Painting by Chloe Prendergast
Sanford Heisler Sharp is proud to announce the inaugural Tom Henderson Civil Rights Fellowship (“the Fellowship”). The Fellowship will be a one-year position for a junior attorney who has demonstrated academic excellence and a passion for and commitment to civil rights throughout law school. The application process is listed below. The attorney selected for the Fellowship will be assigned work consistent with the work of other junior attorneys at the firm, will be evaluated on the same basis as other attorneys in a Fellowship role at the firm (viz., Litigation Fellows and the recipient of the Deborah Rhode Fellowship), and may have an opportunity to become an Associate at the firm based on their performance and the firm’s needs.
Who Was Tom Henderson?
Tom was an authentic guy from Pennsylvania, who loved his family, loved his farm in West Virginia, loved his cattle, loved his cowboy boots, and loved his bales of hay.
Tom was a civil rights warrior from the 1970s until the day he died in October 2021. He led the kind of life in the law that most of us dream of when we first decide to go to law school. He knew what he was committed to and never once wavered in that commitment. Tom was on the front lines fighting for voting rights, fighting against discrimination in housing, fighting for consumer rights, fighting against environmental degradation and the impact of it, fighting for school and housing desegregation, and fighting against employment discrimination.
While Tom loved using the law to fight for his client, what Tom seemed to enjoy most of all was mentoring junior lawyers and staff. He spent years in his office, strategizing with them, guiding them, and urging them on to fight the good fight. After our holiday parties and annual firm retreats, Tom was almost always at the center of a spirited skeleton crew of lawyers and staff who had migrated to a nearby venue. There, he would offer up career and life advice, interspersed with tales from his long and illustrious law career. Everyone who missed the event would hear about it the next day. They were oftentimes in amazement at Tom’s stamina as he showed up early the next morning to take a deposition, and they were always in awe at the joy, the camaraderie, the collegiality, and the friendship he showed so many people over so many years.
Though he was not a Partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp, Tom was invited to all the firm’s Partner meetings and he always attended. He was the consummate éminence grise, exercising influence without title but with all the knowledge, all the respect, all the standing that came with his years of wisdom, grace, compassion, sincerity, and ethical engagement.
Tom lived a life that made sense to him and all around him. He will be remembered for his integrity, his goodness, and his moral vision of what life could be for the less fortunate and what was necessary to do to help along the way.
Attorney at the Neighborhood Legal Services Association
Tom started his career as an attorney in Pittsburgh for the Neighborhood Legal Services Association from 1977 to 1983. That organization still exists today, providing legal services for low-income individuals in need of help because of domestic violence, help in landlord tenant matters, help due to predatory lending practices, help navigating the byzantine world of social security benefits, help due to elder abuse, employment discrimination, and denial of veterans’ benefits.
That was Tom’s passion: To do work for people who were desperately in need of legal aid, adding immense value in the world, contributing, as he said in his video (see above), “to changing things, to making things more equal, to enforce rights and make sure that people are treated well; you want to make a real change and try to really have an effect on a lot of people’s lives—to hopefully change the way the institutions in this country work.” The commitment of his words in his video were evidenced from day one of his professional life.
Chief Counsel and Senior Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law
A few years after working for Legal Services, Tom served as Chief Counsel and Senior Deputy Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law (“the Lawyers’ Committee”). He held that role from 1990 to 2004.
Under Tom’s leadership, the Lawyers’ Committee mobilized law firms across America to assist Black Churches that had been burned to the ground in the South through acts of racism.
Under Tom’s leadership, the Lawyers’ Committee presented a seminal National Conference on African American Women in the Law regarding the impact of dual discrimination of gender and race for women of color, decades before intersectionality was a topic discussed in mainstream media.
Under Tom’s leadership, the Lawyers’ Committee urged President Clinton to support affirmative action in federal procurement.
Under Tom’s leadership, it helped galvanize support for the Voter Registration Act of 1993, for hate crimes legislation, and for a better version of the Helping America Vote Act of 2002.
