment occurred before the bond was in effect.  In so doing, the Georgia Court of Appeals set a new industry standard as well as reversed the finding of the trial court which had ruled against our client.  Hartford Fire Insurance Company v. iFreedom Direct Corporation, 312 Ga. App. 262, 718 S.E.2d 103 (Ga. App. 2012) 
    • Was able to successfully persuade the Virginia Supreme Court that our client insurer did not have a duty to defend its insured in the face of a climate change nuisance case, because intentional emissions, even if they have unintended results, are not an “accident” under the insurance policy. This case was widely watched and reported as the first of its kind, pitting the new breed of climate change defendants against their insurers. The AES Corporation v. Steadfast Insurance Company, 283 Va. 609, 725 S.E.2d 532 (Va. 2012)
    • Successfully defended The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey against a developer seeking damages pursuant to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) for damage stemming from the terrorist attacks of September 11 by arguing that the “act of war” defense nixes its indemnification claims and is otherwise consistent with more than 200 years of consistent interpretation and definition of the term “war” by Congress and the Supreme Court. Case was closely watched to establish liability in most tragic terrorist attack in U.S. history. In re September 11 Litigation:  Cedar & Washington Associates, LLC, v. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey et al.
    • Won sensitive case for client insurance company against jurisdiction and forum non conveniens claims made in a lawsuit filed in Georgia wherein the client was seeking to rescind a policy for losses arising out of a fatal 2012 plane crash in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Was able to avoid setting dangerous precedent in airplane insurance arena in client’s favor. Certiorari to the United State Supreme Court was denied. Lima Delta Company, et al. v. Global Aerospace, Inc., 325 Ga. App. 76, 752 S.E.2d 135 (Ga. App. 2013)
    • Defended client, the Atlanta Braves baseball team, in the Court of Appeals for the State of Georgia by arguing that the team met its duty to protect spectators from a lawsuit filed in 2010 wherein a 6-year-old girl sitting a few rows behind the visitor’s dugout was hit and injured by a foul ball. Case was closely followed nationally for the application of the “baseball rule” in stadium cases.  Atlanta National League Baseball Club, Inc. v. F.F., individually, et al., 328 Ga. App. 217,  761 S.E.2d. 613 (Ga. App. 2014)
  • Credentials

    Education

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

    Bar Admissions

    • 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

        Professional Memberships

        American Academy of Appellate Lawyers

        Fellow
         

        Teaching Appointments

        Former Adjunct Professor, Emory University School of Law

         

        Visiting Professor, University of Georgia School of Law

      • Insights

        Other Publications

        “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)

        “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 and Father Absence,” (co-author) John Marshall Law Journal (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 (Feb. 1, 2011)

        Speeches & 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)

      • Citizenship

        Civic and Charitable Memberships

        Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority

         

        Atlanta Chapter of Links, Incorporated

         

        Battered Women’s Project (Columbus, Georgia)

        Founder

         

        The Carter Center

        Board of Trustees

         

        Emory University Board of Trustees

        Trustee

         

        The Georgia Historical Society

        Curator

         

        Institute for American Values

        Board Member

         

        The Oakland Cemetery Foundation

        Trustee

         

         

         

         

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      On Possibility, Progress, and Leo Frank

      Justice Leah Ward Sears (ret.) joined fellow Georgia leaders in marking the 100th anniversary of the lynching of Leo Frank. His murder reinvigorated the KKK, spurred the creation of the Anti-Defamation League, and sent hundreds of Jewish families streaming from the South. Read her remarks by clicking the link below. More

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      Leah Ward Sears: A Lifetime of Achievement.

      Justice Leah Ward Sears (ret.) was recently featured in Atlanta magazine’s “Women Making a Mark” spotlight. She was also named to Daily Report’s inaugural Lifetime Achievers list. More

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      10 Appellate Tips from a Former Chief Justice.

      As a former chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, Atlanta partner Leah Ward Sears knows a thing or two about appellate argument. Her tips help both new and seasoned attorneys craft and deliver better arguments. More

      "Justice Leah Sears (Ret.): An Appealing Practice"

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      "Since joining the firm in 2009 after a 27-year career in the judiciary, most of it as an appellate jurist, she is well on her way to establishing the preeminent appellate practice in the country, and the only one led by a former state supreme court justice, to her knowledge. The practice is also unique because it operates in both state and federal appellate courts." Read Article