LDF's Seventh President and Director-Counsel

Sherrilyn Ifill

Since becoming LDF’s seventh President and Director-Counsel in 2013, Sherrilyn Ifill has advanced and strengthened LDF’s legacy as the nation’s premier racial justice legal organization during one of the most fraught and volatile periods for civil rights of our time. 

After nearly a decade at the helm, Ms. Ifill will step down from her role in the spring of 2022. Janai Nelson, LDF’s current Associate Director-Counsel who has worked alongside Ms. Ifill for the past eight years, will become LDF’s eighth President and Director-Counsel.

For nearly a decade, Ms. Ifill has led LDF through its greatest period of growth and transformation. LDF has led the fight against voter suppression, inequity in education, economic disparities, and racial discrimination in the criminal legal system. Under Ms. Ifill’s leadership, LDF has been on the frontlines in the battle to protect the integrity of our electoral process and access to the ballot against a sleuth of anti-democratic incursions. LDF has provided powerful and relentless advocacy against police violence. 

Among many honors, Ms. Ifill is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees, and was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s Women of the Year. In 2021, she was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the world in 2021, one of Glamour Magazine’s Women of the Year, honored with a 2021 Spirit of Excellence Award by the American Bar Association, and named Attorney of the Year by The American Lawyer in 2020. In 2022, Ms. Ifill will receive the prestigious Brandeis Medal, named for Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, and the American Bar Association’s Thurgood Marshall Award.

Ms. Ifill has increased the visibility and engagement of the organization in litigating the most cutting edge and urgent civil rights issues of our time. Amidst the civil rights crises and political upheaval of the past decade, Ms. Ifill’s singular voice and vision have powerfully influenced our national dialogue.

Sherrilyn Ifill


Ms. Ifill began her career as a civil rights lawyer at LDF in 1988 litigating voting rights cases working under senior attorneys Pamela Karlan and Lani Guinier. Just three years into her tenure at LDF, Ms. Ifill litigated and won Houston Lawyers’ Association v. Attorney General of Texas, a pivotal voting rights case in which the Supreme Court held that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act applies to state judicial elections. The case ensured that Black and Latino Texans were protected against discriminatory voting practices across all elections.

After five years defending voting rights at LDF, Ms. Ifill left to join the faculty at the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore where she taught civil procedure and constitutional law for the next 20 years. She created one of the earliest law clinics in the nation focused on challenging the legal barriers to re-entry for people formerly incarcerated for felony convictions.

“Sherrilyn’s advocacy creates paths for the unconvinced to understand things they have overlooked—and that may be the real genius of her leadership and skill. She is the rare strategic lawyer who has the ability to inspire, educate, and disassemble the distortions and misguided analyses that often paralyze policymakers.”

- Bryan Stevenson, Time 100 Most Influential People: Sherrilyn Ifill

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 06:  President and Director-Counsel of the LDF Sherrilyn Ifill speaks onstage during the Legal Defense Fund Annual Gala to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Brown V. Board of Education at the New York Hilton Midtown on November 6, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for NAACP Legal Defense Fund)

A prolific scholar and writer, Ms. Ifill has published academic articles in leading law journals, and op-eds and commentaries in a number of media outlets. She has cemented herself as one of the nation’s leading voices on racial justice issues, known for her fact-based, richly contextualized analysis of complex racial issues.

Her 2007 book On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century examines the long shadow of lynching and how this profound racial trauma still resonates in contemporary struggles for racial justice. The book serves as a guide for communities to confront the legacy of lynching through restorative justice and reparations. The book is credited with laying the foundation for contemporary conversations about lynching and reconciliation.

I always considered LDF my professional home. It was a strange thing; that's how strong the connection to that organization is. And I think most people who, who've litigated, who've been lawyers they will tell you that they feel that way, that whatever else they've done, there's something about LDF that is, is a kind of home for them.