Under Tom’s leadership, the Lawyers’ Committee developed the framework for President Clinton’s Executive Order on Environmental Justice, secured relocation for a community of 358 families adjacent to 2 Superfund sites in Florida, and obtained relocation for an African American public housing community that was contaminated in Virginia.
Under Tom’s leadership, the Lawyers’ Committee obtained approval for a consent decree providing over $7 million in funding to desegregate and redevelop Section 8 housing in Dade County, Florida.
Under Tom’s leadership, the Lawyers’ Committee obtained $26 million in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for desegregation and revitalization of African American communities in Pennsylvania.
Finally, under Tom’s leadership, the Lawyers’ Committee had 3 successful cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1996 and 1997.
Tom Henderson, then Chief Counsel of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, speaking about voting rights litigation in 2001.
Senior Litigation Counsel at Sanford Heisler Sharp: 2008-21
After working in the civil rights firm of Sprenger & Lang, and during his time serving on the board of the Employee Rights Advocacy Institute for Law and Public Policy, Tom joined Sanford Heisler Sharp.
Tom led our efforts in a number of high-profile race discrimination class action matters, none more high profile than the ongoing class case against the United States Marshal Service. The U.S. Marshal Service matter has a certified class from 1994 through the present (a 27-year class period, one of the largest, if not the largest, class periods in history involving claims of discrimination). Tom worked on this case from the time he joined us in 2008 to the day he died. He litigated the case valiantly, leading a team of over 30 attorneys and legal assistants in our firm for 13 years. He looked forward to the day we would try the case. While Tom will not be there to try it with us, his efforts throughout these past 13 years have put us in a great position to win the case and bring some measure of justice to over 10,000 African Americans.
We will all miss Tom. Through the Fellowship, Tom’s memory will live on in the vital work that remains to be done in this country, and with the help of the attorneys selected for the Fellowship, we aim, as Tom sought, “to hopefully change the way the institutions in this country work.”
Applicants seeking consideration should email a one-page cover letter, a current resume, a law school transcript, three references, and two writing samples of not less than ten pages to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include “2022 Tom Henderson Civil Rights Fellowship Application” in the subject line of the email. COVID-19 vaccination is required to work in the office, subject to reasonable accommodation for disabilities, religions, or other applicable legal requirement. Fellows may occasionally work remotely. Occasional travel may be required in the future.
Qualified applicants are encouraged to submit their application immediately as decisions are made on a rolling basis.
Sanford Heisler Sharp welcomes applications from individuals with disabilities. If you require reasonable accommodations during any part of the hiring process, please send your request to us by email at email@example.com or by mail to the following address:
ATTN: Anita Youngkin, Senior Human Resources Director
Sanford Heisler Sharp
700 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Suite 300
Washington, DC 20003
Some Reflections by Members of the Civil Rights Community and Sanford Heisler Sharp
Deborah Marcuse, Sanford Heisler Sharp Firm Managing Partner:
Thanks for the cowboy boots, Tom.
It’s so hard to speak about all of the ways I relied on Tom and all of the reasons why I love him, because so many of them involve things that I didn’t feel like I could or should talk to anyone else about. But it’s necessary to speak about some of these things in order to get anywhere near conveying who Tom was, not just to me but to so many people who have passed through Sanford Heisler Sharp over the years and who one after the other had the good fortune to meet him on their way, only to find themselves now in possession of so many good things that he gave them, or more accurately so many good things that he helped them to find for themselves.
I had a miscarriage at eight weeks between my first and second child. I had a mediation scheduled for the next day, and it was Tom who I called in tears with all of my questions, at that point of intersection between how to be a lawyer while also being human: Is this something I can talk about? Can I postpone the mediation? How much is it appropriate to say about this, or even safe to say, in all the different ways one could mean that word?
And it’s notable that the person who I felt safest calling in this very gender-related, very emotional and intimate moment was this 60-something-year-old, sometimes irascible White man who you could tell was coming to the conference room by the sound of his cowboy boots echoing down the hall.
