Only in 1966 did Tulane Law School enroll its first Black student, opening doors to those who had long been denied access to legal education.
Eighteen years later, Karen Wells and Clarence Roby Jr. were the first in their families to enter law school, becoming some of the early Black practitioners in New Orleans’ legal community when they graduated in 1987.
As hundreds of leading Black lawyers descended on campus for the second Tulane Black Law Alumni Reunion this past weekend, the Robys are also pioneering a new status for Black alumni of the law school: building a Tulane legacy. Their son, Clarence “Trey” Roby, III, will receive his J.D. in the spring.
“For us, the idea of becoming a first or one of the first,” says Clarence Jr., “it is not unusual because during our time in law school it just wasn’t possible. We didn’t really know any lawyers. There wasn’t an opportunity for Black folks before us to go to law school.”
“But we know there will be many more stories of other families, of siblings, of cousins, seeing the impact because now we have the support, the leadership structure at Tulane,” said now-Judge Karen Wells Roby (L’87), a Federal Magistrate Judge with the Eastern District of Louisiana. “What you are all doing makes it easier for Black law students to flourish, so that we can impact legacy.”
An ardent supporter of the law school, Judge Roby has been instrumental in continuing to diversify the legal profession in New Orleans, nowhere more steadfastly than through her participation in programs at Tulane Law School. For her tireless service to the university, and to usher more students of color into the profession, she received the Wayne Lee (L’74) Award for Outstanding Service to the Profession during the Feb. 2-5 reunion.
More about the inaugural Tulane Black Law Alumni Awards.
“This shows you what diversity does – it opens doors, changes lives, and provides a more expansive and inclusive community,” said Tonya Jupiter (L’94), Tulane Law’s Dean for Experiential Learning and the co-chair with Judge Roby of the BLA Reunion, held every three years. “It’s transformational not just for our community but for the profession.”
Black graduates who started at Tulane Law in the late 70s and 80s now have grown children who are making the decision to follow in their parents’ footsteps. The profession remains woefully underrepresented, particularly by African American lawyers, their numbers hovering at about 5 percent.
For Trey Roby (L’23) those numbers are always in mind. He doesn’t want to be compared to his parents, but it’s inevitable.
“To me, they are just Mom and Dad. But more than that, I do think about what other young Black lawyers say to me about them, like young women who say, ‘I wouldn’t be here, doing this, without your mother,’ said Trey. “That helps me keep things real and remember the impact they have had on others.”
Neither Karen nor Clarence Roby knew many lawyers growing up. But they both had families who were community leaders and pressed them to give back.
She was born into a political family in New Orleans. Her father, King Wells, was a respected civic leader who had earned degrees from Xavier University, the University of New Orleans and Loyola University. He worked to help Black leaders run for public office and was one of the founders of New Orleans’ first black political organization, SOUL.
He and other black leaders encouraged others to run for political office when Black elected leaders were non-existent. He shepherded the rise of Black political leaders into office and eventually was appointed Director of the New Orleans Community Improvement Agency. He served in housing under three iconic mayors: Victor Schiro, Moon Landrieu and Ernest “Dutch” Morial.
“In our family, we cared about education,” said Judge Roby, who was laser-focused on succeeding in law school. “And of doing something to make your community better.”
Learn more about Tulane Black Law Alumni Giving.
For his part, Clarence grew up outside of Little Rock, Ark., the son of a railroad administrator. He remembers union members at his dining table, working on contract negotiations with his father. While in law school, he focused his studies on employment law, and employment discrimination work.
He was well-liked, so much so that in his third year, he was elected as the first Black Student Bar Association President at Tulane Law. “Everyone liked him, “ said Judge Roby. “We didn’t have enough Black students to elect him outright, but he was really affable, and he got elected.”
After graduation, Clarence Jr. hung up his own shingle and she went on to a clerkship Judge Bernette Joshua Johnson, an iconic leader in Louisiana Judicial history and now a retired Louisiana Supreme Court Justice. Judge Roby worked at several firms rising to partner where she worked as local counsel for General Motors Corporation and other manufacturers.
In 1998, she was selected from more than a hundred applicants to become the first Black woman magistrate judge in the Eastern District of Louisiana and the only black woman on the Court until 2011. She served as Chief Magistrate from 2017 through 2021.
She is a well-respected adjunct professor at Tulane Law School and a national leader in E-Discovery. On the eve of receiving her award from Tulane, she also was honored by the federal judiciary and the American Bar Association with a lifetime achievement award in recognition of her service to the community, profession and judiciary.
Clarence Jr. continues to work in personal injury, criminal defense, tort litigation, employment discrimination, white-collar crime, and mass torts. He is quick to credit his wife for being the backbone of the family and their careers. “It always gave me the flexibility to take cases that I care about and make it despite the cyclical nature of a law practice.”
The Next Generation
Trey Roby wasn’t planning on a career in law, and his parents weren’t pushing him to join their profession, either. Sure, he had done well in speech and debate competitions in middle school, honed his acting skills in high school, and excelled in business pitches skills in college. The latter earned him a $15,000 scholarship at Howard University his first year of college in a business competition because of the creativity and delivery of his team’s business pitch. But law – more importantly, law back home in New Orleans – was not in the cards.
After graduating from Howard and working for a few years in New York, Trey found he just wasn’t fulfilled. He returned home to do a summer of work with his father, to see if he would enjoy the law.
“We were elated, but we were never going to tell him because he needed to make these choices for himself,” said Judge Roby.
She then said something her son couldn’t shake: “Ask yourself, if you don’t go to law school, will you regret it?”
The answer was yes.
At Tulane Law, Trey Roby has made his own mark. He is known as quiet and studious, like his mother. He’s affable, too. More than anything, he’s competitive. When he toured the school, he saw the large marble slabs in the Judge Wendell H. Gauthier Moot Court Room and wondered if his parents’ names were there.
When he didn’t find them, he thought, “that’s what I’m going to do. My name is going to go right there.”
Students whose names are engraved “on the marble” dating as far back as the 1930s were the best in their respective moot court competitions. As a second-year, he and his Moot Court partner Reagan Roy (L’23) became Tulane Law “firsts”, winning the national Thurgood Marshall Moot Court Competition – sweeping all categories – including Best Oralist, Best Brief and Best Overall Team.
“I don’t want to do anything to win second place,” he said.
This year, he’s a coach, “because we are going to make Tulane a powerhouse in this competition.” In true form, the teams he coached recently won regional championships and one of them is going on to nationals.
Trey Roby recently learned, in fact, his name will be on the marble.
“We are so proud of him, but not surprised,” said his father.
“This is all full-circle for us,” said Judge Roby. “Black lawyers are desperately needed because sometimes those Black lawyers are the only voices against those trying to suppress the influence of black Americans today. So, with Trey and other students of color, they are very much needed. But our generation must pass this to them: Always, pay it forward.”
Trey Roby presented the Wayne Lee Award to his mother during ceremonies at the Tulane BLA Jazz Brunch.
If Judge Roby thought her leadership and example had been overlooked by her son, she would be wrong. During his remarks, he acknowledged her influence on his life.
“Beginning my own legal journey at your alma mater, I was approached by lawyers both young and seasoned about how you've mentored, impacted, or changed their lives for the better,” Trey said. “It is truly an honor to have you as my mentor and friend but an even greater blessing to call you ‘Mom.’ "