Theater Major

Joyce Gist Lewis uses her acting background to connect with juries

Published in 2020 Georgia Super Lawyers Magazine — March 2020

Photo by: Stan Kaady

On a shelf in Joyce Gist Lewis’ office, next to framed photos of her teenage children, stand two small action figures: Michelle Obama, one of Lewis’ heroes; and Darth Vader, one of cinema’s great villains, who—at the push of a button—intones one of his most famous lines: “Impressive. Most impressive. But you are not a Jedi yet.” A gift from her former partner George Shingler, it symbolizes a memorable courtroom win as well as a nod to the impact her words had on, of all people, the bailiff.

In 2016, Lewis, Shingler and colleague Ashley Wilson Clark were brought in to represent the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in a lawsuit against the Buckhead Community Bank. The FDIC alleged that the bank’s directors and officers negligently approved 10 commercial real estate loans in the lead-up to the 2008 financial crisis.

“This was one of my first experiences parachuting into a case where somebody else had worked it up,” says Lewis, 48, now a litigation partner at Midtown Atlanta’s Krevolin & Horst, which represents private companies and sometimes governmental entities. “It was a whirlwind. It was my little three-lawyer firm on one side and one of the biggest firms in Atlanta on the other side, and we got a fantastic result. … In terms of the four loans where they found in our favor, they gave us the full amount we were seeking.”

But it was an unexpected encounter two weeks later in the security line of the same court that solidified the victory for Lewis. 

“The bailiff where we had tried the case saw me coming and started reciting the Five C’s of Credit,” she says, referring to a concept she had used during the trial. “And the other marshals were like, ‘Are you the lady that tried that case? He won’t stop talking about the Five C’s of Credit.’”

She adds: “This is not juicy stuff. This is not stuff that gets people’s heartstrings a-fluttering. This is banking law. If you can get your bailiff—as much as they hear and see in a courtroom—to pay attention when you’re talking about something that dry, you have succeeded. You have won.”

“She’s formidable and just has this certain charisma. When she walks into a room, everyone knows it,” says Jessica Wood, a principal at Bodker, Ramsey, Andrews, Winograd & Wildstein who has opposed Lewis on previous cases and is now co-counsel with her on one. “When someone hires her, it is a guarantee that the other side will check themselves, like, ‘OK, there’s a new sheriff in town.’”

 

Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, Lewis, often called by her middle name, DeeDee, by her family, was an extroverted child who loved words—whether speaking or reading a book cover to cover in one sitting. “My mom,” she says, “would tell people, ‘DeeDee gets straight A’s, but the only thing on her report card that I have to worry about is the teacher saying, ‘Talks too much in class.’”

“I’ve always been a talker,” Lewis says.

Her mother was a licensed practical nurse and health insurance claims processor; her father, the head of the Equal Employment Opportunity programs for the University of South Carolina, also hosted a sports talk radio show and called football games for South Carolina State University. They taught their three girls to cherish two things above all else: education and family. From them, Lewis also inherited a love for socializing and entertaining, which dovetailed into a love of theater. 

By middle school, her interest in acting was peaking, especially after she landed a small part in Our Town. “I have vivid recollections of reading Antigone and standing on the HVAC unit outside my parents’ house so that I would have a little platform, doing the monologues,” she says, spreading her arms wide. “I was just so excited to be onstage.”

It was more than the performing; she loved being around the theater instructors at her magnet high school. “Theater people tend to be really optimistic. They tend to be energetic, ready for anything and not afraid,” she says. “There’s something about becoming somebody else, coming out of your shell, that’s really liberating and freeing and exciting.”

Lewis considered making a career out of it—studying English and theater arts at Wake Forest University, where she was cast in a number of plays. Her sophomore year, she spent six months in London, attending shows and visiting museums with 15 other students, and planned to return for theater school after graduation in 1993. 

Instead, with her magna cum laude degree, she accepted a two-year unpaid internship at Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, the largest regional theater in the South, while her fiancé, Jim, finished law school in South Carolina. To pay the bills, she temped at an agency and worked at Bank of America while going to auditions. But the callbacks were scarce and Lewis found herself losing her “spark.”

The more she listened to Jim talk about his new practice, the more interested she got in the law. It wasn’t the first time the idea had surfaced. 

“My dad, from the time that I was reading the newspaper in his lap at age 5, had decided that I was going to be a lawyer,” she says. When she called her parents to tell them she was taking the LSAT, her father said simply, “I knew it.”

Soon after she started at the Georgia State University College of Law, she knew she’d made the right choice. “It sang to me,” she says emphatically. “Talking too much in class is not an issue when you get to law school. In fact, I had a friend who would intentionally sit himself between me and another girlfriend of mine. He was like, ‘As long as I’m sitting between the two of you, I never have to worry about getting called on because both of your hands go up in the air every time a question gets asked.’”

Litigation, for Lewis, was a given, since she never shied from battle. Once, when a hulky football player at a college party kept yelling at a petite classmate, Lewis wedged herself between the two and announced, “You don’t talk to girls that way. That’s not right.” As the oldest child, she says, “I have always been in charge. And sometimes when you’re in charge, you are the person that has to stick up for someone who is younger or smaller or doesn’t have as much power or is scared to say something. I guess I’ve always seen myself as that person.”

In 1999, she hit the ground running at the small firm of Casey Gilson. “There was no squirreling away the young associates in a little dark room and making them do document review,” Lewis says. “My bar results came out and they were like, ‘Great, we’re going to need you down at a deposition next week in South Georgia.’ That was awesome because it enabled me to get on my feet really quickly, and there wasn’t time to be nervous or jittery or worried.”

