New TBA Executive Director Joycelyn Stevenson Brings Experience, Diversity, and a Love for Bar Associations
If Joycelyn Stevenson had written the job description herself, her new position as executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association (TBA) could not be a better match.
“I enjoy what I do and where I practice. There are not many things I would leave this particular job [at Littler] to do,” she said, a few weeks before starting at the TBA in mid-July. But the combination of being immersed in the legal world and all the TBA’s service-oriented work was enticing. Add to that the fact that bar associations have been important to her throughout her entire career, and you have a perfect fit. (Access PDF version of this article.)
“Growing up as an introvert I had to switch something in my brain in order to grow as a lawyer,” she admits. Getting involved, going to functions, meeting people and volunteering with other lawyers through bar associations were integral to her career path. “I had to get out of the mentality of just doing my work — my work involves talking to people. The bar helped with that.”
She learned early in her career exactly what bar associations do, having been very involved as a member of TBA (including its Leadership Law Class of 2008), and last year as president of the Nashville Bar Association (NBA). She is also a former president of the Marion Griffin Chapter of the Lawyers’ Association for Women, and a member of the Napier-Looby Bar Association and the American Bar Association.
|“I am someone who has benefitted from the opportunities that bar association involvement provides,” she says. “My experience is a great foundation to build on TBA’s traditions and our future, using all those experiences to work in a way that is productive, responsive and nurturing.”|
Because she has been in private practice for the past 16 years — first at Bradley, then as a shareholder at Littler Mendelson PC with employment, litigation and immigration practices — and she has a history of involvement in the legal community and the community at large, Stevenson has been able to see the TBA from a variety of perspectives. These experiences also make her a walking advertisement for the benefits of joining bar associations.
“I know the importance of the legal community and the impact it had on me as a young lawyer in this profession,” she says. “I try to give back.” She is especially excited “because this job involves law, a big part of my life, but also incorporates coming together for common goals, strengthening a state bar that is open and welcoming to different opinions.”
Stevenson is not from Nashville and points out that when she graduated from Vanderbilt Law School in 2001 she didn’t know many people in the city. “I started my career with my head down at my desk. But my mentors were very involved in the bar — really great people who reached back and helped —and said I needed to become active in the legal community.”
The first project she was involved in was the Nashville Bar Association’s minority high school internship program, noting that not only did she help others but the program also helped her: “It was a networking opportunity I wouldn’t have had sitting at my desk.”
Working on committees within the bar gave her the ability “to meet people to help me figure out how I could serve and to develop a network of contacts. Once you are seen as someone willing to serve the community, you are invited to do other things,” she says of how she got so involved (and overcommitted some of the time, she admits).
“I liked it because it gave me a sense of community and made me feel like I was at home; gave me other outlets where I could grow and meet people. The bar was the best way to do that — then I received leadership opportunities that I didn’t know I needed.”
She encourages law students to follow the same path. “Getting involved in the bar is a great way to meet people and gain leadership skills that will help you throughout your career. It’s good to know people outside of where you work,” she advises. “The bar helped me to navigate my first few years of practice.”
A National Search
Stevenson, 41, is the first African-American woman to hold the job of TBA executive director, but that is not her only ground-breaking accomplishment. She was also the first of two African-American women (the other a Vanderbilt law classmate) to make partner at Boult Cummings Conners & Berry. She was the first African-American woman to serve as president of the Lawyers’ Association for Women and of the Council on Aging of Middle Tennessee. She will lead the 13,000+ member organization and its 20+ employees with what she describes as a “collaborative” style.
“I want to see people at their best and give people the tools to be their best,” she says. “We have common goals — to make sure everyone feels like they matter. I want to treat people in the way I would want to be treated. My goal is to empower people and give clear direction and understanding. And to be fair.”
She describes herself as meticulous and flexible, with a good sense of humor (easily confirmed after any time spent with her).
“I am not afraid to make mistakes,” she says. “I have been fortunate enough to have been given second chances. I have [worked with] great people in leadership so I try to emulate those qualities.”
