Unconventional Wisdom

Lovita Tandy did what everyone told her not to do — and became partner at age 32

Published in 2006 Georgia Rising Stars — October 2006

Lovita Tandy can tell you what to do with your conventional wisdom.
 
Like any young associate, Tandy dedicated the first part of her career to logging long hours. Lane Dennard, who mentored Tandy from the time she joined King & Spalding until his retirement in 2003, and with whom she worked on behalf of the Coca-Cola Co., Wendy’s and the American Red Cross, calls her “one of the most outstanding young lawyers” he has known.
 
But she found herself facing a decision familiar to many female professionals in their 30s — whether to start a family. Conventional wisdom held that the best approach was to wait until she made partner.
 
“I think a lot of people were willing to make assumptions I just wasn’t willing to make,” Tandy explains. “And one of those is ‘I can’t become partner if I have a small child.’”
 
Tandy chose to control what she could and let the rest take care of itself. Her son, Thomas, was born in October 2001. By the following February, Tandy realized she needed to reduce her schedule from the 12-hour days expected of an associate to accommodate her role as mother. Again, conventional wisdom maintained that cutting back to an eight-hour workday all but ensured she would never make partner.
 
The new schedule lasted a little over a year — from July 2002 to August 2003. During that time, in April 2003, Tandy was elected partner. She was 32.
 
So much for conventional wisdom.
 
“We have about 20 people who are on some sort of flex schedule,” she says. “So I wasn’t the first one to do that. I was the first one to do that and become partner.”
 
Not surprisingly, a 130-plus-year-old law firm headquartered in the Deep South naming its first black female partner did not escape attention. Everyone from journalists to first-year law students phoned to find out the secret to her success.
 
“There’s actually no one right way to do it,” Tandy says. “It terrifies me to think that people might look at me and think, ‘That’s the only path to attaining that goal.’ Because I don’t think that’s true at all. I didn’t do it by myself. I didn’t come here as a lawyer; I came here as someone with a law degree. And the people I worked with helped me become a good lawyer.”
 
 
Tandy’s practice focuses on traditional labor law, employment discrimination litigation and employment-related contractual disputes.
 
“Being on the outside,” says Tandy, “I think no one has a real concept of what a lawyer’s work week is really like. Truly, the more senior you get, there really is no regular schedule — especially with what I do. I do a lot of labor and employment law counseling; I litigate harassment claims. But there are also, quite frankly, a lot of times where the phone rings and my client is trying to avoid a discrimination suit. They’ve just had a female employee come in and say that she’s being sexually harassed by the CEO. They don’t want to wait till that lawsuit is filed; they want someone to come in and investigate right now. That, just by its very nature, requires that I drop everything else. But I love that stuff. I love that stuff. I love the fast-paced stuff.”
 
Even so, the question she’s often asked is: What makes a black female represent corporations accused of discrimination? Wouldn’t you really rather be on the plaintiff’s side?
 
As part of her answer, she recalls a case last year for a client she’ll identify only as “a very successful international company that has manufacturing plants all over the world.” Shortly after the company hired the first black manager for a rural Georgia plant with some 250 employees, the plant’s historically white management staff complained he was discriminating against them. He complained, in turn, that the corporate office, which is predominantly white, was discriminating against him. Tandy’s job was to go to the plant and sort it out. No one was making an official discrimination claim or threatening to sue, but the client recognized that this branch was not functioning well because of race-related concerns.
 
In such situations, Tandy often works with associate Lindsay Errickson to interview employees. Sometimes Errickson will take the regular work force while Tandy interviews the management; other times — as with this case — they divvy it up along racial lines: Errickson talked with whites, Tandy with blacks. Each night they compared notes at the hotel room.
 
“It’s Peyton Place,” she says of such work environments. “There are all sorts of misunderstandings.”
 
But she says the process of sorting through the misunderstandings is great fun. “It really is. Because you get to sit down and talk to these people. You’re interviewing each witness for an hour or two and learning about their perspective on the company. Sometimes you have to investigate because people tell you stories that are true, and that have really impacted them, but that are taken out of context if you don’t follow up.”
 
One example: An African-American employee told Tandy the plant required him to take a physical to work there. When he visited the company-chosen doctor, though, he was told he had to come in the back door. 
 
“And you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ and you look in his file, because that’s horrible,” she says. “But he started in 1969. That’s just really a whole other story, isn’t it? That doesn’t make it right, but that makes it very different than if he’d been hired last year, doesn’t it? And when he’s telling me the story, he’s telling it to me like it happened two years ago.”
 
She relates another issue at the facility. It concerned a white high-level manager whose father worked even higher up in the company. Few employees liked him.
 
“Now, some people were more vocal about it than others,” Tandy says. “You talk to some of the black employees and they say, ‘This guy is discriminating against me and he’s holding me to these unfair standards and he’s always so arbitrary and he’s always changing his mind.’ Then you go next door and talk to the white employees who work for him and they’re like, ‘Yeah, he’s incompetent. He’s always changing his mind.’ They’re telling you the same information but they’re drawing different conclusions from it because of where they sit.”
 