And when, a few months later, I had a job offer withdrawn after I told the employer that I was five weeks pregnant with my daughter who is now six, it was Tom who I called, crying again. I said to him, “I’m not sure that the two things are connected, I mean they can’t be, right?” And he said, or maybe yelled, “Of course they’re connected!” And then he talked me through the totally separate question of what to do next, which meant giving to me advice that I have given to many clients since then: Above all, count yourself lucky to have dodged that particular bullet.
I can’t think of anything Tom didn’t teach me about how to be a lawyer. When I needed to learn how to defend depositions, and then how to take depositions, I read Tom’s depositions. I remember dealing with my fear of opposing counsel being aggressively nasty to me or to my clients by writing Tom’s deposition objections more or less verbatim into my notes. I felt confident that I could rely on them both for their legal merit—knowing Tom wouldn’t put some BS out there, because that just wasn’t his way—and for the feeling that they would give me of borrowed cowboy boots, so to speak, until such time as I had acquired a pair of my own. So to speak.
And I embrace the double entendre right there, acquiring a pair, because Tom’s plain-spokenness and candor were qualities he must have been born with, in abundance—the sort of abundance that suggests that, as my mother likes to say, he stood in the line for plain-spokenness and candor maybe one extra time before he was born. But it was also so artful, the way Tom deployed these qualities to such great effect in his lawyering—to take people down a notch when they needed it, and to lift people up when that was what they needed. And by his example, which none of us could imitate, he taught us also to do these things, in our own ways, but with his spirit always behind us.
A friend of mine who worked with Tom for a summer in 2011 wrote me the day before Sanford Heisler Sharp’s firmwide memorial that she remembers every conversation she had with him, and I bet that’s the case for so many people who just knew him for a short time because those are the kinds of conversations Tom had. The conversations that made us come to him, and then made us send all sorts of other people to him—lawyers and clients and humans of all stripes—when they were in trouble, needed good advice, or just to hang out and talk with him because he was awesome and everyone should. Especially if you were trying to be both a lawyer and a human being at the same time, which can be difficult, but Tom did that really exceptionally well, in a way that inspires and helps the rest of us to do it better ourselves. And to pass it along, like he did; and to fight the good fight, like he did; and to keep giving them hell, just like he did. I will never do those things in Tom’s absence for the rest of my life without feeling his presence behind me, and I love and thank you Tom so much for that.
And thank you so much to Tom's family, and especially his children, for sharing him with us. He was so proud of y'all, so tickled to see your adulting. It was a joy to witness.
Terisa Chaw, former Executive Director of NELA, Founding Executive Director of The Employee Rights Advocacy Institute for Law and Policy (NELA’s sister organization), and a longtime civil rights warrior:
I am heartbroken that my dear friend Tom is gone—he had and always
will have a special place in my heart. Tom was my guiding star and I will
miss him greatly. He helped me immensely with building NELA’s Washington
DC Office and The Institute. Generously sharing his expertise in organizational
development and management, we spent countless hours brainstorming about
strategic planning, fundraising, organizational sustainability, and more.
An unsung hero. Tom did so much for NELA and The Institute, and neither
would be the vibrant and thriving organizations they are without his incredible
vision and contributions.
I will always treasure the wonderful conversations we had over the years about our families. Tom touched thousands of lives and friends—and I am fortunate that he touched mine. I will miss his hearty laugh, his big bear hugs, and his kind and gentle soul.
Daniel Kohrman, a civil rights lawyer:
I worked with Tom directly for several years at the Lawyers’ Committee in the 1990s and remained a friend after that. I shared a lot of intense times with him, learned a great deal from him, and enjoyed great opportunities under his leadership, especially when he graciously allowed me to take the lead in his suburban Pittsburgh school desegregation case for several years.
Kate Mueting, Co-Managing Partner of Sanford Heisler Sharp’s Washington, DC Officeand Co-Chair of the Firm’s Discrimination and Harassment Practice Group:
I met Tom in 2011 when I interviewed to join Sanford Heisler Sharp. He was very genuine and kind. I remember being very impressed with his civil rights experience, and I joined the firm hoping we could work together. I was fortunate to do so, and I frequently benefited from Tom’s wise advice and counsel. I am grateful for his mentorship and friendship and grateful that we are honoring his legacy through the firm’s civil rights fellowship.
