For as long as she can remember, Corliss Scroggins Lawson dreamed of being a lawyer. Even when her life presented challenges, such as getting married and having a child at 16, she kept her eye on her goal. Finally, when she was 26, in 1989 — despite having two children to raise and working full-time — she went for it. She enrolled in law school at Vanderbilt University.
Today, at the age of 42, Lawson is the first African American to head an Atlanta office of a national law firm. In June 2004, she achieved this historic feat by the vote of her fellow partners at Lord, Bissell & Brook, all of whom were white males.
Lawson credits her parents with making her the person she is today. She says they demanded academic excellence from her and her four siblings, and they got it. She’s the only lawyer of the crew: the brothers grew up to be a radiation oncologist, an engineer and a high school principal and her late sister was an accountant. She graduated from high school in Topeka, Kansas, with honors. She continued on at Washburn University, picking up a bachelor’s degree, cum laude, in computer information sciences. And that’s when decision time came.
She knew if she was going to be a successful attorney she would have to attend a good law school. When Vanderbilt accepted her, she had very little hesitation. “I decided that I was going to be a lawyer, and I left,” she says of her decision to move her family to Nashville so she could enter Vanderbilt. “It was very hard for my family — my mother in particular — to understand why I had to leave Kansas. I knew that where I went to law school would determine where I would be able to interview and ultimately where I would end up. Vanderbilt was a top-20 law school.” At Vanderbilt she excelled in her studies, making President’s Honor Roll and Dean’s List and receiving a General Motors Scholarship.
Juggling family life and law school wasn’t easy, she concedes. “My mother used to ask, ‘How do these difficult things find you?’ I’d answer that I didn’t know, but the difficulties made me tougher and taught me how to see past obstacles. I learned to be creative and open-minded and see that there might be a new way to do something that is not working.”
After graduating in 1992, she joined the Atlanta office of Lord, Bissell & Brook as an associate. Soon after joining the firm, she received a daunting assignment. The firm was defending Atlanta’s transportation system, MARTA, in a racially motivated shooting by an African-American male at the MARTA Five Points Station. The man went on a shooting spree that resulted in the deaths of two white males and the blinding of a third white male. The firm asked Lawson to visit the prisoner at a maximum-security prison in Reidsville, Ga., in an attempt to establish a rapport with him. She learned what she could about his precrime thought patterns with the hope of obtaining information that would eliminate MARTA’s exposure to any liability. Her work helped prove MARTA’s limited liability in the case, which allowed for a reasonable final settlement.
Today, Lawson serves as a litigator/trial attorney at the firm. She has worked in environmental law, products liability, premises liability, labor and employment law, and other forms of commercial business litigation. She recognizes that her status as a black woman has both advantages and disadvantages. “It is a fact,” she says, “that there are certain cases where a client will probably fare better if you have a black female attorney on the case, but in some cases it may actually harm the client. If a judge is not going to respond to me as a black female, I need to step back. I’m not going to try to make a point by gambling with the client.”
After 13 years with the firm, Lawson now runs the show in Atlanta. As she explains, the timing for assuming the position of partner-in-charge was right: She had already become an equity partner, her children were grown and she was looking for a new challenge. Her duties include managing the office day to day, making sure that the partners have the resources they need, marketing the firm and hiring attorneys. She is also determined to build a staff that reflects the diversity of society at large. Within five months on the job she had hired several minority lawyers, including former city attorney Michael Coleman. Of the office’s 27 lawyers, five are black, one is Hispanic, and one is Asian-American. Eight are women.
“We need to get the word out — not only in Atlanta but across the nation — that we support minorities, we support women, we support everyone, and we work well as a team,” she says. “Clients don’t want to see an all-African-American team walk through the door or an all-woman team. They want diversity.”
Lawson describes her management style as “aggressive, assertive and no-nonsense … in that order.” An opposing counsel once referred to her as a pit bull, and she admits that she has always been “a little rebellious.” David Greene, a firm partner, describes her as “highly persuasive, well prepared, flexible and tenacious.” He says her courtroom presence is “demanding and focused” and calls Lawson “a daunting but eminently fair adversary who is respected by her clients, colleagues and opponents.”
Lawson says being a mother has given her many of the skills she finds most helpful in managing people. “Being a mother has always been a high priority for me.” She reserved weekends for her children as they were growing up and often found herself “functioning on three or four hours of sleep” to make time for both her family and her legal practice.
Her advice to female attorneys hoping to balance a practice with a family? Get started as soon as possible. “You can operate on less sleep and you can handle stress better when you are younger,” she says. “Your nerves aren’t as bad … I had more energy at 18 than I do now, and energy is important.”
Perhaps the best lesson Lawson imparts is to believe in yourself. “I can’t tell you how many times people have told me, ‘No, it can’t be done. You won’t succeed.’ Succeeding is just a matter of beating the odds. You have to beat the odds.”