As Women’s History Month kicks off, The New Tri-State Defender begins its monthlong series highlighting some of the women who have blazed trails in fields that have not always been so welcoming to African-American women. One such field is that of law.
The first African-American female lawyer was Charlotte E. Ray, who gained admission to the Washington, D.C. bar in 1872.
She applied to Howard University Law School as “C.E. Ray” and caused a commotion when they discovered she was a woman. Her practice ended quickly due to sex and racial prejudice, and she moved to New York in the 1880s to become a teacher.
Memphis’ own, Tressa Johnson, knows the struggles of being an African-American female lawyer, where only nearly five percent of the entire profession is Black – and less than a percentage point of those are women. She doesn’t let that discourage her from fighting hard for her clients.
TSD: What type of business do you own?
Tressa Johnson: We own an employment and civil rights law firm.
TSD: How long have you been practicing law and in business for yourself?
TJ: I have been practicing law for almost 15 years and am licensed in Tennessee and Mississippi. The firm has been in operation for the past six years.
TSD: How many employees do you have?
TSD: What was your inspiration for going into law and starting your business?
TJ: My eldest son was my inspiration for going to law school. As a single mother, I had a hard time making ends meet in Washington, D.C. However, I knew I would have to reach to be able to do more for him. He was my driving force to become an attorney. The purpose behind starting the firm was to create a supportive work environment that served the community.
TSD: What challenges have you faced as a lawyer and business owner, and how have you risen above them?
TJ: The presumption of incompetence is the biggest challenge being a Black female lawyer. Some think I am the receptionist, the paralegal, or the court reporter. The presumption is great, but it is removed after the legal arguments have been made and the writing has taken place.
I rise above by doing the work – and I do it well. People tend to not see race or sex when they are forced to focus on the law. I know the same presumption is made in the boardroom, the operating room and the classroom.
Many think there must be a male in the background making all the decisions and bankrolling the firm; surely there’s more than two females working the firm. (Not at this one.)
TSD: As a wife and a mother, and now a business owner, how do you balance it all?
TJ: I really don’t know if I do a really good job of balancing. My foundation is my husband, so I am a wife first. Our marriage makes our four children strong. The support of my husband allows me to do all of the things that bring me joy. He is the person that I bounce ideas off of, and we make game plans for our children.
Our children are also supportive and interested in my work. They understand mediation, depositions and court, and ask “How was work?” or “How did mediation turn out?”
They also know Momma will stop the world to see them perform at school or attend their games. My family is first, then the clients and then the firm. Every day I pray for each in that order.
I do have to find a space and a place to center myself. Wearing multiple hats, you feel as though you give until you are empty, but you have to fill up your well. My center is my faith. It gives me a tremendous amount of peace and grounds me in a storm.
TSD: What impact does your business have or do you hope your business will have in the future? On your family, community, etc.
TJ: I want to have the best civil rights and employment law firm in the country. I want to be able to provide a place of solace after experiencing terrible acts of discrimination.
We currently have offices in Tennessee and Mississippi. I hope to have offices across the South, in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
We go up against Goliaths every day. Potential clients wonder if we can handle cases against fortune 500 companies. We answer with a resounding YES! This is what we do and who we are. We represent David.
TSD: What advice do you have for someone who might be interested in entering your field?
TJ: Do it! You got this. It will take a tremendous amount of work, but always bet on yourself.
TSD: What advice do you have for other Black business owner hopefuls?
TJ: I would tell Black business hopefuls to: One, get a good CPA. Establish a good relationship with a small bank and create a strong business plan. I like small banks because they know and care about you.
Second, get an attorney to help establish your business, file the origination paperwork, annual report with the state, Employer Identification Number with the IRS and a host of other important documents and initial filings.
Rule number one after all of that: Do not give signing authority to anyone, and only go into a business with a partner that you trust with your money.
You should know every dollar that goes in and out of the business. Read (and understand) everything you sign. I know it is lawyer-ish to say that, but people sign a lot of things they do not understand.
TSD: If you weren’t doing this, what else would you be doing?
TJ: I would be an artist for Disney.
TSD: What professional accomplishment or major milestone are you most proud of?
TJ: My biggest professional accomplishment is when my partner and I secured a million-dollar verdict for our client. The jury asked if they could give more than a million, and I put my head down on the table.
On reconsideration, the judge stated that he would have given the million. I knew in that moment that, with hard work, we could help our community in profound ways.
TSD: Anything else you’d like to add?
TJ: I would like to thank The (New) Tri-State Defender for such an honor. It is a blessing to do what you love and be surrounded by people you love. If you ever need us, you can reach Johnson & Bennett at our Memphis office: 901-402-6601; or Jackson, MS office: 769-207-0599. Visit www.myjbfirm.com.