Christine Dunn, Sanford Heisler Sharp Partner and Co-Chair of the Firm’s Criminal/Sexual Violence Practice Group:
I first met Tom in 2008 when he joined Sanford Heisler Sharp. During that first year, his office was on the second floor and mine was on the third. I ran myself ragged climbing up and down the stairs constantly seeking out Tom’s advice on my cases. He was always incredibly generous with his time and his wisdom. I know that he helped to make me a stronger lawyer and civil rights advocate. Starting in 2008, I had the pleasure of working with Tom on the race discrimination class action case against the United States Marshals. Tom was the heart and soul of the team and for more than a decade Tom valiantly fought against injustice at the Marshals Service. It breaks my heart that Tom won’t be here to carry this case across the finish line. I just hope that we make Tom and our clients proud through the work we will continue to do in their honor.
Saba Bireda, Sanford Heisler Sharp Partner and Co-Chair of the Firm’s Discrimination and Harassment Practice Group:
As soon as I started at Sanford Heisler Sharp in 2016, I made it a priority to get to know Tom and work with him. We bonded quickly over our past experiences litigating education and housing cases. When I came to him and asked if he would be counsel of record for a Supreme Court amicus brief in Bank of America/Wells Fargo v. City of Miami, he didn’t hesitate to agree even though I had only been at the firm for a few months. He let me take the lead, encouraging me to represent Sanford Heisler Sharp in meetings with other civil rights organizations working on the case. I saw then that he wanted me to gain the confidence to make those connections and be seen as the authority on the arguments in our brief. He never stopped pushing me to take on new and challenging experiences—whether deposing an important witness or arguing a complex legal issue in court. I grew immensely as a lawyer and leader because of Tom’s belief in me and willingness to give me opportunities to challenge myself. I am forever grateful for the experience of working with him.
Derek Black, a civil rights attorney:
My time working with Tom at the Lawyers’ Committee was the experience of a lifetime. I looked up to him in so many different ways—as a writer, thinker, and an advocate tough as steel. If you were on the other side, he would grind you down to a nub, punching legal blows and conceding nothing. At times, he wouldn’t even concede to a judge. You simply got the sense, no matter who you were, that you could not leave the room until he was done. As a junior attorney, it was humbling to work alongside him, as you knew the gap between yourself and him was enormous. For that matter, you knew that gap was not just reserved to junior attorneys. His force of will and intellect drew others to circle around him, not against him. He also had this way of making time almost stand still as he pushed us toward his high standards. Somehow, we were always late and running out of time but yet always had time. That was because we were never done until Tom said we were done and he was never in a hurry. Those times with him were the foundation upon which I built the rest of my career.
Michael Foreman, a civil rights lawyer:
I worked with Tom at the Lawyers’ Committee. He was a great mentor to younger attorneys and to me. While he held a lofty position, he really enjoyed rolling up his sleeves and engaging in the fight.
Sandra Blevins, a civil rights lawyer:
Please let his children know how much he was loved, respected, and revered, and how much he loved them—as anyone who spent any time with him learned quickly. I’m sorry for their loss, as I know it is immense. It’s immense for all of us and the world.
Teddy Basham-Witherington, Deputy Director of the Impact Fund:
Tom was a great guy and a wonderful friend of the Impact Fund. I will always remember that steady demeanor and quiet kindness that he brought to whatever table he was at.
Jennie Han, a former Summer Associate at Sanford Heisler Sharp:
I remember pretty much every conversation I had with Tom. I remember those conversations, because I had never met someone who exuded such steadfast commitment with the level of absolute quietude and honesty and understated calm that Tom had. If he weren’t saying such interesting things, it would have been freaky!
