In late 2003, Regina Sledge Molden, a junior associate with Alston & Bird in Atlanta, was commiserating with her fellow African-American attorneys about how hard it is for black lawyers to make it to the top in large firms. “The primary difficulty is lack of mentors,” explains Molden today. “You really need a mentor — a partner with clout — to make it in a large firm. It’s not racism. It’s just that people tend to work with those they’re most comfortable with, and large law firms typically don’t have many black partners.
“All of a sudden, I thought, ‘Why are we always hoping that someone will take care of us? Why don’t we take care of ourselves? Lawyers can hang out their shingle wherever they want.’”
Molden’s shingle now hangs outside her 17th-floor office overlooking Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta, where she’s assembled Atlanta’s first African-American-owned law firm composed entirely of lawyers with big-firm corporate experience. Over the course of a year she wooed experts in labor and employment law (Bradley E. Heard), commercial real estate (E. Steven Thompson), corporate transactions (Colette Y. Fergusson) and corporate litigation (Oni A. Holley), from such firms as Powell Goldstein, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan, and Alston & Bird. They now compose the five partners of Molden Holley Fergusson Thompson and Heard.
The partners foresee vast potential in Atlanta, long a mecca for black entrepreneurs, and home to 23 of the nation’s 280 largest African-American-owned businesses, according to Black Enterprise magazine in 2003. They’re also interested in mentoring black lawyers on the rise, and — in an age when diversity is a hot topic — they see fertile ground in the many Fortune 500 companies operating in the city and in partnering with large law firms on a broad array of corporate work.
“We want to create something that has never been created before: a black-owned law firm that employs lots of lawyers, and not just African-American ones,” the 36-year-old Molden says. (The firm has also hired three of-counsel lawyers: two African Americans and one Korean American.)
Naomi McLaurin, co-founder and executive director of the Atlanta Legal Diversity Consortium, calls Molden Holley a one-of-a-kind venture in a city where black-owned enterprises have spawned little minority growth in the corporate law arena. “That surprised me when I moved to Atlanta in 2001,” McLaurin says. “Certainly there are minority firms in Atlanta that do corporate work. But the attorneys at Molden Holley practiced at large law firms, and they went to excellent law schools [such as Yale, Cornell and Emory]. That’s what makes this so special.”
While black-owned enterprises — along with Fortune 500 companies — are a primary target, Molden stresses that clients will come from a mixture of backgrounds. “We just happen to be black lawyers,” she says. “We also have white, Hispanic, Arab and Asian clients.” Molden lives in suburban Gwinnett County, one of Georgia’s most diverse counties, and sometimes drops in on clients on her way to work.
“I make house calls,” she says. “Clients pay lawyers a lot of money. They should be able to see you every now and then.”
Downtown Atlanta is a long way from the Tuscaloosa, Ala., of Molden’s youth. Molden never knew her father; her mother was a mental health aide who raised her and her younger sister alone. Things were so tough financially that Molden’s two older brothers were raised by their grandmother who lived nearby.
“My mother’s a very determined woman who believes in working hard,” says Molden. “She says I’m just like her: determined to stand on my own two feet. Growing up the way I did, I never wanted to live from paycheck to paycheck. That’s been a huge motivating factor for me.”
Molden was a star student — and a bit of a class clown — all through school. Life turned serious when, as a senior in high school, she gave birth to her daughter, Whitni, now 19. “I took two weeks off, then went back and graduated,” she remembers. “It was difficult on many levels. You don’t get to be a kid anymore. You’re thrust into the adult world.” Molden later married the father — Darryl Molden — and remains married to him today. “I was determined not to become a statistic,” she says. “Everybody probably looked at me and thought I’d be another welfare mom. But I absolutely refuse to let anyone define me.”
After high school, Molden quickly landed a job, went to clerical school and then took a temporary receptionist position at a radio station. It wasn’t long before she wanted more. “I looked at the salespeople and thought, ‘Hey, I can do that, and do it better.’ I went to the general manager and said if I didn’t get the opportunity there, I’d go to another radio station.”
Thus began an almost 10-year career selling advertising in Tuscaloosa, for which the chatty, personable and relentless Molden had a knack. “I like people,” she says, “and I like figuring out what makes them tick. It’s amazing how those same skills carry over into the law. Really, it’s all about people. Sometimes egos get in the way, but if you can figure out what makes a person tick, you’re a better negotiator.”
Sales brought other benefits as well. “You develop a thick skin selling. If something doesn’t work, you just go try something else. Working on commission all those years explains why I’m so clientfocused. Your clients are why you eat.”
At one point, The New York Times — the parent company of The Tuscaloosa News, for whom she worked — was grooming Molden for management and wanted her to spend some time at its Sarasota newspaper; but by then Molden was souring on newspaper sales. Every time she developed a good territory, management would give it to someone else — Alice-in-Wonderland logic that irked her. “I couldn’t excel,” she remembers. “I had to start at ground zero all the time. Besides that, I’d been doing the same thing for almost 10 years.” On a flight back from Sarasota one night she asked herself what she really wanted to do with her life. “I decided I wanted to go to law school,” she says.
