Williams was born and raised on a small farm in South Carolina and received an undergraduate degree in political science with honors from The Citadel (The Military College of South Carolina) in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as a United States Air Force R.O.T.C. scholarship.
Williams received an educational delay from his service obligation and earned his J.D. from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1988, where he also served as an executive editor of the Virginia Journal of International Law. After a year in private practice in Columbia, South Carolina, Williams joined the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where he rose to the rank of captain.
Williams joined the Seattle office of the law firm Perkins Coie in 1993. Williams was named managing partner of the Seattle office, which has over 370 attorneys, in 2017. He is the first African American to serve as Perkins Coie’s office managing partner since the firm’s founding in 1912.
Williams’ legal practice is focused on complex commercial litigation. He has also litigated civil rights cases for the American Civil Liberties Union, including Wilbur v. Cities of Mt. Vernon and Burlington, a class action suit in which he and his litigation team fought for the right of misdemeanor criminal defendants to effective legal representation.
Williams has served as a volunteer leader for a number of civic organizations, including the United Way of King County, Treehouse, the King County Charter Review Commission, the King County Bar Foundation, the Loren Miller Bar Association, the Seattle Foundation, and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. He represents Washington in the American Bar Association (ABA) House of Delegates.
Williams was named the inaugural chair of the Washington Leadership Institute (WLI) in 2004, an organization that recruits, trains, and develops attorneys from traditionally underrepresented groups for future leadership positions in the bar and their local communities. He continues to serve as WLI co-chair. Williams joined the American Law Institute (“ALI”) in 2014. The ALI, as the nation’s premier assembly of jurists, legal academicians, and practitioners, publishes common law restatements for the benefit of courts and practitioners across the country.
In 2021, Williams received the Washington State Bar Association’s Justice Charles Z. Smith Excellence in Diversity Award and was named one of the region’s Power 100 business influencers by the Puget Sound Business Journal. Williams also assisted in the creation of the Black Boardroom Initiative in 2021, which aims to increase the number of Black executives on public company boards.
Williams joined Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity in 2005 and served as sire archon (president) of the fraternity’s Seattle chapter, Alpha Omicron Boule, from 2015 to 2017. He also belongs to the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. Williams is married to Seattle attorney Carolyn Ladd and has one daughter, Jacqueline. James grew up in Rembert, South Carolina, where his mother, Annie Mae Williams, lives.
Williams is an enslaved person’s direct descendant. He is proud that three of his great-great grandfathers registered to vote in South Carolina shortly after emancipation in 1868.