Black History Month 2024 Profile: Gerald Brawner, the Firm's First Black Partner

February 20, 2024
Jerry Brawner at podium

Gerald T. “Jerry” Brawner became the first Black lawyer to make partner at the firm—then known as Ballard Spahr Andrews and Ingersoll—when the Partners voted to elevate him to the partnership in 1976. His rise from Associate to Partner would fuel the aspirations of other Black lawyers watching his ascent.

One of those lawyers was Kenneth Frazier, a fellow Philadelphian who would go on to become president, CEO, and chair of the board of directors of pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. “Jerry was one of a handful of African American lawyers who had reached the pinnacle of big law firm success,” Kenneth wrote many years later in eulogizing his friend. “Just by being who he was, Jerry gave the rest of us license to have big dreams.”

By the time Jerry joined Ballard in 1970, he had served four years as an Air Force commando in Vietnam, earned his Bachelor of Arts from the Pennsylvania State University and his Juris Doctorate from Villanova University’s School of Law, and spent a year as an attorney adviser with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. At Ballard, he worked with banks, insurance companies, and public agencies and with city and state officials across the country, some of whom had never worked alongside a Black professional and were, in his words, “astonished at first.” He developed a reputation for his handling of corporate, real estate and project finance, and asset-based lending matters. Jerry left the firm for a position at the Economic Development Administration. However, he returned to the firm a year later.

He would leave Ballard for good in 1984 in search of a new challenge. With offers from a number of investment banks in hand, he signed on with Connecticut-based Advest, Inc., as first vice president and manager of public finance of its Philadelphia Group. There, he relished his role advising cities on how to manage their finances and achieve their goals, a job he described to a newspaper reporter as akin to running his own business.

Jerry went on to become a partner at Morgan Lewis and Bockius in 1985, co-chairing two of the firm’s practice groups, and later joined PHICO Insurance Company as senior vice president and general counsel.

He attributed his professional success to “a fortunate confluence of influences,” including such Philadelphia luminaries as Judge William Henry Hastie, Jr., the first African American to serve as a federal district court judge and as a federal appellate judge, and G. Fred DiBona Jr., who led Independence Blue Cross and the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. The latter appointed Jerry to the Philadelphia Port Corporation Board and said of him, “To work with him is to know and like him. He’s an extraordinary human being.”

In addition to the Philadelphia Port Corporation, Jerry served on the boards of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Penn’s Landing Corporation, the Pennsylvania Ballet, the Urban League, and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

His trajectory made an impression. As a young lawyer, Charisse Lillie looked to Jerry as a role model and mentor by example. He was an active member in several bar associations including the American Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the Philadelphia Bar Association, and the Bar Association for the District of Columbia. His presence made lawyers of color feel welcome. At events where he was present, she took note of the way he worked the room and the respect he commanded. When he sought her out for conversation at legal gatherings, she felt special; his interest in her career sent a message that he thought she was going places. She would later become the first woman of color elected to the Ballard Spahr board and the first partner of color to chair a legal department (Litigation) at Ballard.

Jerry Brawner Receives Alumni Fellow Award

Jerry’s professional success had a profound impact on his family. “He was a wonderful man and wonderful example to the young men in the family,” said Linda Brawner, his youngest sister. “The family has all gone on to do great things, due to Jerry’s example.” Jerry was like a father to Linda. Seventeen years older, he made sure that Linda had what she needed for dinner dances and proms. He helped with college and paid for her wedding. What Jerry achieved, and how freely he gave, created high expectations for his family members, and Linda believes he would be happy with who they are today.

Jerry Brawner died on August 15, 2001, at age 60. His legacy continues to inspire today.

Subscribe to Ballard Spahr Mailing Lists

Get the latest significant legal alerts, news, webinars, and insights that affect your industry.