Aleks Marciniak, a former Sanford Heisler Sharp Legal Assistant:
I’ve been thinking a lot about mentorship over the past few years. What I’ve come to realize is that those who have had the most profound impact on my life, are the individuals who have this intuition about them and are able to connect with others on a deeper level. They can sense what it is that you are questioning about yourself and have the ability to change your perspective or ease your sense of self-questioning without you ever having articulated it in the first place. While our paths crossed only briefly, one of those mentors for me was Tom Henderson. As an administrative assistant at a law firm, with no interest in pursuing law as a career, I was nervous the first time Tom invited me and a few legal assistants out to dinner; I thought I would have nothing to contribute to conversation. Little did I know that Tom was a true patron of the arts – spending part of his summers in what we jokingly called “adult summer camp” where he listened to lectures about literature, music, painting, and other fine arts, as well as at a weeklong theater festival that he raved about – who saw in me a sense of doubt about my future in the humanities and quelled it. I left that dinner, hours later, with a new perspective about pursuing a doctoral degree, as well as a better understanding of the importance of the judiciary, the difference between dairy and beef cattle, and the need to get away from the noise of everyday life by spending some time in the country…perhaps an idyllic ranch just a drive away from the city…These dinners, always in a quiet restaurant so our group could really talk, demonstrated to me what it means to be a mentor; to see the person in front of you, to help them to really see themselves, and to encourage their connections with others. I will forever be grateful to Tom for that gift.
Cyrus Mehri, a civil rights lawyer:
Tom was a dear friend, a warrior for justice, and all-around outstanding person. It’s going to take some time to absorb this loss.
Paula Brantner, President at PB Work Solutions:
Tom’s passing is such a tremendous loss to the profession—what a giant of the Lawyer’s Committee and the plaintiffs’ civil rights bar. Tom was always so kind and so knowledgeable, willing to be helpful however he could. He definitely exemplified supreme dignity. . . .
Michael Lieder, a civil rights lawyer:
I had the pleasure of working with Tom for about eight or nine years while he was at Sprenger & Lang, which was after his time at the Lawyers Committee and before he moved to Sanford Heisler Sharp. The world is a poorer place without him.
Michael Churchill, Of Counsel at the Public Interest Law Center:
The mark of Tom was that when a case he argued before a hostile panel went the wrong way, he grieved his client’s loss, not his. A man of great passion, commitment, and unusual empathy. A real loss to our community.
Rebecca Salawdeh, President of the National Institute for Workers’ Rights:
Tom’s passing is a tremendous loss for the workers’ rights community. I had the pleasure of serving with him on the Institute Board. I always enjoyed those meetings and particularly Tom’s input. We had great brainstorming sessions about developing the vision and future of the Institute—from the type of work to structure to how to pay for it all. I learned a lot from Tom and was always impressed with his passion for the work. I also very much appreciated that he had no time for grandstanding or board politics but was 100% focused on the mission and how we move forward. In the next year, we are hoping to expand both the work and presence of The Institute; Tom’s passion for workers will live on in that mission.
Susan Coler, a civil rights lawyer:
Tom was dedicated, persistent, and so committed. And then, of course, I remember the cowboy boots and the time he loved spending on his land in the country! It is a huge loss.
Mark Dann, a civil rights lawyer:
I worked with Tom for almost two years at the Lawyers’ Committee, and I would not be the educational civil rights lawyer I am today if it were not for his guidance; he offered me my fellowship; introduced me to many of my current colleagues and the civil rights icons he called friends; we tried my first case together and stayed up overnight during the blizzard of 2003 to finish the Grutter and Gratz supreme court briefs. I can still see him standing outside the Starbucks on the corner of 14th Street NW and New York Avenue NW, a block from the White House, with a paper and a red pen in one hand, a cup of coffee and a cigarette in the other, and his cellphone balancing on his shoulder. And, yes, those cowboy boots. You would never have guessed that he was talking to attorneys from the NAACP or the NWLC while reworking yet another Supreme Court brief. But he was a trial litigator at heart. I remember the smirk/smile on his face when an opposing counsel told us he was withdrawing one of their expert witnesses two hours after Tom deposed him. And oh what a storyteller...