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Acosta to lead Government Lawyer Section’s diversity efforts

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Assistant U.S. Attorney Winifred Acosta

Assistant U.S. Attorney Winifred Acosta

Determined to promote diversity, the Government Lawyer Section has recruited a trail-blazing federal prosecutor to lead the effort.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Winifred Acosta, a criminal appellate lawyer in the Northern District of Florida’s Tallahassee office, will chair the section’s new Diversity and Inclusion Committee, said GLS Chair Jacek Stramski.

“She has been recognized for her Bar and inclusion work by the Tallahassee Women Lawyers…and is active on the issue on many fronts,” he said.

“Active” is an understatement considering Acosta’s years of service work, and career studded with firsts — first African-American woman appointed assistant state attorney in the Third Circuit; first African-American assistant statewide prosecutor in the Jacksonville Division; and first African-American woman appointed assistant U.S. attorney in the Northern District’s Tallahassee office.

“I’ve been a first in every office that I’ve worked,” said the Live Oak native, who was also the first in her family to earn a college degree.

Acosta didn’t know any attorneys when she was growing up, and a legal career never occurred to her — until she turned 13, and her sister became the victim of violent crime.

“I didn’t know how I would become a prosecutor, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “So, 10 years later, I was completing my final year of law school at [UF] Levin College of Law.”

Serving as a prosecutor in her hometown was so rewarding, Acosta felt obliged to give back.

“So, for years, I’ve tried to keep in mind that to whom much is given, much is required,” she said. “That’s sort of a keystone to my existence.”

In the past year, Acosta was the recipient of the Tallahassee Women Lawyers “2020 Diversity and Inclusion Award” and the Tallahassee Bar Association’s “2020 Diversity in the Legal Profession Champion Award.”

Acosta has spent years promoting diversity and inclusion in the Northern District, where she has served as Black Affairs Program manager and Department of Justice Ambassador. While juggling a full caseload, Acosta organizes cultural events, and mentors the next generation of lawyers.

“So, when law students have questions about the…DOJ Honor Program, they reach out to me,” she said. “Or, if they just want to find out what I do, or how they can get their foot in the door, they will reach out to me,” she said. “I know, because I’ve been there.”

As director of the Tallahassee Barristers, Acosta devised a way to fill another void.

“I saw the need to enhance the diversity of the attorneys practicing in federal courts,” she said. “It’s something I noticed [after] practicing…for more than 17 years.”

She forged an alliance between the Barristers and the Tallahassee Chapter of the Federal Bar Association to jointly produce a CLE on federal practice.

She has several ideas for programming for the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, but it’s too early to discuss details, she said.

The committee’s mission, at least in part, is to “further the purposes of the Government Lawyer Section by promoting the diversity and inclusion of all attorneys in the Government Lawyer Section, and the executive council, including those who are racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, women, members of the LGBTQ community, and persons with disabilities.”

Acosta believes the diversity message will find a more receptive audience after Black Lives Matter protests earlier this year focused the nation’s attention on the need for reform.

“I think because of that eye-opening experience, people have become more understanding of the experience that people of color have undergone for so long,” she said.

Like countless women and minority lawyers, Acosta has been the victim of casual sleights, such as arriving early to a deposition and being mistaken for a clerk or stenographer.

“The first couple of times that it happened to me, it shocked me or stunned me,” she said. “But the more it happened, I just became numb to it, and I politely acknowledged who I am.”

And like the many women and minority lawyers, Acosta had benefitted from a mentor. She considers Third Circuit Judge Leandra G. Johnson a “role model” and “second mother.” Before she became a judge, Johnson was Acosta’s supervisor.

Asked to describe the importance of diversity, Acosta quotes a favorite author.

“Maya Angelou once said, in diversity, there is beauty and strength, and it says so much,” she said. “Government lawyers should be as diverse and inclusive as the communities we serve. It is most comforting to know that someone can relate to your experience, and can convey that experience to ensure equality and justice under the law.”

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