Inquisitive and eager to learn, Lewis often asked if she could accompany her senior colleagues to a trial or hearing to observe. Stashing steel-toed boots, a helmet and safety goggles in the trunk of her car, she was always prepared for an accident call related to the firm’s top client, a Fortune 500 railroad company. “You can’t walk along railroad ballasts in high heels,” she points out. “I got to clamber around on locomotives and railcars. I got to interact with the people who are operating these trains that run all over our beautiful countryside. And I got to know a client that prized safety and made that a priority.”

Back then, she feels she internalized cases too much. “I’m a lot less likely to do that now, which makes me a calmer and happier person. You have to fight for your clients, but it’s not your problem. It’s a situation that you are being brought in to try to make better.” 

In her first trial, she and one of the firm’s partners defended a small railroad in a suit filed by a landowner who claimed that a river pier owned by the company was catching debris, causing the water to angle toward and erode his land. The plaintiff demanded not just the fair market value of his acreage, which amounted to about $5,400, but the $2 million cost of rebuilding the entire riverbank. To Lewis’ disappointment, she lost and the jury awarded both figures. Later, she won a partial reversal from both the Court of Appeals and the Georgia Supreme Court, significantly reducing the damages for  her client.

She never lost another railroad trial. 

“It’s a little bit counterintuitive sometimes, because you think about David and Goliath and you want to be on the side of the small person,” she says, her voice softening. “Just because the big company has money doesn’t mean that the big company did something wrong.”

Although railroad cases formed the foundation of her early practice, Lewis also handled sovereign immunity, medical malpractice and defamation cases. For a while, she worked on the plaintiff side, trying a birth injury case while seven months pregnant. When she became partner in 2006, she began representing more small-business owners.

In 2012, she and Shingler left Casey Gilson to start their own firm and focus on commercial litigation and business disputes. Clark, now at Buckley Beal, joined Shingler Lewis soon after it opened. “Joyce is extraordinarily analytical in the way she approaches her cases,” Clark says. “She will frequently attack an issue on multiple fronts to increase her chances of prevailing on behalf of her client. Juries love her as well because she is able to take a complex case and break it down in a way that people from any walk of life can understand.”

Wood, a longtime friend, says two words come to mind when she thinks of Lewis: graceful gravitas. She remembers one day when Lewis entered the fray as opposing counsel in a business divorce. “I instantly told my client that having an excellent, superb opposing counsel is actually the best thing in the world for us,” Wood says. “Suddenly we got positive movement because Joyce came in and saw strengths, weaknesses and opportunities.”

Last December, Lewis and Shingler dissolved their shared practice and she joined Krevolin & Horst, housed in an airy, light-bathed space on the 32nd floor of One Atlantic Center. With its vast collection of landscapes, abstracts and photos, it feels more like an art gallery than a law firm. Punctuating her office are modern teal-blue wingback chairs and a minimalist desk with a neat stack of case binders on top. She’s happy here. The sound of Lewis whistling while she works sometimes drifts down the hallway. “When I catch myself doing it, I say, ‘So, Joyce, I guess you’re pretty OK with the way things are going for you.’” 

 

Throughout her career, Lewis’ penchant for leadership has been a constant. She has chaired the Statewide Judicial Evaluation Committee for the State Bar of Georgia, co-chaired the National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms Trials Practice Area Committee, and been elected the first black woman president of the Lawyers Club of Atlanta. She is especially proud of two 2018 accomplishments: the Atlanta Bar Outstanding Woman in the Profession Award and her “short list” nomination for appointment to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

At the Catholic Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Lewis reads from the lectern on Sundays and occasionally cooks meals with her family for homeless guests at the night shelter. She also volunteers with the Georgia Bar Association Wellness Committee, which strives to lower the rates of suicide and alcoholism among its members. Heated vinyasa flow yoga keeps her fit. “The other thing I really love about yoga is that it forces me to turn off that inner monologue that’s telling me all the things I have to do,” she says. “And it gives me an opportunity to sort of be present and breathe.”

She has no regrets about that career switch 25 years ago. For one thing, her 17-year-old son, Stephen, carries the thespian torch in his high school plays and musicals. (Daughter Anna is on the swim team.) And not surprisingly, her acting background still comes in handy in court. 

“The biggest thing I take from my theater experience is listening and interacting,” she says. “When you’re onstage, you can feel what’s coming from the audience. You can tell whether they are with you or not.”


A Lesson From Ms. Angelou

One of Joyce Gist Lewis’ favorite takeaways from her undergraduate studies at Wake Forest University came during a poetry/drama class taught by poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou. “She had a very commanding presence and this lovely, deep, rich voice,” Lewis recalls. “When she would speak, you would just tingle.”

On the first day of class, Angelou spoke longingly about the loss of polite formality in conversation. “I want you to be aware of your connection to other people and show them the utmost respect,” she told her students. “So in this class, you will all address each other as Ms. and Mr. and your surnames until you are invited to use someone’s first name.” She went on to explain that during the Jim Crow era, African Americans were routinely called by their first names as a sign of condescension and disrespect. 

“For the rest of that school year, we would run into each other at parties and address each other as Ms. Whoever and Mr. Whatever,” Lewis says. “I still try not to be presumptuous when I’m dealing with someone I haven’t met before. It’s a tiny thing that just stuck with me.”

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