First, her husband reminded her, there was that little matter of getting her undergraduate degree. She did, in three years, while selling ads full-time. Logging 14-hour days, she took junior-college courses over her lunch hour, attended Stillman College at night and completed home-study courses from the University of Alabama. “Those years were a blur,” says Molden, by then the mother of another child, a son, Chase. “If I was sitting in traffic, I’d read a book.” But it all paid off: Molden became the first person in her family to earn a college degree, graduating summa cum laude. Her academic performance helped her earn a scholarship to the University of Alabama Law School, which meant she could finally give up the sales job, and that made law school a comparative breeze. Remembers Alabama law professor Bryan Fair, “Regina excelled in moot court, in leadership positions and in class.”
Throughout, Molden assumed she would practice law in Alabama. Even when she signed up for a job fair in Atlanta she planned to interview only with Birmingham firms in attendance. As a bit of a lark, she also checked Atlanta’s Alston & Bird on the roster. Because it was one of the most prestigious firms in the Southeast? “The name started with an A,” she laughs. “It happened to be the first law firm on the list. I’d never even heard of it.”
She calls her experience there invaluable. “I learned how to write briefs and about client expectations. When you earn nearly $300 an hour, they expect a lot.” But ultimately, although not surprisingly, Molden grew restless. “At a large firm, you work on big cases but your role as a junior associate is very small. You learn a lot of the big-picture stuff but don’t get as much experience in taking depositions and going to court as you would at a smaller firm.” Molden peppered her practice group leader with requests for smaller cases, a lobbying effort that landed her court cases at the state and superior-court levels.
“Regina speaks her mind,” says Kathleen Zylan, formerly in the same securities group at Alston & Bird, and now an attorney in Duluth, Ga. “When she sets her mind to doing something, it’s going to get done. She’s not the type to sit quietly in the back of the room.” Molden’s varied background has also made her “a very rooted person who cares about people at a deep level,” adds Zylan. “She can fit into any situation and make people feel comfortable.”
One of Molden’s cases at Alston & Bird involved an independent contractor who sued her client Blockbuster Inc. for breach of contract. Eventually the case was settled, participants say, in no small measure due to Molden.
“She’s an extraordinary diplomat, someone who can read a situation and know whether she needs to play it tough or sweet,” says Catherine Fancher, then an in-house counsel for Blockbuster and now a Dallas attorney. (Molden was the lead outside counsel on the case.) “Some people have a certain negotiating style and can’t vary from it. Regina has a variety of tactics in her arsenal.”
John Lyle represented the plaintiff in the case, filed in Gwinnett State Court. “I had a very strong case and wanted to go to trial,” he remembers. “But the defense had a motion for summary judgment, and Regina was able to create enough confusion in the judge’s mind that it was sent to mediation. My client wasn’t able to wait forever, and we ended up settling for half or two-thirds of what I was looking to potentially get at trial.”
While many lawyers seem summoned from central casting, Molden’s something different: an attorney with an entrepreneur’s zeal, a marketer’s instincts, and a deep faith that has been strengthened by tragedy. Shortly before starting law school, she took a young colleague under her wing at her sales job. “The first day we go out riding together we get hit by an 18-wheeler,” Molden remembers. She fractured her pelvis and spent a week in the hospital, but her colleague, Jamie, died. “He ended up wrapped around me, which is why I survived.” She adds, “Here was this young man, only 23 years old, right out of college, and just like that, his life was gone. It told me that tomorrow is not promised … I really came to know God as my friend during that period. I did a lot of praying.”
She also has a deep faith in herself. “People tell me I could have gone in a totally different direction in life. But I always saw myself as a success, someone who was supposed to make a difference. The Bible says that God wants you to live your life and to live it abundantly, and all you have to do is ask. He put it right there in writing, and I believe Him.”
These days she continues to charge ahead. Her law firm is barely out of the womb and there’s already talk of exporting the model to cities in Florida, Alabama and Tennessee — to draw on the connections of the partners of the firm. Naomi McLaurin points to a 2004 survey by the National Association for Law Placement that shows a mere 4.3 percent of law partners nationally were attorneys of color (5.3 percent in Atlanta), while attorneys of color make up over 15 percent of associates nationwide. As Corporate Legal Times once put it, “Most law firms are run by a bunch of white guys in their late 50s.” Molden is interested in injecting a little color into the equation.
No timetable for going nationwide exists, but with Molden, who became a mother at 17, started college at 26, began law school at 29, and now, at 36, is managing partner of her own firm, it’s likely to be sooner than later. “You want something,” she says, “you figure out what it takes to get it. Then you go do it. You don’t get anywhere by playing it safe.”