Stevenson is not the only one who feels like this will be a great fit. Jackson attorney and TBA Past President Jonathan Steen was the chair of the TBA’s Executive Director Search Committee. He says the committee was deliberate in its search. “We worked very hard to create a process that was transparent, but also protected the privacy of the applicants.”
Consultant Barbara Mayden helped the committee conduct a search that attracted a substantial number of qualified applicants from across the country, Steen says. “The number of applications and the great diversity of applicants presented the committee with a variety of good choices to fill the position.”
Mayden, a partner in the Nashville-based legal search and consulting firm Young Mayden, says the TBA received interest from “New York to Colorado to Illinois to Ohio to D.C. — and, of course from all across the state of Tennessee … but the process is not just one of gathering – gathering the interest sent in response to the nationwide advertising — it is hunting and gathering. The hunting part is the reaching out to individuals — people whom we know and know they would be a great fit. [Joycelyn] seemed to embody the package of skills that the Search Committee was committed to finding.”
Steen agrees that Stevenson was a clear fit. “After careful consideration and due deliberation, the committee’s consensus was that Joycelyn was particularly well suited to the position,” Steen says. “She stood out with her clear vision and understanding of the needs of Tennessee lawyers and the challenges we face. I am very excited about Joycelyn serving as the next TBA executive director. I think she is a fantastic fit and will bring a lot of enthusiasm and a great perspective as the new E.D.”
Edward D. Lanquist Jr., managing shareholder at Patterson Intellectual Property Law in Nashville, agrees. He has worked with Stevenson very closely, participating in a Leadership Nashville class with her, and serving as NBA president the year before she took the reins.
“Joycelyn has always been very mindful of her various positions and responsibilities,” Lanquist says. “She has been a successful attorney and a successful leader. Now she will be a successful executive director of the TBA.” He will be working more with her in the future, as he is the TBA’s general counsel.
Stevenson seems to be taking it all in stride, but acknowledges the magnitude of the new assignment. “I am honored and frankly humbled to be the first in several roles including my role with TBA,” she says. “I believe diversity should be celebrated and know from firsthand experience how inspirational it can be to others who are looking to accomplish similar goals. The Tennessee Bar Association has been important to me in my development as an attorney. I am proud that I can make history with this position and hope it inspires others to get more involved in our legal community.”
The Joycelyn Stevenson File
Executive Director, Tennessee Bar Association July 2017 –
Shareholder, Littler, Nashville 2013 – July 2017
Partner, Bradley (formerly Boult, Cummings, Conners & Berry), Nashville 2001 – 2013
J.D., Vanderbilt University Law School, 2001
B.A., Howard University, 1998, Phi Beta Kappa
Professional and Community Affiliations
• President, Board of Directors, Nashville Bar Association, 2016
• Member, Leadership Nashville, Class of 2014
• Member, Board of Directors, Nashville Farmers’ Market, 2012-2015
• Past President, Council on Aging of Greater Nashville, 2012-2014
• Past President, Lawyers’ Association for Women, Marion Griffin Chapter
• Adjunct Professor, Vanderbilt University Law School, 2012
• Member, Tennessee Bar Association
• Member, American Bar Association
• Member, Napier-Looby Bar Association
• Member, Society for Human Resource Management
• Member, Leadership Law Class, Tennessee Bar Association, 2008
• Associate Member, Harry Phillips American Inn of Court, 2006-2008
District of Columbia
U.S. Court of Appeals, 6th Circuit
U.S. District Court, Middle District of Tennessee
U.S. District Court, Western District of Tennessee
U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Tennessee
U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Michigan
Law Practice Focus Areas
Labor and Employment Litigation
Global Mobility and Immigration
Workforce Counseling, Investigations and Training
‘Do Something Service Oriented’
But let’s back up. When Stevenson was a child, she was already displaying some attributes that caused her mother to recommend a specific career path.
