In June, Vernadette Horne joined the Law School’s leadership team as Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Here, she sits down with Director of Communications Lori Herz to discuss her new role and the career path that’s taken her from litigation practice and corporate consulting to law school administration, with a laser focus on creating a truly inclusive and representative legal profession.
LH: Where were you born and raised?
VH: I’m a native New Yorker. I was born in Manhattan, but I grew up in Hollis, Queens, about 10 minutes away from St. John’s campus. In fact, when I returned to New York after graduating from law school in Baltimore, I studied for the bar exam in the St. John’s Law library.
LH: So, given your deep New York City roots, I need to ask: Mets or Yankees; Knicks or Nets; Jets or Giants; Islanders or Rangers?
VH: Yankees, Knicks, Giants, and Rangers. There’s no other way! I was a Knicks season ticket holder for many years. And I’m such a basketball junkie that I once left a Knicks game at the Garden to drive to the Meadowlands to watch the Nets play Michael Jordan and the Bulls. I guess you can say that I am serious about basketball.
LH: What inspired you to go to law school?
VH: I decided to go to law school after discovering Thurgood Marshall in middle school, but not because he won 29 of the 32 cases he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. And not because he was the first African American to be appointed U.S. Solicitor General, or because he was the first African American Supreme Court Justice. His work for the NAACP on Brown vs. Board of Education stayed with me because it didn’t just change things for his initial client, but helped to end racial segregation for so many others. Seeing the impact of that work inspired me to become a lawyer.
LH: You were a litigator before making the jump to law school career services. What prompted that professional shift?
VH: The law firm I worked for was national counsel for a British company that made products containing asbestos. We traveled all over the country representing the client, taking depositions, arguing motions, appearing for hearings, conducting trials, and settling cases. I also spent three years away from law practice, as an information consultant and project manager for a corporate communications company. I wanted to change direction in my career and felt that I could offer students a wide variety of perspectives on practice.
LH: In your last law school role, you helped to lead diversity initiatives. What did it mean to you then to take on that dimension of law school administration?
VH: It was very meaningful and rewarding. I worked closely with students to guide their application process and place them in diversity internships and fellowships. As a liaison to student and professional affinity groups, I assisted with programming and event planning and increased networking opportunities. Every task I took on served an end goal of enhancing student learning, development, and success. I aimed to make DEI prominent and significant in the minds of the students, faculty, and administration. It was also important to me to foster a sense of belonging, create a supportive environment, and help the students feel heard and seen.
LH: You're assuming this key leadership role at St. John's Law as the pandemic endures and as our country continues to reckon with pervasive racism. How does this social context inform your DEI work?
VH: We certainly couldn’t have foreseen all of the incredible challenges our world faces today. First, the onslaught of COVID-19 brought devastating financial losses and the deaths of more than 600,000 Americans. And, in the midst of that, the murder of George Floyd again thrust the issue of racial injustice before all of America and indeed the world. We know there is much to be done in the quest for justice and equality. By definition, systemic racism is embedded deep and wide across American society and cannot be easily rectified. But the world’s growing acknowledgement of its existence means that there is hope for change. My plan is to continue the Law School’s policy of actively promoting an environment and culture of inclusion and equality, and to nurture and strengthen a sense of community, belonging, and mattering to all students.
LH: What do you most enjoy about working with students and colleagues on DEI programs and initiatives?
VH: I enjoy the congeniality, cohesiveness, and ‘let’s do our best to serve our students’ attitude that permeates everything we do. But the best part about working on DEI programs and initiatives is witnessing the positive impact they have on our students. Watching them grow and flourish really makes it all worthwhile. For example, last summer I started the Long Island Legal Diversity Fellowship Program, which provides opportunities for rising 2Ls to work at leading firms and develop key lawyering skills while gaining exposure to the Nassau and Suffolk legal communities. The inaugural summer fellows recognized the tremendous, hands-on experience they gained, and I’m confident that the program will lay the groundwork for increasing diversity in Long Island law firms. It’s rewarding to create this DEI pathway and others for law schools and the legal profession to follow as they commit to becoming truly inclusive and representative of all.