When Booker T. Evans came to Las Vegas in 1970 to work as a counselor at UNLV, he had no idea his career was about to make a sharp and rewarding turn.
After discovering that legal issues were often the root of the problems he was facing as a counselor, he decided to seek a law degree in hopes of becoming more adept at helping sort them out. Nearly 40 years later, after a trailblazing career as a minority attorney in Las Vegas, the 68-year-old is still going strong.
Evans is part of the Ballard Spahr national law firm, commuting between its Arizona and Las Vegas offices. A co-founder of the Las Vegas Chapter of the National Bar Association, he recently received a lifetime achievement award from the organization.
“I get to do what I want to do ... I get to practice law,” Evans said. “Why stop?”
VEGAS INC recently spoke with Evans about his career.
How were you able to get a job at the District Attorney’s Office?
The district attorney at the time was running for sheriff. When I first walked in for an interview, he didn’t want to hire me. Bob Miller was running for office, and I realized that (George) Holt was not going to be the district attorney. I cold-called Miller. He answered the phone. He told me he’d call me back. He apparently called the office and convinced them to hire me.
I went to work at the juvenile division. I worked there for three months and then, when Miller was elected as the district attorney, he had replacements sent in for me and brought me downtown and let me prosecute adult cases.
Did Miller tell you why he hired you?
I think he was probably impressed that I called him, that I was so assertive. I don’t think with Bob that my race had anything to do with it. I don’t think he was looking for black lawyers. I think it happened that my personality and the way I did things struck a chord with him.
Was race an issue with your colleagues?
I got to be very good at the job very quickly. I think because of that, people didn’t focus on my race. My place was that I was a very good prosecutor, as opposed to being a very good black prosecutor.
Was it your goal to be looked at as just a prosecutor instead of a black prosecutor?
No, it wasn’t, because I believed that part of my being a lawyer and doing this was to create a pathway for people who would come after me. I wanted people to notice that I was a black person. I didn’t want it be a hindrance to progress, but I wanted people to notice it because that would give the next person who came after me an opportunity. They’d be more willing to give black people a chance.
Were you relieved not to be judged based on your race?
It made me feel good, I guess because I believed that I had earned their respect. I earned my way and continued to do that every morning.
Who did you look up to at the time?
Oscar Goodman had a lot of influence. I would watch him in court, and he was a pro. I learned a lot watching him.
What advice do you give to aspiring minority lawyers?
I tell them all the time that if you’re a minority and you’re in court and you screw something up, they’re going to always remember that you did it and what it was. If a majority lawyer does the same thing, they’ll remember what it was but they won’t remember who did it.
I tell people to be prepared, to do their very best each day and not put yourself in a position where you could be (treated) in that fashion.
How did your family react when you told them you wanted to be a lawyer?
My father and mother didn’t graduate high school. ... I think in some ways, they were just amazed. My mother took my diploma back to Mississippi, and she must have shown it to everybody in Hattiesburg. Everybody must have seen it at least once.
About four or five years after I graduated law school, I visited. My dad said to her, “Rose, why don’t you give him his diploma?” She gave it to me, but I knew she didn’t want to. I called my law school and found out how to order (a copy of my diploma). I had one framed and I gave it to her for Christmas. She thought that was just the best thing.
Did your parents try to push you to do well?
When I got home from school, before I could go out and play, I had to do my homework and finish it. It was a routine.
I’m not sure that they knew some of the stuff they were checking, but they were checking to make sure it was done.
In the summers, my father would take us to the library. We would check out a book and we had to finish the book before the next Friday and be able to give him a summary.
How has the law profession changed since you started practicing?
Of course, the body of law continues to grow because of appeals, and the Supreme Court keeps taking cases and interpreting laws in a different fashion.
From a human standpoint, the thing that’s changed the most is that the lawyers on either side (think of) it as “us versus them,” as opposed to advocates trying to reach a solution to a problem.
In the criminal sector, people once got along really well. Prosecutors back when I started didn’t intend on staying prosecutors. Now, you have career prosecutors who have no reason, in my mind, to treat a defense lawyer well because they’ll never be defense lawyers. You always treat people better when you see yourself in their position.
Was it difficult for you to adapt to the changes?
I don’t think there’s anything difficult about practicing law for me. I don’t know how I found it, but it’s almost like I was born to do it. I don’t get upset about the things that happen around me.
What is the case that’s had the most impact on you?
I did a case that involved a kid who was convicted of murder. One of the investigative reporters went to the managing partner of my firm and said, “Do you have anybody who can go down and look at the case and can understand it? I don’t believe this kid is guilty and he’s about to go to prison for the rest of his life.” I went down. The kid didn’t have any money, so I did the case pro bono. I got the conviction reversed, tried the case again and won.
The reason why this had an impact on me is this kid never got into another day’s trouble. He went out and started a pest control business. Now he has six or seven trucks with his name on them. He’s done so well. He calls me regularly. We’re Facebook friends. When I got the lifetime achievement award, he wrote a note on Facebook that said I was his lawyer for life.
Speaking of the award, what was it like receiving the lifetime award from the National Bar Association?
My wife did the introduction. I was kind of, for once, speechless. I struggled through and thanked everyone. It was a very emotional and humbling experience for me. I never thought of my part as anything special. I thought that this is what I’m supposed to do. This is what I was born to do. I just do the best I can. I didn’t anticipate being honored for doing my work.
Were you named after Booker T. Washington?
My father was. I’m named after my father. It’s a rare name, and when you’re a kid, you get a lot of grief about it. When I grew up, people would say, “That is a unique name.” I would think, “Where have you been all my life? People have been calling me all kinds of things.”