“Her biggest challenge to me was to do something service oriented,” Stevenson says. “We would get in philosophical arguments.” As soon as the younger Stevenson found out there was an entire profession that used those skills and qualities, she says “from 6 or 7 years old, I wanted to do that.” Her mother told her, “You can argue and should be a lawyer. You are able to argue your point, to know your rights and advocate for your position.”
To prepare for a career in law, she participated in civics clubs in high school, and later set out from her hometown of Macon, Georgia, to attend Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in political science. She chose Howard because it was far enough away from her family for her to feel independent (although she had relatives in nearby Baltimore), but also because it is a “historically black college with a rich history that I always admired and want to be a part of.” While in college she served as a White House intern, continuing to prepare for the day she would go to law school.
She considered going back to Georgia to study law, but her advisors at Howard suggested two places they thought would be a perfect fit for her: Tulane and Vanderbilt, she says, because of the smaller class sizes and culture. She decided on and enrolled at Vanderbilt without ever having visited the campus or the city of Nashville. She graduated in 2001 and is admitted to practice in Tennessee and in the District of Columbia.
Stevenson is the first person in her family to practice law. “They were proud for me to use my ability to argue,” she says. Her sister, 13 years her senior and living in Atlanta, is one of Stevenson’s “best friends.” Their parents are now deceased, but their mother was an educator at the Georgia Academy for the Blind and an artist; their father worked as a manager at a milk company in Macon until he retired.
Growing up, her family enjoyed game nights, especially loving Scrabble. She is a Nashville Predators hockey fan and Titans football fan (and, lowering her voice while sitting in her firm’s Nashville office, a supporter of the Dallas Cowboys). She loves for her family and friends to visit, and also to travel, working in short weekend trips when she can. She runs, training for 5Ks and half-marathons, and has taken up golf, although she says it takes so much time that she has not mastered it. But what she does know is the restaurant scene in her adopted city. “I pride myself on being in the know on new restaurants,” she says, so just ask her what’s new and good in Nashville and she likely will have already been there and know the scoop.
While in law school she was a summer associate at Boult, Cummings, Conners & Berry (now Bradley) in Nashville, working with its labor employment group. She then spent 12 years working there before going to Littler in 2013. At the beginning of her career, she worked on commercial litigation and employment cases, which she says she loved, as well as probate matters.
“When you are a first-year lawyer, you do whatever anyone asks you to do,” she laughs. And although she says she didn’t know anything about immigration law at the time, Bradley needed someone to lead its small immigration practice after the departure of a colleague, which she did for three years.
“The immigration work gave me some skills in practice management and marketing,” she says. “It also gave me the confidence to learn a new expertise at a pivotal point in my career.”
The Surprise of Law Practice
Like many lawyers starting out, she soon learned that the practice of law is not exactly what she thought it would be.
“Unfortunately, because of watching so much TV I thought it would be faster, moving from one case to another,” she laughs. “From a practical standpoint, law school did not prepare me for being a lawyer in a law firm. Law schools should drastically increase the focus on negotiation skills because 70 percent of my time has been spent negotiating on issues of importance to my clients. The practice of law is about relationships more than I realized. The ability to pick up the phone and work something out with opposing counsel – I value that.”
She says that by having those relationships it is important and possible “to have a contentious piece of litigation and then [be able to] go out and have coffee together the next day.”
One piece of advice, she offers: “You have to know every facet of your client’s business and how they operate.” She says she now understands the importance of her accounting classes at Howard, and also knowing at least the basics about business and marketing.
The Future of Law Practice
The biggest challenges for lawyers right now, she feels, are keeping up with changes in the practice of law in the face of technology, building successful practices in light of changing client concerns, finding time and ability to help the large number of individuals who cannot afford legal representation and continuing to recruit and retain diverse talent.
In addition to leading the staff and focusing on long-term needs of the association, Stevenson says she will focus on meeting the many objectives set by current TBA President Lucian Pera, which include promoting TBA’s position on the findings of Tennessee’s Supreme Court Indigent Representation Task Force and educating the public and our membership about those issues, among many other things.
