Rita Sheffey To Receive 2015 Ben F. Johnson Public Service Award
Throughout her distinguished career, Rita Sheffey has focused on complex, commercial litigation; however, her devotion to public interest law and representing the less fortunate is what draws attention. Sheffey, assistant dean for public service at Emory University School of Law, will receive the 2015 Ben F. Johnson Jr. Public Service Award on May 7.
The award is presented each year by Georgia State University College of Law to a Georgia attorney whose overall accomplishments reflect the high tradition of selfless public service that founding dean, Ben F. Johnson Jr., exemplified during his career and life.
“Ben F. Johnson Jr. truly exemplified the selfless public service, which I aspire to achieve in my career,” she said. “This award further challenges me to focus my career on inspiring law students to embrace public service in their careers, so that they, in turn, will become examples for future generations.”
Sheffey became Emory Law’s first public service dean in January. In her new role, she works with Emory students to demonstrate the many ways lawyers can incorporate service into their careers, whatever path or form those careers take.
“I can think of no higher calling than to be able to positively influence the next generation of lawyers and leaders in our profession,” she said. “My vision is to touch each and every law student with respect to public service.”
Sheffey followed an atypical path to law, starting out as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia intent on becoming a physician. Instead of pursuing medical school, she earned her Ph.D. in chemistry at Duke University, and then secured a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Medical School.
“At the beginning of the second year of my fellowship, I decided that wasn’t for me – being in the lab all the time and being isolated. I’m more a people person than that,” she said.
She pursued her J.D. at Boston College Law School. Her legal career began with Hunton & Williams. She joined the Virginia firm as a summer associate in 1986 and was named partner in 2004. In practice, Sheffey focused on complex, scientific-based litigation in environmental, product liability, trademark and patent infringement, and business torts cases in both federal and state appellate courts. However, early in her legal career, she was drawn to pro bono work.
“I do not think there was a point at which I made a conscious decision to do pro bono work. It was and is a very important part of being a lawyer. Having grown up with parents committed to serving the community, graduating from a Jesuit law school with a culture of service, and joining a law firm with a core value of service, it was inevitable and natural – part of my DNA,” she said.
Not long after joining Hunton & Williams, the firm created its first pro bono legal clinic, and Sheffey volunteered to handle uncontested divorces. Shortly after moving to the firm’s Atlanta office, Sheffey received an appointment from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit to handle an appeal for a prisoner alleging inadequate medical care while in prison.
“I took on that appeal, presented my first oral argument to an 11th Circuit panel and won. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. District Court Judge, whose opinion the 11th Circuit had reversed, personally called me and asked me to represent the client in the case on remand. I agreed and ultimately handled several other cases, including his habeas, both in federal district court and the 11th Circuit,” she said. “Needless to say, my pro bono plate was pretty full for several years.”
In addition to her work with Atlanta Legal Aid and the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation, Sheffey created the Hunton & Williams’ Southside Legal Center pro bono clinic in 1995 and served as its director until January. In 1996, she partnered with the Fulton County Juvenile Court to develop a program that allows the firm’s attorneys to serve as guardians ad litem. Sheffey also spearheaded the effort to create a second full-time, pro bono fellowship in the firm that allows a recent law school graduate to work exclusively on pro bono cases for two years.
“Rita’s dedication to public service is inspirational and exemplary of this award we are proud to present to her,” said Steven J. Kaminshine, dean and professor of law. “Through her service to others, she has set a shining example within the legal community, and I know in her new role working directly with law students, she will continue to positively influence generations to come.”
Sheffey received Emory Law’s 2010 Unsung Devotion to Those Most in Need Award, the 2011 Kathleen Kessler Award, presented by the Georgia Association of Women Lawyers, and the 2013 Charles E. Watkins, Jr. Award for Distinguished Service from the Atlanta Bar Association. The Atlanta Bar Association established the Rita A. Sheffey Public Interest Award in 2012, naming her its inaugural recipient.
“Public service is personally rewarding and fulfilling,” she said. “It gives us a keen appreciation of what is important in life and it makes us feel good to do something to help others, in whatever form that takes.”