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The Forum

Leah Ward Sears

Former Chief Justice, Georgia Supreme Court and Partner, Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP

With decades of experience as an attorney, a jurist and an elected official, Leah Ward Sears brings a powerful combination of strategy, analytical thinking and tactical action that gives her clients a compelling edge in complex litigation, appeal, and arbitration and mediation.

Her first-hand knowledge as a retired Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice gives her extraordinary insight into the thinking and mindset of both trial and appellate courts in state and federal jurisdictions across the United States.

Known for her talent for breaking down complex matters to find the most elegant and straightforward solution that may not be apparent to others, Sears is also a gifted oral advocate, trial strategist and thought leader who can play devil’s advocate to reveal potential weaknesses and holes in both trial and appellate strategy. She is often called upon to serve as a neutral in arbitration proceedings and mediations, and has the ability to meet people where they are and bring them along toward a mutually agreeable solution.

Her efficiency, pragmatism and realistic approach to every legal matter create considerable value for her clients at every stage of litigation and appeal, whether it’s writing briefs that capture the attention with wit and authoritative command of the law or delivering convincing arguments before a jury or the bench.

Recognized as one of Georgia’s leading legal luminaries and role models, Sears broke numerous barriers in her swift rise to the highest court in Georgia. When she was elected to the Superior Court of Fulton County, she became the first woman to ever serve on that court. Later she was appointed, and then elected, to serve as a Justice on the Supreme Court of Georgia — again, the first woman as well as the youngest jurist ever on that court.

She rose to Presiding Justice and in 2005 her colleagues elevated her to Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, where she served until retiring from the bench in 2009. During her tenure at the Georgia Supreme Court, Sears spearheaded an effort to establish the Georgia Office of Dispute Resolution, which is a policy-making body under the auspices of the Georgia Supreme Court that oversees the development of court-connected alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs in Georgia. She also chaired the Judicial Council of Georgia, and was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Conference of Chief Justices.

Since returning to private practice, Sears has concentrated on prosecuting appeals in both the state and federal courts in many jurisdictions across the United States. This often means embedding with the trial team to develop and execute pretrial and trial strategy, build credible evidence, and begin positioning for an appeal while the trial is underway by preserving evidence and proactively looking for narrowly focused issues at trial that will help protect a hard-fought victory or overturn an unfavorable outcome.

She often consults with other lawyers on trial and appellate briefs, and presides over mock arguments to probe for weaknesses in their strategy or their application of the law and offer piercing yet pivotal insights on how appellate jurists will react.

Sears is also a trusted advisor to executives and institutions that face misconduct allegations including sexual harassment and other claims of bias, where she works with them to prepare and respond to claims, develop strategies to minimize legal exposure, and move swiftly to protect their reputations. She also defends businesses in a wide range of product liability, business torts, medical malpractice, employment, contract and other commercial disputes.

Twice shortlisted by the President for appointment to the United States Supreme Court, Sears has been consistently ranked among Georgia Super Lawyers, a distinction for Georgia’s preeminent attorneys who are highly respected by peers for their professional achievements. She was also named in Best Lawyers in America©, and she was recognized as Lawyer of the Year for Appellate Practice for Atlanta.

Sears is a Fellow and a Board Member of the prestigious American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, an invitation-only organization limited to 500 lawyers who achieve distinction in their field. She is featured in an exhibit at the Atlanta History Center that commemorates the centennial anniversary of women winning the right to vote. The exhibit features her judicial robe and gavel, and documents how women have gained and wielded political power over the past 100 years. Sears was the subject of a biography called “Seizing Serendipity” by author and Georgia Southern University associate professor Rebecca Shriver Davis, which recounts her career and advancement to Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, as well as her upbringing that shaped her mindset of determination, grit and a relentless drive to prevail.

Beyond her work as a litigator, Sears is a passionate change agent who cares deeply about giving back to her local community and strengthening the social fabric that binds us together.

In 2019, Sears was appointed by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms to serve as Chair of the Task Force for the Promotion of Public Trust. The 13-member committee was created by the mayor and the Atlanta City Council to explore ways to improve integrity, accountability and transparency in city government amid an ongoing federal investigation of corruption that resulted in indictments of former city officials from a previous administration.

Many months of rigorous meetings with local stakeholders, leading legal scholars, inspector generals in other cities, and independent and oversight leaders culminated in an October 2019 report from the Task Force that recommended creating a new Inspector General’s Office to identify and investigate any allegations of misconduct, corruption, ethical violations, waste, fraud and abuse in the City of Atlanta. The proposed independent office would have direct subpoena power, budgetary protection and a fixed term of appointment to minimize the potential for conflict and political pressure. Mayor Bottoms praised the “diligent and thoughtful work” by the Task Force. “The end result of their efforts has laid the groundwork for the Administration and City Council to come together and work toward the shared goal of delivering the transparent and accountable government the people of Atlanta deserve,” Mayor Bottoms said.

Sears also serves on the Board of Trustees for Emory University and The Carter Center. She is also on the Campaign Committee for Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta’s oldest public park and the final resting place for many of the city’s most noted citizens including former Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson and Ivan Allen, Jr.; golf legend Bobby Jones; Selena Sloan Butler, the co-founder of the National PTA; and Dr. Joseph Jacobs, whose downtown Atlanta drug store sold the very first drink of Coca-Cola in 1886.

She previously served as a Curator for the Georgia Historical Society, and on the Board of Directors for organizations including the Woodruff Arts Center, the Alliance Theatre, the Sadie G. Mays Nursing Home, and the Georgia Chapter of the National Council of Christians and Jews. She also served on the Advisory Board for the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Cornell University Council, the Board of Visitors of Mercer University Law School and the Emory University Law School Council.

Sears has taught courses on pretrial litigation and legal writing as an adjunct professor at Emory Law School, as well as a course on family law at the University of Georgia Law School.

She earned an advanced degree (LLM) in Appellate Judicial Studies from the University of Virginia Law School, and she completed a Juris Doctorate (JD) at Emory University School of Law. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cornell University.

Honorary degrees have been conferred on her by Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, Piedmont College, LaGrange College, Morehouse College, Savannah State University, and John Marshall Law School. Sears is the recipient of the Emory Medal, the American Bar Association’s Margaret Brent Award, and the Daily Report’s Lifetime Achievement Award. She was named one of the “Fastcase 50” Award Winners in 2012, which recognizes the most courageous innovators, visionaries, disruptors and leaders in the law.