All of which helps answer why a black woman would represent corporations accused of discrimination. “There are all these companies out there that are trying really, really hard to grapple with and deal with these issues,” she says. “Someone has to help them.”
 
 
Tandy doesn’t remember when she decided to become a lawyer. “What I can say,” she explains, “is that it was always clear to me that I could be a lawyer. When I talk to other black people my age it wasn’t always clear that it was an option to them.”
 
Tandy partially credits the U.S. Army with this particular belief. The daughter of an army band leader, she spent much of her childhood in officers’ housing at Fort Lee, outside Petersburg, Va., and Fort Gordon near Augusta, Ga.
 
“Everybody was a professional,” she says. “The doctors and lawyers — and band leaders — people with high-level jobs. That was the community I grew up in. Like in the real world, most of those people were white, but some were black and some were Asian. A lot were Latino. I never thought about it, and always saw [being a lawyer] as a realistic option because that was what I saw around me.”
 
Tandy didn’t have to look far to find role models. Her mother, Rosa Lee Tandy, who was already raising three sons when Lovita came along, refused to accompany her husband on overseas postings after her daughter’s birth. “By that time my mom was like, ‘Yeah, I’m not packing up four kids and going [to a place] where you’re going to be gone for 21 days a month.’”
 
Instead, Tandy’s mother worked as a nurse’s assistant, usually at mental health care centers or nursing homes, while Tandy’s grandmother, who lived with the family, helped at home. “I don’t know how much time you were able to spend with your grandmother when you were growing up, but it’s just fabulous. Because you’re the center of the world. That was a huge influence on me.” Tandy is attempting to similarly influence her little one — her mother now lives with her. Her father passed away a few years ago.
 
Tandy’s eldest brother, George, also had a tremendous influence on her, filling in as a sort of surrogate father during her father’s long absences. “He performs in a band in Miami and he’s also a music teacher at a private school there,” she says. “All of my brothers are musicians. They sent me to law school because I can’t carry a tune.”
 
Although race wasn’t a big factor in her childhood, Tandy has no illusions that we live in a colorblind society. As with conventional wisdom, however, she won’t let other people’s perceptions of race affect her decision making.
 
After she graduated from law school, for example, several people suggested she and husband Randell C. Smith, who hails from Talladega, Ala., move to New York, where opportunities were plentiful and law firms supposedly more open-minded. Others implied that an Atlanta law firm wouldn’t hire her because she was black. Those people, Tandy says, had “an absence of information.” King & Spalding employed several African Americans and named its first black male partner before Tandy was out of grade school.
 
A decade ago, Tandy contributed to the foreword of the inaugural issue of the African-American Law & Policy Report, in which she examined the issue of colorblindness in the legal profession. Despite the politically correct tendency to overlook race as a factor, the piece affirmed the need for specialized legal journals for communities of color.
 
“We as a society say we are colorblind,” she says. “[But] there were, I think, eight people elected partner from Atlanta with me, and no one was calling them on the phone all the time. It’s something we say to ourselves, but in the same breath, every day, we acknowledge it’s not true.”
 
Indeed, the flipside to the congratulations she received upon making partner is that many wondered why it took so long. How could King & Spalding wait until 2003 to elect a black female partner? “The implication,” Tandy says, “is that there can be only two answers to this question. And the two answers have to be either because King & Spalding has been doing something wrong all these years or because every other black female before you has been doing something wrong.”
 
The predominance of these questions has forced Tandy to cut back her recruiting efforts on behalf of the firm. “I used to do a lot of recruiting,” she explains, “and now that I’m a partner I actually do a little less of it. It’s because I have to say, ‘Sigh, let me tell you about every black person who ever walked through these doors.’”
 
 
Tandy continues to play many roles besides recruiter. She’s a member of the firm’s diversity committee, which helped make the flextime policy easier for women to have both families and careers. She’s been involved in planning the firm’s first minority associate retreat. She’s also adamant about helping others with law degrees become lawyers — as she herself had been helped.
 
Bettina Yip, now a counsel for Cingular, joined King & Spalding as a first-year associate in 1999. Tandy mentored her. “Even as a senior associate trying to make partner,” Yip recalls, “[Lovita] took time from her billable work to review my work product, discuss brief-writing strategies, commiserate over firm politics.”
 
As for the future, Tandy says she has always wanted to sit on the federal bench. The role she thinks most defines her now, though, is not lawyer or mentor or first black female anything. It’s mother.
 
“I just love that little guy. Every kid has their own personality, but mine will not let me forget my place in the world. I was named to Who’s Who in Black Atlanta and I came home and showed the picture to my mother and I showed the picture to my husband and I showed the picture to Thomas and I said, ‘Thomas, who is that?’ He said, ‘That’s Mommy.’ I said, ‘Good boy.’ He said, ‘I want some milk.’ Well, I thought, enough of that. Milk it is.”

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