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Second to None

To overcome racism, Elaine Johnson James' mother told her, she'd have to work harder than everybody else. She did.

Photo by Edward Linsmier

Published in 2022 Florida Super Lawyers magazine

By Carlos Harrison on June 24, 2022


On her first day at a new high school in 1965, Elaine Johnson James was met by a welcoming committee of sorts: picketers, carrying protest signs and shouting racial slurs at her as she made her way to the door. She was among the first group of Black children to enter a formerly all-white school on Chicago’s South Side.

She was 12. Yes, 12. We’ll get back to that.

When she got home, her father asked if she had been afraid. “I told him, ‘No, I was annoyed,’” she recalls.

She’s been breaking barriers ever since. James was the first Black woman editor-in-chief of a Harvard law review; the first Black woman hired at not one but two distinguished firms; and the first Black woman partner at Berger Singerman. She also brought the first case that led to allowing both partners in same-sex marriages to claim parental rights to children born to the couple.

“I have the blessing of being able to look back on a body of work—and I say this not because I lack humility, I say it because it’s true—I’ve done work that’s made people’s lives better,” she says. “That feels good.”

Sitting on the balcony of her condo overlooking the beach, which has doubled as her office during the pandemic, James chuckles and adds: “The joy and the comfort that that gives me at this stage of my career more than overshadow the crap I’ve had to take in order to do the work.”

Joanne O’Connor, a business litigator at Jones Foster in West Palm Beach, has faced James in about a dozen cases.

“I always found her to be the consummate professional. She’s meticulous in both her written and oral presentations,” O’Connor says. “She’s great at explaining complicated concepts to the court.”

Retired Florida 4th District Court of Appeals Judge Carole Taylor remembers presiding once as James argued a motion for rehearing based on a recent change in state law. Briefs aren’t allowed with such motions, so James created an appendix to go with her filing, packed with page after page of explanatory materials.

“Her motion was a model of appellate advocacy. It was well-written and it included charts, outlines and other visual aids that made a very difficult case easier for us to understand,” Taylor says.

In fact, Taylor recalls, “I was thinking how great it would be to have her on our court and to work alongside her.”

The law wasn’t James’ first choice. She started off in the classroom.

“I always liked to teach. When my sister was little, I’d say, ‘Come on, let’s play school.’ And sometimes she would play school and sometimes she’d say, ‘I’d rather play dolls.’ And one day I asked her, ‘Don’t you want to be smart?’ And she said, ‘No, I want to have some fun.’”

Fun, for James, was different than for most kids. She learned to read at 4. And as soon as she started school, she began skipping grades. She was a couple of years ahead by the time she faced those protesters in ninth grade. But she was ready.

Her father was one of the few Black police officers in Richard J. Daley’s Chicago of the 1960s. Her mother was an advertising copywriter, who watched for years as white women with less experience got opportunities and promotions she was denied—until, finally, the company recognized its mistake and put her in charge of her department.

James remembers, when she was 8, her mother asking her if she had finished her schoolwork.

“She said, ‘Did you check it?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ She said, ‘Check it again,’” James recalls. “I said, ‘Mommy, it’s right.’ She said, ‘You are a Negro girl. You have to be twice as good to be half as well-respected.’”

In 1972, she graduated with a degree in American studies from Barnard College, then remained in New York, teaching in the public school system. She lost the job three years later, during a layoff of non-tenured teachers.

James now sees this as a blessing. “I probably would have taught for 20 years,” she says. Instead, she got a master’s in educational psychology from Columbia; then worked at the National Urban League as a program development and staff training specialist. After three years there, she decided to apply to Columbia’s business school, mainly because they had Saturday classes and she could keep working.

Her mother pushed back.

“You don’t want to go to business school,” her mother said. “You want to go to law school.”

James took the LSAT just two weeks later, scoring in the 95th percentile, then applied to Harvard, where, on her first weekend, she met her future husband. “Being his girlfriend made law school a lot more fun,” she says. “Although I did work hard.” They both worked for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. Now her ex-husband and father of their kids, Keith James currently serves as mayor of West Palm Beach.

In her second year of law school, she landed a summer clerkship at the Philadelphia firm Drinker Biddle & Reath. “I was the first Black woman they had ever hired as a law clerk,” she says.

After graduation, she went back to Philadelphia, clerking for U.S. District Judge Clifford Scott Green. “He got the highest score in the Pennsylvania bar exam the year that he took it,” James says, “and could not find a job because he was Black.”

A year later, Drinker Biddle hired her as its first Black woman associate.