In 2013, Ms. Ifill returned to LDF to lead the organization as its seventh Director-Counsel. Under Ms. Ifill’s stewardship, LDF expanded the reach, vision, and capacity of its litigation and policy work, built a strong grassroots organizing division, created an archives department to document LDF’s legal milestones and legacy, and created the Thurgood Marshall Institute as LDF’s multidisciplinary research arm. LDF’s staff, annual budget, and endowment have increased five-fold under Ms. Ifill’s leadership. She has elevated and strengthened LDF’s prominence as the country’s leading civil rights law organization and achieved unprecedented growth in the organization’s history. With Ms. Ifill at the helm, LDF has risen to shape the narrative of race and civil rights in our nation. 

Janai Nelson, who will become LDF’s next Director-Counsel, has worked alongside Ms. Ifill for the past eight years and has helped oversee the development and execution of its strategic vision and programs. Together, Ms. Ifill and Ms. Nelson launched one of the most far-reaching efforts to create the next generation of civil rights leaders: The Marshall-Motley Scholars Program (MMSP). The MMSP, named in honor of the nation’s first Black Supreme Court Justice and LDF founder Thurgood Marshall, and iconic civil rights litigator Constance Baker Motley, is a multi-year commitment to endow the South with committed, prepared civil rights lawyers trained to provide legal advocacy of unparalleled excellence. 

Ms. Ifill’s return to LDF coincided with the Supreme Court dealing its greatest blow to the Voting Rights Act with its Shelby County v. Holder decision. Nevertheless, Ms. Ifill and LDF have fiercely and vigorously defended voting rights at every turn. In the last year alone, LDF has sued the United States Postal Service over planned mail shutdowns ahead of the 2020 election, filed a lawsuit on behalf of peaceful protestors marching to the polls in Alamance County, North Carolina, and filed three lawsuits challenging voter suppression laws in Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and monitored elections in 10 key states. And that’s just LDF’s voting rights work. 

Sherrilyn Ifill's Statement on her Departure

“It has been the privilege of a lifetime to lead LDF for nearly 10 years. I began my career as a civil rights lawyer at LDF more than 30 years ago and every day leading this extraordinary, dedicated staff has felt like a dream come true. I have given this work my all, and I am proud of our accomplishments, including our increased growth and strength. But I am most proud of the leadership role LDF has played during one of the most tumultuous and volatile periods for civil rights in recent memory.

And our fight is far from over. For the work ahead, I am thrilled that Janai Nelson, who has been my trusted partner, will take LDF to even greater heights. I have no doubt that she is the right leader to build upon the strong foundation we have laid over the last several years and Janai will continue to advance the organization’s mission to defend and protect the rights of Americans all over the country."

LDF has also provided powerful and relentless advocacy against police brutality and qualified immunity, housing discrimination, and education inequity – all while working to protect the lives, homes, and educational opportunities of Black communities disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

LDF has been working tirelessly throughout the redistricting process to ensure that maps are drawn fairly and voters of color have an equal opportunity to elect candidates of their choice and meaningfully participate in the political process. LDF released a redistricting guide with Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, and MALDEF, and filed federal lawsuits challenging discriminatory maps in Alabama and unnecessary delays in the process in South Carolina. In response to attacks on truth and free speech, LDF has launched a sprawling campaign to protect truth that began with a federal lawsuit challenging then-President Trump’s Executive Order 13950.

In the midst of a global pandemic, rising authoritarianism, and relentless attacks on voting rights, LDF continues to lead the fight for racial justice and its work remains central to our nation’s democratic infrastructure. Ms. Ifill’s contributions to LDF and our country cannot be overstated: her tenacity and brilliant leadership has pushed the fight for racial justice forward and its impact will be felt for years to come.

Janai Nelson

Janai Nelson, LDF’s current Associate Director-Counsel who has worked alongside Ms. Ifill for nearly eight years, will become the next President and Director-Counsel. Ms. Ifill and Ms. Nelson have both dedicated their lives to the pursuit of racial justice and consider leading LDF as the pinnacle of that work. Their transition marks the first woman-to-woman succession in LDF’s history.

"It has been an extreme privilege to work alongside Sherrilyn Ifill since 2014 and to have worked with three of LDF’s seven President and Director-Counsels, including Elaine Jones and Ted Shaw. As LDF emerges from the profound metamorphosis of the past nine years under Sherrilyn’s leadership, I am honored to steward LDF’s next chapter with the skill, vision, care, and courage that it demands.”