Janet Ward Black learned long ago that it takes more than a pretty face to sway a jury — unless, of course, that jury consists of Bert Parks and Bob Barker.
Black, a plaintiff ’s lawyer and name partner in the Greensboro firm of Donaldson & Black, was Miss North Carolina in 1980 and a Miss America contestant in 1981. “Hey, we’ve all gotta be something,” Black quips.
It’s because of the grace, charm and talent she put on display 25 years ago that she can represent victims of asbestos poisoning, defective products and malpractice today. Before entering what she calls “the whole pageant thing,” she initially majored in chemistry and planned to become a doctor.
“The last thing I thought I wanted to do was be someone who spoke publicly on a regular basis. But I was Miss North Carolina for a year, and I had to speak to a lot of audiences,” she says. “Now it’s a major part of my life.” In addition to the public speaking, she was the subject of countless interviews. “A lot of mock interviews,” she remembers. “Not unlike the mock trials we do now.”
That was the informal part of her pageant education. But the Miss America program was and is the largest scholarship foundation for women in the world, and that’s how Black was able to afford college — first at Davidson, then at Duke. After graduating from the Duke University School of Law in 1985, she became the first female assistant district attorney in Rowan County. From the start she experienced a Legally Blonde kind of reality. “At that time, women trial lawyers were on the unusual side in North Carolina to begin with,” she says. “I had the disadvantage of being female and blonde and there was that whole beauty queen business. I think I had to work particularly hard for people to accept and respect me as a competent lawyer.
“A lot of trial work is the presentation of great theater,” she adds. “You’re having to tell a compelling story that grabs attention. You have to be cognizant of the impression you’re making. But because of countless TV shows, many jurors anticipate an hour-long process with a conclusion. There’s certainly drama in civil litigation, but it can also be deathly boring, with jurors listening to testimony for three hours. The challenge is to be visual and interesting and keep them involved.”
She tends to rely on technology, like PowerPoint and video, and is careful about what she wears in court. “Nothing too flashy,” she says. “I recommend to the other women in my office to be conscious of their appearance, to embrace their femininity, but not be provocative. That can be distracting, and you want jurors focusing on the meat of the case.”
Away from the case, Black logs thousands of miles as a sought-after public speaker, especially for women’s groups, and spends much of her down time on compassionate endeavors at home and abroad. Every year she helps run a field pharmacy in South American countries such as El Salvador, and last year she mixed concrete in Honduras as part of a Habitat for Humanity construction crew. Her husband, Gerard Davidson, is president of the Greensboro chapter of Habitat. He’s also a defense lawyer, the antithesis of his wife’s legal career. “We’re the James Carville and Mary Matalin of the North Carolina legal community,” says Black. “That makes me James Carville.”
Davidson has two sons from a previous marriage, one who assists Black as an asbestos investigator, another who works for a civil rights attorney in Charlotte. Both sons work on the plaintiff side of the equation, “much to my husband’s chagrin,” says Black.
A few years ago Black was pulled briefly out of her legal comfort zone and thrust back into the pageant fray when topless photos of Rebekah Revels, the reigning Miss North Carolina, surfaced, forcing Revels to resign. Revels then sued to get the title back. Two weeks before the Miss America pageant, Black was recruited to represent the de facto Miss North Carolina, Misty Clymer. “If someone told me I was gonna make the front page of The New York Times twice over something like this, I never would have believed it,” says Black, whose client wound up with the title.
In her 20-year career, Black has represented thousands of clients, and chaired or served on local and statewide boards and professional associations. She’s never tried to exploit the smile or the high cheekbones, but admits the beauty queen experience hasn’t hurt, either. “It has certainly opened up a lot of doors,” she says. “And it has helped distinguish me in a room full of 200 men in three-piece suits.”