Stevenson will be looking at “how we provide value to our clients and how that value is changing. Clients are placing different values on how we provide services and we have to be prepared to adapt,” she says.
“When I began my practice, there were ample opportunities for young lawyers to get trained — that’s evolving and changing as well. We must constantly evaluate how we train young lawyers to do what we know how to do.”
‘Bringing Out the Best in All of Us’
Stevenson sees the TBA’s role in promoting diversity and inclusion in the legal profession as very important.
“It’s not whether, but how do we go about letting people know what that role is and encouraging people?” she says.
She does a lot of diversity and respect-in-the-workplace training, so this is not new to her.
“A more diverse bar brings out the best in all of us. This could be race, gender, zip codes, school – embracing all of those things with respect, and encouraging people to think of it as a good thing,” she says. Her plans for the TBA include continuing its efforts in promoting the programming of the Young Lawyers Division, promoting issues of interest to members around the state, reaching out to local bar associations for collaborative opportunities, strengthening the voice and influence of the TBA in state and local government, and using innovation and technology to keep the TBA at the forefront of issues that are important to the legal profession at large.
“We have to think about how we communicate information, create an effective strategy and articulate relevant information in the best way possible.” Her plans include focusing on “our message and having a broader reach to local bar and affinity bar associations, and making sure they know we’re here to support them.”
“What I want to do is meet as many people as I can and make sure they know that we are the TBA, we encourage diversity of people and ideas, and we want you to be a part of what we are doing. [We will have] an open channel of communication and trust.”
Continuing the Legacy
Stevenson has known from when she was in law school the value of being a part of bar associations. But she realizes that everyone doesn’t have that in their experience and therefore wouldn’t instinctively know the value of membership.
“We have a responsibility to justify the value of bar membership to people who are not members and to those who regularly support the bar,” she says, adding that the TBA must continue to show lawyers its relevance.
Right before she began work at the TBA she attended its annual convention, which was in Kingsport this year. She says she’s always been enthusiastic about the bar, “but it was great to see so many people excited about the bar. The convention enhanced my desire to continue and expand the work of the TBA through community engagement and collaboration with local bars.”
She especially wants to grow TBA’s legacy. “The beauty is that the TBA is already well respected, not only in Tennessee but around the country. I am coming into a great set of circumstances.” She says she will be looking for “issues and opportunities to maintain the TBA’s leadership and to highlight the important role of lawyers in so many issues relevant to our state.”
“I truly appreciate what Allan Ramsaur has done to grow and to create such a solid foundation for us to build on,” she says. “I look forward to continuing his important work.” Ramsaur, who is executive director emeritus, has led the TBA as executive director since 1998. [Watch for a feature on Allan Ramsaur in an upcoming issue.]
‘Our Dreams Are Greater than the Challenges We Face’
As a young African-American woman in the legal profession, she has bumped into the so-called glass ceiling a number of times during her years of practice. Her preference is to look at those encounters not from the perspective of the ceiling, but from where she is standing.
“[That] makes me think of my favorite quote from Eleanor Roosevelt. She said that ‘the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.’ I love this quote because it reminds me that our dreams are greater than the challenges we face. It also keeps me grounded when facing obstacles in life and in my career,” she says.
“I learned that there are many factors that have an impact on a person’s ability to succeed. Some of those things are in that person’s control and many are not. I decided a long time ago to measure my individual success by the values and goals that were important to me; however, I am very aware of the barriers that exist and the importance of leadership in our community to provide opportunities,” she adds.
“I also realized that perhaps my greater purpose in life was to make as many cracks in the glass ceiling as I could, so that the next generation of attorneys would have an easier path to success as well as someone who could mentor and provide advice on how to navigate the practice of law and all of the intangibles that come with it,” she says.
“Everything I’ve done in my career has prepared me for this job.” Her face lights up, her smile widens as she talks about it. “This is what I’m supposed to do next.”
Suzanne Craig Robertson is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.