At a time when the country is engaged in an intense dialogue on race relations, a recently released biography tells the story of the first African-American woman to serve as a chief justice on any state supreme court.

“Justice Leah Ward Sears: Seizing Serendipity,” published by the University of Georgia Press, is a 184-page volume by author Rebecca Shiver Davis, a criminal justice professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro. The book tracks the Air Force pilot’s daughter from birth in Heidelberg, Germany, through her groundbreaking work on the Fulton County Superior Court and the Georgia Supreme Court, plus her return to big law.

The biography paints a picture of a woman who made her own luck with tenacity and a drive to succeed. Sears was appointed by Gov. Zell Miller to the Georgia Supreme Court in 1992, making her the first woman and the youngest justice to serve there. She became chief justice in 2005.

“Justice Leah Ward Sears: Seizing Serendipity,” by Rebecca Shriver Davis.

For Sears, as the book details, breaking barriers was not easy. She retired as chief justice in 2009 and returned to private practice at Schiff Hardin in Atlanta, where she led the firm’s appellate practice group. Last year she moved to Atlanta-based Smith, Gambrell & Russell.

Davis walks painstakingly through Sears’ education in a Savannah high school, then Cornell University and the law schools of Emory University and the University of Virginia — where she earned her J.D. and LL.M., respectively. Themes include Sears’ devotion to justice, judicial independence and the rule of law.

Sears’ openness, as Davis details, is evidenced by long friendships with people across the ideological spectrum. They range from former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young — also a former congressman, ambassador and civil rights leader — who first made her a city court judge to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, a member of the high court’s conservative wing. Thomas is also a Georgia native.

Sears talked about the book and the current times in a recent conversation. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

The National Law Journal: How did this book come about?

Leah Ward Sears: [Davis] came to me 15 years ago. It was before I became chief justice. I remember sitting in the presiding justice chambers talking with her. I would show up places to speak and she’d be sitting in the audience. She went to Cornell and talked to people there. She visited my brother. She had to read all my opinions, my gay rights ruling. About once a year I’d sit down with her.

All history is somewhat sanitized. I wanted her to get it for real. She was very thorough. I learned things I didn’t know.

NLJ: What did you learn?

LWS: I left Savannah before finishing a senior year in high school because of race relations. I just knew [at the time that] white kids and black kids were beating each other up. I wasn’t learning. I left. I’d accumulated quickly the credits needed to graduate. I skipped senior year and went to Cornell. I was fed up.

[Davis] went to Savannah and looked up yearbooks and news accounts. She found out exactly what was happening that made me leave. The book was my opportunity to read about what happened.

NLJ: Were you protected from what was going on by being born in Germany and living other places early in life?

LWS: I was actually quite wounded by it all. It created pain and wounds that are still here to this day.

There was no way you could escape it. I was black growing up in a white world. It was the next wave of the civil rights movement. What came next wasn’t so easy.

[Years later,] I was the only woman and only black on the Fulton County court. On the one hand, you made it. On the other hand, it never lets up. When I read the book, it was like I was in training for all this.

NLJ: Where did you find your strength?

LWS: My family. Close friends. I’m not the only person who has gone through this. There are a number of us.

One of the coping mechanisms for being by yourself is doing really well. You’re used to having to work at a level that most people don’t have to work at.

NLJ: Is it still the same in a law firm? And how are law firms in general doing with diversity?

LWS: I started at Alston Miller & Gaines [now Alston & Bird] in 1980. I’m at Smith, Gambrell & Russell now. I love Smith Gambrell. But none of these firms are where they need to be in terms of what America looks like. None of them. I don’t quite understand it, but that’s just where it is.

NLJ: How can law firms improve on diversity?

LWS: You’ve got to do more than talk about it. You’ve got to hire people. Everyone wants to talk diversity. Talk. Talk. Talk. You’ve got to do it. And when you bring in diverse lawyers, you’ve got to give them access to business and power that so many white males have had for years and years.

They do it by setting up teams. They go to Braves games. They do more than talk. Then bring them in and do everything to make sure they’re successful. You can’t just give them a pen and pad and say go for it . You’ve got to bring them along.

NLJ: What’s it like for you working at your firm as a diverse partner?

LWS: They hired me, and it’s pretty obvious who I am. I’m nice and all that. But they know some things have to change. And they’re open.

I’m not a radical. I don’t want to “burn baby burn” the building down. But I do want change. They want to help me make the changes that are needed.

NLJ: For example?

LWS: On Nov. 3, the dean of the Emory business school, Erika James, a friend of mine, is going to come to the firm and do diversity training. They want to improve hiring. They have me working with hiring — with minorities and women, too. Our hiring numbers are up for minorities. Way up. It’s not just me. They’re receptive.

NLJ: What regulatory issues do you come across most often — with either state or federal government — in private practice?

LWS: I think the issues that involve state regulation that I deal with now that I am in private practice and do appellate work involve at this point mostly tort reform, environmental issues and animal rights, all of which are still being fleshed out in terms of what the law is going to be for the long term.

But of course I do all manner of appellate work from just simple business matters to complicated medical malpractice cases and government disputes to family law cases.

NLJ: Your biography is coming at a moment of racial tension fueled by controversy over Confederate monuments. Should they be taken down and removed to museums?

LWS: I have a more nuanced position. They went up at different times. As I understand it, monuments that went up right after the Civil War were appropriate monuments to the dead. Weeping widows. I don’t see any problem with that.

Then the monuments that went up at the turn of the century, late 1800s and early 1900s, were an attempt to rewrite the narrative of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee. States rights. They need to be shipped off to museums.

Where are the monuments to slaves? They need to be outed and put in context.

Then there are the monuments that went up in 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. Those have got to go. The [monuments represented the] Southern resistance. Like the Georgia flag. The Confederate battle emblem was put on the flag in 1956 as a resistance to the U.S. Supreme Court. So I would say some gotta go. Some can stay. Some we need to talk about.

NLJ: How is it possible for one person to change the thinking of a group — whether it’s a court, a corporate board or a law firm?

LWS: It takes a bit of courage. You have to just plow in and go where no man has gone before. You have to speak up. You have to show it in your writing. I paid a heavy price. … I was the only justice who always had opposition.I have come to the realization that I am a leader but I’m not a status quo person. I’m a catalyst for change. I always need to be where the action is. I was the first black woman in Fulton County Superior Court. [Later,] there were plenty. I thought I needed to move on to where I could make a difference. They weren’t jobs. They were missions.

Being a black female partner now in a large firm where there are so few of them — that’s a mission. That’s the area that’s lacking.

When 40 percent of partners here are women and blacks, maybe I’ll say, OK, I’ll join you and become a writer.