Cedric Merlin Powell
Wyatt, Tarrant & Combs Professor of Law
Brandeis School of Law
Cedric Merlin Powell saw the power of law as a child when he watched civil rights lawyers in his hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, in action. Russell T. Adrine, Louis Stokes and others stoked Powell’s fire to use an education and a legal career as a way to impact social change.
In his nearly three decades at the Brandeis School of Law, Powell, the current Wyatt Tarrant & Combs Professor of Law, has now become the mentor helping other students along their own paths.
“You’re setting these young lawyers up for their professional life, giving them their foundation,” he said.
At UofL, that foundation starts with the Brandeis tradition – a focus on service that Powell and his colleagues strive to live through engaging in topics of public interest, speaking out when appropriate and necessary and modeling what a true public citizen looks like.
Powell has a long history with activism through law, including clerking for the Hon. Julia Cooper Mack, who was the first Black woman appointed to a court of last resort. He also worked for the ACLU, where he wrote two briefs that went before the Supreme Court.
He joined UofL in 1993 after a stint at an international law firm in New York, entering Brandeis as part of a trio of professors of color recruited by the then-dean, a hire unique for the time. In addition to his professor role, he has served as associate dean and was one of the founding professors of the Central High School Law Partnership, a Brandeis School of Law program designed to promote diversity in the legal profession.
“It gets us a connection with the West End that isn’t merely symbolic; we do good things in the classroom,” he said.
The partnership introduced teenagers at the primarily Black high school to law curriculum with the intent to broaden their opportunities and to set them up for success in the legal field. More than 500 high school students have participated in its 20 years of existence.
“It’s a true link to the legal system, but that’s not the only thing it does,” Powell said. “It gives students a glimpse of what professionalism means. It’s a really good program to engage students and really illustrate what being a public citizen is all about. We want them to be active, we want them to engage, we want them to be informed.”
The Central High School Partnership also allows Brandeis students to participate in community work through leading courses and mentoring the high school students. The Brandeis School of Law was one of the first law schools in the country to include a public service component to its academic curriculum and the school considers that to be its hallmark.
For Powell, who has dedicated his career to bettering society through education, knowing that his students are learning to be adaptable, effective and successful in their endeavors is only part of it. His main goal as an educator is to show others how to make their own impact. “We want them to be able to make a contribution, whether they’re a corporate lawyer or public interest lawyer, to make the legal community here in the commonwealth and beyond better,” Powell said. “That’s what a lawyer should do – always contribute to what is good.”