How did your English and theater degrees lead to law?
I wanted to be an actor. I love reading, the written word, giving speeches. I’ve always liked to stand up and tell everyone what it’s all about. I had an internship with the Alliance Theatre studying with Kenny Leon, had an agent. But, opportunities for actors in Atlanta were not what they are now. My fiancé, now my husband, was an attorney, and as I learned more about the issues he was dealing with, I realized I was interested in law. I took the LSAT and received an Atlanta Law School Fellows scholarship to Georgia State.
I love being handed a problem and the resources to answer it, marrying research and advocacy skills. It lit me up in a way I had not expected.
You are the Atlanta Bar Association’s Outstanding Woman in the Profession for 2018. What has been your experience as a woman lawyer?
It has evolved. When I was younger, I would show up for a meeting or deposition and have to explain that I was the lawyer. I’ve had older, male opposing counsel speak to me condescendingly. I don’t let myself be walked on, but I don’t take the bait. My response is to remain professional. Women can get painted into a corner by the way we respond. The best comeback is kicking their butt in the case.
Once when a male opposing counsel spoke to me rudely, a young male lawyer heard. He told me he was going to point out to this person that his comment was inappropriate. That was admirable. I hope we, as a profession, start speaking up when things like that happen.
I don’t mean to imply any malice in the lack of diversity in our profession, but in many instances, I don’t think people recognize that there is only one woman in the room. I want people to be more aware of that and bring qualified women into the firm, the boardroom, the conference or legal team.
You were elected to the Board of Governors for the State Bar of Georgia, representing Atlanta Circuit and Post 12, and have had countless leadership roles in various organizations. What’s your leadership style?
In addition to being prepared, I respect people’s time. I start meetings on time and provide a written agenda and information in advance for review. I try, graciously, to keep us from going off on tangents.
In my firm, I ensure my time management is strong. I let people know what I need and what’s expected, and I set deadlines with time to complete the work. I complete briefs a week before they’re due because others need to review it, and doing so reduces mistakes.
How did Georgia State Law prepare you?
It was wonderful that not everybody in my class was straight out of college. We were all in a situation that could be stressful, but it was so much richer because of the people who had life experience.
The incredible teachers were enthusiastic about teaching. They do a great job educating lawyers on the foundations of law, professionalism, collegiality and ethics. I’ve had feedback that I’m professional in my interactions. That’s not to say that I’m not a tough litigator. There’s just no need to be rude. My instinct is to remain professional. And, considering everyone on the other side of the “v” as your enemy isn’t a sustainable way to practice. You’re likely to meet them in other places than the courtroom.
What advice do you offer law students?
I would have liked to have known about the importance of networking, connecting with practicing lawyers to find out what they do and how they do it, what they like and dislike about the practice of law. Learn as much as you can from everyone.
Pay attention to business. You’re building a business in almost any legal path you choose, so lay that groundwork early. You are securing your financial future by developing a book of business for your firm.
And enjoy your life. That is why you’re earning money.
Joyce Gist Lewis, a partner/managing member at Shingler Lewis, has represented private companies and governmental entities in all areas of litigation for more than 15 years. Her trial experience includes serving as lead counsel in significant wrongful death and catastrophic injury claims, as well as business litigation, employment and civil rights cases. She co-chairs the State Bar’s Committee to Promote Inclusion in the Profession and the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) Trials Practice Area Committee and is a past Atlanta chapter president of the Georgia Association of Women Lawyers (GAWL).