'We Are the Bosses'
Tressa Johnson and Kristy Bennett's employment firm is busier than ever during the pandemic
Published in 2020 Mid-South Super Lawyers magazine
on November 30, 2020
Updated on December 2, 2020
At times, Tressa Johnson and Kristy Bennett sound more like siblings than business partners—voicing words in unison, completing each other’s sentences, laughing.
“We’re here to help people,” says Johnson. “We basically say: ‘Give it to us and—”
“—we’ll take care of you,’” Bennett finishes.
Since 2016, the two have run Johnson & Bennett, a midtown Memphis plaintiff’s employment firm that routinely lands six- and seven-figure verdicts and settlements in claims involving discrimination, sexual harassment and wrongful termination.
A New Orleans native, Johnson, 44, was initially drawn to science but left medical school to raise her son. In 2005, she was attending Loyola University’s College of Law when Hurricane Katrina hit. She quickly joined other students to found the Student Hurricane Network—helping to recruit 250 volunteers from 50 schools to rebuild homes and advocate for suspects jailed for too long in the aftermath of the storm.
In 2007, J.D. in hand, Johnson moved to Memphis as in-house counsel for Methodist Hospital. After that, she joined Gary Green, a boutique personal injury firm, and made managing partner in two years.
Bennett, 46, grew up in Memphis, a college English major with strong writing skills who announced in seventh grade, “I’m going to be a lawyer.” She fell in love with employment law—and litigation—in Tupelo, Miss., where, after graduating from the University of Mississippi School of Law in 1999 and joining Waide & Associates, she and firm founder James Waide won a $1.7 million jury verdict in a race-discrimination case.
Her interest in grassroots advocacy later led her to the ACLU of Mississippi as legal director, where she handled civil rights claims against government entities. In 2010’s landmark McMillen v. Itawamba County School District, she successfully advocated for a lesbian high school student who was forbidden from taking her girlfriend to the prom—or even wearing a tuxedo. The case made headlines after Bennett secured a judgment of $35,000, a change in school policy, “and the court awarded an additional $80,000 in attorney’s fees,” Bennett adds.
Johnson and Bennett met when both joined Memphis personal injury firm John Michael Bailey. One day, Johnson asked her to help with a car-bus collision case. The next year, in a car vs. car case they shared, the jurors returned a $1 million verdict for their permanently injured client after asking the judge if they could give him more.
The women soon realized they had much in common. Both were raised Catholic, with a fierce sense of loyalty to family and friends. Each married in the last year of law school. Johnson had four kids, Bennett three.
“We became inseparable,” Johnson recalls. “If there was an issue, if there was a question, Kristy was my person.”
Johnson went on to win a $1.2 settlement in a catastrophic injury case against a commercial carrier; Bennett, $1 million for a client hurt in a car wreck by a drunk driver. Other big wins, and offers for partnerships, followed.
Instead, in March 2016, the two were eating lunch at a favorite Mexican restaurant when Bennett asked, “Why don’t we open a firm together?”
The family-friendly office features a playroom for the kids and a support staff made up of women. “We might be the only all-female employment firm in Memphis,” says Bennett.
Their personalities complement each other. “She’s very nurturing,” Bennett says of her partner. “I’m not a real nurturing person.”
“Kristy has an incredible memory. It’s unstoppable,” Johnson adds. “If she knows she is right, she will fight you to the very end.”
They’ve been known to play good cop-bad cop with clients, and to fight over who does closing arguments in cases. “We’ll butt heads over things until we both confirm for ourselves what the issue is,” Bennett says.
They now spend 99% of their time on employment cases. In March, just days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the courts, they were able to settle for $500,000 on a disability discrimination and retaliation case on behalf of a client demoted and forced into early retirement after undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer.
“Employment law is unique in that you have somebody that’s been working, being subjected to intolerable conditions, then they lose their job and it’s really traumatic,” says Bennett. “People are ashamed because they’ve never been fired before, never been in trouble. It’s truly an area of law where you can help people.”
The attorneys agree the COVID-19 pandemic has greatly increased the number of calls they receive. “People don’t want to go to work because they’re scared,” says Johnson. “Or they are forced out and not getting paid after they test positive or cough or have any kind of flu-like symptoms.”
The pandemic, however, isn’t the only reason behind the increase in client traffic.
“We’re dealing in a time with a lot of social injustice that America is coming to grips with,” Johnson says. “We have the #MeToo movement, we have George Floyd and—”
“—Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ,” Bennett adds.
“These are people who are tired of being treated poorly for reasons that are not of their making,” says Johnson. “They cannot help the way they look. They cannot help who they love.”