Howard University School of Law mourns the loss of alumnus and former adjunct professor Robert M. Willis (J.D. ’71), who died Oct. 21. He was 76.
Willis was born on Dec. 7, 1943, in Washington, D.C. to the late Rev. Jesse J. Willis, Sr. and Mattie McCarter. A native Washingtonian, Robert attended Calvin Coolidge High School in the district where he was both an exemplary student and athlete. His athletic talents were rewarded with a scholarship to Howard University, where he was an indispensable member and former captain of the Bison football team. After earning his undergraduate degree from Howard in 1966, he was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs into the NFL. He was simultaneously being drafted by the United States government to fight in the Vietnam War.
Willis served as a 1st lieutenant in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. While in the U.S. Army, he showed tremendous courage and leadership towards his fellow soldiers; traits that were usually attached to him by anyone who spent time, worked with, or got to know him on a personal level.
After his military service, he came back to the Washington, D.C. area to pursue his newfound passion for law. Law was an area in which he estimated he could impact the most change for his community and his family. He was accepted into the Howard University School of Law, where he excelled tremendously and graduated with his Juris Doctorate degree in 1971. After his graduation, he worked for multiple tax law firms in both Ohio and Connecticut.
Willis specialized in the practice of insurance law as well as regulation and captive insurance management. He was the President and co-owner of McCarran Ferguson Captive Management Company Inc., and also served as the Executive Director of the District of Columbia Life and Health Insurance Guaranty Association. Willis was frequently engaged as an expert witness in significant insurance litigation.
He began his insurance career with Cigna Corporation as director of taxes, and later served as regional vice president for the West Coast Claims Operations and sales manager in the individual life sales and investments areas.
Willis served as the District of Columbia insurance commissioner from 1991-1994. During his tenure as insurance commissioner, Willis was appointed to the Executive Committee of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) and was elected president of the Northeast Zone of the Association. He chaired several important NAIC committees, including the Urban Insurance Availability and Affordability Task Force and the Life Insurance A Committee. Willis was selected to serve with a special delegation of Insurance Commissioners advising the White House of the potential impacts of then proposed healthcare insurance reforms. He also represented the U.S. insurance industry on the 1994 OPIC/AID trade mission to South Africa. Willis was a well-known and sought-after guest speaker on insurance issues.
In 1995, he opened his law offices in Northwest Washington, D.C., where he offered his legal counsel on insurance litigation matters up until his semi-retirement in early 2020.
In 1998, Willis co-founded New America Insurance Company, a Florida domiciled property and casualty insurance company. New America was and is Florida’s first minority-owned casualty insurance company.
In 1998, Willis was also elected to the Board of Directors of the Ameritas Holding Company, then a diversified financial organization, consisting of insurance companies, a mutual fund, a bank and investment advisors. He chaired the Intercompany Transactions Committee and served on the Audit, Finance and Corporate Governance Committees.
In 2004, Willis was elected to the board of CareFirst Holding Company, and as a trustee for GHMSI, the BlueCross and BlueShield Company affiliate of CareFirst. During his nine-year tenure, he chaired the Finance Committee and served on the Executive and Strategic Planning committees.
Willis previously served on the Board of Governors of the Florida Residential Property and Casualty Joint Underwriting Association, the Florida Automobile Joint Underwriting Association and the Advisory Board of the California Organized Investment Network. He formally served as Corporate Counsel to the National African American Insurance Association. He was also a former board member of City Year DC and a member of Leadership Washington.
For years, he served as an Adjunct Professor with the Howard University School of Law, where he taught tax law. He was one of the first successful black tax attorneys in Washington, D.C. and was licensed to practice law in both the District of Columbia and Maryland.
Willis was preceded in death by his son Marcellus. He leaves to mourn his passing: his two sons, Ryan and Joshua; and a host of other relatives and many friends.