Double alumna blazes trails in the legal profession

Proud double ’Cane, Deborah Enix-Ross, B.F.A. ’78, J.D. '81, shared her journey from speaking to a packed Harlem congregation as a young girl to presenting her ideas on the world stage as a top international dispute resolution lawyer.
Double alumna blazes trails in the legal profession
Deborah Enix-Ross speaking at the Pass the Baton Ceremony, part of the dedication of The Taylor Family/UTrailblazers Experience, August 2022. Photo: Jenny Abreu

With her recent appointment as president of the American Bar Association, which makes her the eleventh woman and third University of Miami School of Law alumna to head the organization in its 144-year history, Enix-Ross paused to reflect on the key opportunities, people, and institutions that proved foundational to her history-making ascent.

When Enix-Ross showed an aptitude for writing as a child, her church took notice and provided her with the opportunity and encouragement to nurture her gift by presenting her writings in front of her congregation. “Like a lot of Black families,” she said, “the church was the center of our lives—religiously, socially, and culturally. And whenever there was a speech to be given, they would look to me and say, ‘Okay, you give it.’”

She found speaking to her congregation to be “an outlet to connect with people on different levels.” It was a powerful tool she wanted to develop further.

During a college tour of South Florida organized by her church, Enix-Ross fell in love with the idea of Florida. She chose the University of Miami for its elite journalism program, hoping to combine dual passions for writing and public speaking into one discipline.

The first high school graduate in her family, Enix-Ross completed her bachelor’s degree and enrolled at the School of Law the in the fall of 1978.

When she started, Enix-Ross said she “was one of only two Black female students. One was me, and the other is [now] a retired judge. You had to be a strong person to be a woman training to be a lawyer at that time.”

Jeannette F. Hausler, the law school dean at that time, served as a “mentor and a strong female role model” to Enix-Ross, encouraging the budding lawyer to take full advantage of all that the University had to offer. “You can never underestimate the impact a teacher has in someone’s life.”

During law school, Enix-Ross was encouraged to join the American Bar Association, an organization dedicated to enhancing the legal profession and an organization she would be elected to lead, decades later. She found great pride and inspiration in the idea that being part of a profession means “you need to do your part to contribute and uplift the profession.”

“That really is part of owning your career,” she continued. “If you don’t see an association or organization that is involved in the areas that you want, then go out and create it. I ended up creating two women’s interest networks in international law because I didn’t see women in international law. Be that change and create that opportunity.”

Besides, she said, finding ways to live and work in alignment with your values helps makes each step of the journey “feel a lot more blissful.” Beyond that, getting involved offers more opportunities to “look up every now and then from the work that you’re doing to appreciate all that is around you.”

Her most gratifying professional moments underscore a triumph, perseverance, and still detectable resonance of those same skills nurtured in girlhood.

For example, Enix-Ross remembers delivering an address celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ghana’s independence on behalf of the American Bar Association’s International Law Section. Fifty years of age herself at the time, she said the experience “felt very much synergistic.”

She also recalls the struggle to break into international arbitration as a young lawyer and the later triumph she felt when she found her breakthrough in the field, eventually becoming the American representative for the ICC Court of Arbitration, representing the U.S. legal community internationally. She said, “for a girl from Harlem, I didn’t think anything could top that [experience].”

Enix-Ross encouraged young professionals to “remember that you are the person that defines success for you. If you keep that idea at the forefront, then you will make decisions that are right for you. You have to run your own race. I think that is more important nowadays than ever.”

Looking back on her journey, Enix-Ross said, “it was not easy.” She continued, “There were moments when people would doubt me, but I never doubted myself because I knew that same determination that brought me to this point would also carry me through.”

However, she warned, “don’t get complacent. I don’t want to be an old lady sitting in the back saying, ‘you kids don’t know how easy you have it.’ But there is a sense that it wasn’t always this easy, and it wasn’t always this way. What we have now is because we built it. And you need to take it to the next level.”

Still, Enix-Ross is optimistic for the future. She recently returned to campus to participate in a Pass the Baton ceremony hosted by the UTrailblazers as part of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the University’s decision to admit its first Black students.

The ceremony aimed to motivate a new generation of student leaders to blaze the trail for those to come. Enix-Ross remarked, “the students whom I’ve seen are incredible. Far smarter, far more sophisticated than I was at their age. The things they know and the questions they ask … I have a lot of hope.”

Her final words of advice: “Lift as you climb.”