Great legal minds influenced McKnight’s path
By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer
As career choices go, Avery McKnight didn’t have a long list. None of the two choices he considered as a young man had anything to do with becoming an attorney but today he is considered one of Florida’s elite in the field.
McKnight’s focus was on being a certified public accountant or business administrator. However Bill Ravenell, one of his college professors, insisted that McKnight consider law.
McKnight still wasn’t sure, although his path kept leading him to the mentorship of some very influential legal minds.
The light came on.
“It is just the one that I believe that God just called me into,” McKnight said. “I didn’t start thinking, ‘hey, I’m going to be a lawyer one day.’ ”
By the late 1990’s after he completed pre-law work at FAMU, then earned a degree from Florida State, the Gainesville native was one of the most sought after young attorneys.
For the past eight years, McKnight held the position of general counsel at FAMU. A week ago, he was informed by president Elmira Mangum that his contract would not be renewed beyond Feb. 23. Meanwhile, he is on administrative leave as of Dec. 1.
The move was part of a personnel shakeup that came a month after the university’s Board of Trustees unsuccessfully attempted to terminate Mangum’s contract. Mangum had made her intentions to fire McKnight known in a previous BOT meeting, but the board blocked the move.
The board isn’t known to have been involved in Mangum’s recent decision. McKnight had served since he was appointed by former FAMU President James Ammons in 2007.
“I feel like FAMU suffered a loss,” said Bishop Holifield, one of McKnight’s mentors and FAMU’s first general counsel. “It takes years to gain the experience necessary to be an effective general counsel. You just don’t walk in off the street and operate as an effective general counsel.”
“That’s especially the case at a HBCU because, not only do you have all the consideration that any general counsel would have, but you have to figure out how can you help your institution survive at a time when HBCU’s are under attack.”
McKnight, 50, has a proven history of fighting for FAMU, going back to when he was an intern in the general counsel’s office under Holifield between 1999 and 2005. He worked for the Allen, Norton and Blue law firm as a labor lawyer before Ammons hired him.
He stayed on for three years after Ammons resigned in 2012, much longer than he expected.
“In the world of academia, general counsels rise and fall with presidents,” McKnight said. “I’m just thankful to God and others to serve. To serve three years after Dr. Ammons’ departure still provided a wonderful opportunity for me to advocate for FAMU.”
McKnight said he will continue to advocate for FAMU, making his point by reciting a line in the school’s alma mater song: “FAMU, I love thee and I will fight and win whatever the battle be.”
“I will always love that phrase because it connects the university with what’s to drive us to move to this place of excellence with caring and it’s going to be driven by love.”
Among the arguments that McKnight participated in on FAMU’s behalf was Holifield’s push for the university to regain a law school. They also worked jointly in an effort to add several programs at FAMU.
After taking over the office on an interim basis and later in 2007 as the lawyer in-charge, McKnight was right in the middle of FAMU’s effort to retain its accreditation under the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Holifield also praised McKnight on the way he argued cases on FAMU’s behalf to save the university money. Then, there were cases such as one brought by former professor Gerald Gee, after he was terminated for using a racial slur in the presence of students.
The case, which reached the Supreme Court, resulted in a significant win for McKnight.
His work has been recognized in several quarters, including the distinction of being singled out by Florida Trade Magazine as a legal elite.
“McKnight brought credibility to the general counsel’s office during his tenure,” said Holifield, who created the office during a time when there were discussions to shut down or merge FAMU with FSU.
“That office had such a track record of success it’s hard to understand why anyone would want to undermine the success,” he said, further expressing his displeasure over McKnight’s termination. “I think it’s a step backwards. I think it would be difficult to find someone more competent and more committed than Avery McKnight.”
Holifield said McKnight’s integrity and his ability to lead a staff of lawyers are two of his strong suits, adding that he will succeed wherever he lands.
“Anybody who is a member of the Florida Bar is bound to remain true to the professional rules of conduct and ethics,” McKnight said. “I always tried to provide vice counsel that is in the best interest of my client.”