“I spent three fabulous years there,” she says. “I had every opportunity. … When my classmates were up on Wall Street sitting in dark rooms going through dusty boxes of documents, I was taking depositions. I got to argue in the federal appellate courts, in the federal trial courts and state courts—as a second-year associate fresh off a clerkship.”

She got wooed away to become associate general counsel at the Albert Einstein Health Care Foundation. A year later, while she was pregnant with her first child, she and her husband moved to West Palm Beach when he had a job opportunity there. At the time, she was heartbroken to be leaving Philly, and decided to wait until after Keith Jr. was born to look for a job.

She found one at Nason Yeager Gerson White & Lioce, where she was, yet again, the first Black woman associate. There, she stumbled into both family and eminent domain law.

Family law came despite her objections, when one of the firm’s partners insisted she join him to handle a young client’s divorce from her wealthy husband. She handled the appeal herself, and scored a major victory for the firm.

One of her most unforgettable cases literally walked through her office door. It involved a boy from Belize born with a serious heart condition, the adopted son of an American woman, Ruhamah Stadtlander, who was dubbed the “Miracle Worker” by the press for her efforts to provide medical care for kids with birth defects and disabling injuries. When the biological mother tried to reclaim the boy, James stepped in, pro bono. The boy stayed with Stadtlander.

Now grown, he had lunch with James recently.

“He said, ‘Auntie, how does it feel to know you saved my life?’” James says. “I started bawling.”

Her eminent domain practice also began in an unexpected way.

A friend who was Palm Beach County School District’s general counsel asked for legal help in acquiring land for some public schools, including what is now Pleasant City Elementary.

“Little Black kids were getting on the bus at 7 o’clock in the morning and riding an hour to go to kindergarten until that school was built,” James says.

The eminent domain work led her to Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge and, later, to Berger Singerman.

Along the way, representing Escambia County, she racked up victories that reshaped the way bonds could be used to finance redevelopment and improvement projects in Florida; and, representing the South Florida Water Management District, won validation for a $1.8 billion bond issue for Everglades restoration.

Another unexpected encounter—at an engagement party—led to one of her most personally gratifying cases. Two women wedded in New York were having a baby in Florida, but state law would recognize only the one actually giving birth as the child’s legal parent. That meant the other partner faced difficulty making medical and other decisions for their child if the birth mother couldn’t, and created untold challenges if the birth mother died.

“I prayed about it and thought about it. And one night I came up with the idea of a paternity case,” James says. “Any guy can have sex with a woman he doesn’t even know, impregnate her, go to court and boom, he’s the baby’s father. Why should it be harder for a woman who nurtures the mom; who pays for her IVF and all of that?”

So James filed a suit to determine parenthood modeled after a paternity suit. Her own son, Keith James Jr., assisted her on the case. (Keith and his sister, Amber James, are both attorneys.) In January 2015, two weeks after the baby was born, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lisa Small agreed that the hospital should list both women’s names on the birth certificate. In her ruling, she interpreted the wording of two Florida laws to read “spouse” instead of “husband.” Later that year, women in similar situations filed additional lawsuits; in 2016, the state began including both same-sex parents’ names on birth certificates.

In December 2015, James launched her solo practice at the urging of a real estate client who promised enough work, and fees, to make it worthwhile.

The money didn’t materialize, and as James eyed her bank account, “I thought, ‘Girl, what have you done?’” she says. “But I never missed a bill.”

But the money is secondary for James.

“I have always thought of the law as an incredible agent for social stability and an equally important agent for social change,” she says. “I tell young lawyers all the time that we’re blessed to sit on our side of the desk. But for the grace of God, you could be the person who needs assistance rather than the one giving it. And so you should approach every assignment, no matter how small, from the perspective of: It’s a privilege to be able to do this.”

Measure of Love

Elaine Johnson James’ parents were members of a gourmet cooking club that took turns preparing delicacies for all to enjoy. James is carrying on that passion.

“My sister and I do a lot of gourmet cooking together,” she says. “I bake.”

It’s a talent that was reinforced by motherhood.

“When I became a mom, I had that working-mom guilt. So my kids never had stuff that came out of boxes. None of that pancake mix and all of that crap. No box cakes for their birthdays.”

During the pandemic, she found solace in the kitchen.

“I started experimenting with breads during COVID. I made dinner rolls and biscuits—always from scratch,” she says. “The key to baking is: Measure. You get a measuring cup. You fill it full of flour. You take the flat side of a knife and you level it off. It’s not rocket science, but it is cathartic for me.”

She doesn’t cook for everybody. “Cooking is one of the ways I say, ‘I love you.’ So if I cook for you, or if I bake something for you, you can trust that I really, really like you.”

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