Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor once said, “Remember that no one succeeds alone.” My life proves just how true these words are. From my childhood to now, in both my personal and professional lives, many people have lifted me up when I was down or set an example that inspired me. Each one laid a stone on the path that led me to where I am today.
Though so many have helped me, the women in my life stand out the most. I’d like to introduce you to a few of these remarkable women.
My grandmother was born in Limestone County, Alabama. Her mother was ill, so from a young age, she was responsible for running the household. She had to leave the segregated schools she attended in the 10th grade to focus on her family.
As an adult, my grandmother’s main job was cleaning the Limestone County Courthouse in Athens, Alabama. When I was a little girl, I went to see her there a few times. I remember the sight of her in the custodian’s closet, the smells of the products, and the way her hands moved.
Little did I know that one day I would walk into the same courthouse as an attorney.
When I see and touch the places my grandmother once cleaned, I feel a sense of pride that I can’t come close to putting into words. They are concrete reminders that the hard work, sacrifices, and guidance of my grandmother, my mother, my father, and other family members made it possible for me to be who I am today and to do what I love to do.
My grandmother also looked out for others. Even if it was something small – such as making a meal for a grieving family – she taught me that we have to care for others in their time of need.
My Law School Professor
As anyone who’s ever been there knows, law school is h-a-r-d. For me, it was beyond difficult because I was attending classes while raising a child. The pressure of attending classes while providing for my son nearly led me to quit law school. But when I reached my breaking point, the late Professor (and Judge) P. Luevonda Ross lifted me up. She hired me as her research assistant which eased my financial burden enough to let me continue my studies. More importantly, she became a sounding board and shoulder to cry on that I could go to in times of distress. Judge Ross’ kindness also showed me the importance of having diversity in the legal profession.
My Boss at HUD
When I was a first-year law student, I received an internship with HUD – the Department of Housing and Urban Development. You have no idea how excited I was to secure a federal internship! I was devastated when I learned that the funding for the internship had been cut. Enter Natasha Watson.
Shortly after the internship debacle, Ms. Watson became the director of the Birmingham HUD office. Out of the blue, she called me and told me to resubmit my materials. She helped me over every hurdle – and there were a lot – of the federal government’s hiring process.
During my third year of law school, I was driving from Montgomery to Birmingham every day. I was also pregnant. My family and I were living in a hotel while we were waiting to close on our new home. I was beyond exhausted but I needed to make the drive to have any hope of getting a permanent position at HUD after graduation. When Ms. Watson learned about my struggle, she made special arrangements for me to telework – way before we all knew how to Skype or Zoom. She fought for me to be hired as a permanent employee. I cannot overstate the role that she played in shaping my legal career.
I Stand on Their Shoulders
Each of these remarkable women taught me something that I carry with me to this day.
My grandmother showed me the value of hard work. Custodial work is tough, underappreciated work. My grandmother tackled every job with pride because she enjoyed working. In fact, shortly after she retired from cleaning the Limestone courthouse she took a job cleaning a big box store. My grandmother’s work ethic has inspired me to work hard in every area of life.
I also try to help others just like my grandmother showed me. My firm recently sponsored a van for the Boys & Girls Clubs of North Alabama. When I support my community, I know I am living out my grandmother’s lessons.
Judge Ross had no obligation to help me. Neither did Ms. Watson. But they did. I have expressed my gratitude to both of them, but it’s not enough. I try to honor their contributions to my success by doing the same for others. It’s one of the reasons why I was inspired to form the Black Women Lawyers Association of Alabama organization. The group helps African American women succeed in a profession that often overlooks our abilities. I’m proud to have served as the organization’s first president not because I love titles, but because I know that helping the next generation of young female attorneys is one way to put the lessons my mentors modeled to good use.
You don’t need to start an organization to make a difference, though. When I meet a young woman who wants to intern at a law firm, I do my best to hire them. If I simply can’t take on any interns at the time, I’ll connect them with another firm. No matter what, I let them know that I will be there for them to answer their questions about this profession. Sometimes a little encouragement goes a long way.
I am so grateful for the women who helped me get to where I am today. Their examples of hard work and perseverance, as well as their commitment to helping others, inspire me every day. I hope these stories inspire you as well.