“State secure facility,” ruled the family court judge in 1966. With little help from his legal aid lawyer, 10-year-old Keith Watters, a ward of New York State with no juvenile delinquencies, was sent to live in a place “full of criminals and a staff of sexual deviants — a terrible place to send a child,” recalled Keith Watters ’76. After enduring weeks of abuse, he moved to more appropriate living quarters, Norwegian Children’s Home in Brooklyn.
“That experience helped imprint on me a strong belief in doing your best for your clients no matter what,” said Watters, now a successful lawyer in Washington, D.C. “I saw firsthand, at a tender age, what a bad lawyer can do.”
For 37 years, Watters has been doing his best for his clients. In 1980, shortly after graduating from Georgetown University Law Center, an “open for business” sign was hung on the door of Keith Watters & Associates. Working in criminal law for seven years before turning to personal injury law, he gained substantial trial experience.
“It’s in me to look out for the underdog because I was an underdog,” said Watters. “I have a soft spot for helping people — many have no money, they’re out of work, they’ve been in accidents. It’s my job to advocate for them. I take cases that other lawyers won’t. I remind my staff that we can take pride in what we do because of our values of not turning the needy away.”
Watters’s dedication to his vocation, concern for social injustice, and devotion to family have earned him leadership positions and accolades. He is president of the Foundation of the Bar Association of the District of Columbia and past president of three law organizations, including the National Bar Association—the nation’s largest group representing African American law professionals. While holding these offices, Watters represented members at the Supreme Court, White House, and Congress. He was voted 2010 trial lawyer of the year, named among the 100 most influential African American leaders by Ebony magazine, and chosen as a father-of-the-year semifinalist by the National Center for Fathering.
With his outspoken and flamboyant personality, Watters is a sought-after legal commentator for news outlets including Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC. And, he brought his leadership skills back to campus as an Ithaca College trustee from 2000 to 2010.
The foundation for Watters’s career was laid at Ithaca College, where he studied accounting.
“In the children’s home I knew education was important to pursue,” said Watters. “At Ithaca I was able to thrive. I did well in my courses. I even spent a semester in London. Carl Sgrecci ’69, retired CFO of Ithaca College, was a wonderful professor — outstanding.”
Watters says his life story is proof that affirmative action works. With a nod to the help Watters received from Ithaca College, he said, “Ithaca is one of the most progressive, outgoing schools in the country. It’s always trying to bring people in, regardless of ability to pay.”
After graduating from Ithaca College and law school, Watters continued on a path to success with a thriving law practice and family. His wife of 27 years, Patricia Watters, is a senior counsel with Watters’s law firm. They have three children, including a daughter in an Ivy League law school.
“It is possible to move people into a better position in life than where they started. It’s more than just a handout, though. It takes diligence and dedication,” Watters said. “I’ve been blessed in many ways, and I’ve tried to be humble about things in life. Some people build their whole life around material achievement. I’d rather build my life around the results I’ve gotten from my clients and my family.”
Keith Watters ’76, attorney and former president of the National Bar Association, will be on campus on Friday, Jan. 27, for a meet-and-greet and panel discussion for students interested in law or graduate school.