Miss Congeniality

Tiffany Williams has gone from winning beauty pageants to cases

Published in 2007 New Jersey Rising Stars — August 2007

Going before a judge is a harrowing experience for any young lawyer. But not Tiffany Williams. She doesn’t have a problem keeping her cool in a courtroom or anywhere else. Not after the hot lights she’s accustomed to.

“The judges are sometimes like, ‘There’s something about your poise, your presentation,’” she says, laughing. “In the back of my mind, I’m like, ‘Yeah? I perfected it walking on stage in high heels and a bathing suit.’”

But anyone who knows the former first-runner-up to Miss Jersey knows that she was well on her way to becoming a star in the courtroom before she ever set foot on a runway.

 

Williams was born in Monroeville, Ala., but her family moved to New Jersey soon after. Her mother, Phyllis, was a preacher and attended professional modeling school; her father, Bruce, was a union leader for part of his 25 years at Anheuser-Busch before becoming a full-time minister. In Plainfield and then Sayreville and Franklin, she was a studious, quiet girl who was active in the church and got good grades, took dance lessons and sang in the choir. Williams also demonstrated a natural talent for negotiation.

“I always loved to be around people,” she says. “I’m very social and outgoing, and although as a child I was much quieter in school, I always wanted to be the peacemaker with my friends. I was, ‘Let’s be logical and see where the other person is coming from and move things forward.’”

Joya Hammond-Watson, who was an adult member of Williams’ church when Williams was young, recalls the reserved but responsible girl who wrangled four younger brothers and acted with a sense of purpose.

“She had that same type of aura: focused,” she says. “That was something I recognized when she was younger. That’s the way she is in our church now: If something gets done, you know it was Tiffany.”

Other factors also pushed her toward law. When her mother realized her daughter was growing up in all-white neighborhoods without a sense of African-American history, she bought a box of fact cards on important black leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall. Those cards deeply influenced Williams.

“Learning about prominent black figures, I learned that the law was an option for me,” she says. “Even as a child I had a recognition that you had to be in a position of power to exercise influence.”

She experienced racism at a young age. When her family moved to Sayreville in 1982, the first greeting she got from neighborhood kids was a racist joke. Williams, then in fifth grade, wrote it off as an unintentional slight. But in her junior year of high school, a classmate called Williams “nigger” and shoved her, provoking a fight. Williams was suspended for fighting and never heard a word of apology from the principal. A week later, a male student, who was white, got into a fight after he was shoved, but he was not suspended because, according to the school, he was defending himself. Indignant about the double standard, Williams fought to have her suspension—the only mark on her record—expunged.

“I felt in my heart it was not right,” she says. “The principal said, ‘Fine! I’ll take it out.’ And she took out the suspension. It was my first piece of lawyering.”

She went on to study political science at Rutgers University. Then her life took a wholly unexpected turn.

She was teaching part time in 1994 at a dance school in Plainfield when a fellow instructor suggested she try out for a local pageant. “I was like, ‘Does this woman not know who I am?’” she says. “I’m in my studies trying to be a Supreme Court justice, so I tell her, ‘I don’t think so. I find them demeaning to women.’”

But when Williams learned about the Miss America Pageant’s history of offering scholarships to women, she decided to give it a shot. She competed in three Miss New Jersey competitions—she sang, “I Am Changing,” which Jennifer Hudson later made famous in Dreamgirls—and was first runner-up in 1996. The experience did wonders for her confidence.

“When I first saw her, she was sweet and, I don’t want to say docile, but quiet,” says Ceylone Boothe, a fellow contestant who’s now a makeup artist in Morganville. “I saw her grow in the pageant system. You’re going up against beautiful, intelligent women, and you have to shine. You have to step up to the plate and make sure people know you’re someone to be reckoned with.”

Even then, Williams stood out as the lawyer of the group.

“There was a quote-unquote kidnapping of a friend’s stuffed bunny, and we knew Tiffany would be able to counsel us if it were found out that we were the culprits,” says a chuckling Michelle Dawn Mooney, who today is a news anchor at the NBC affiliate in Atlantic City. “We were confident knowing she was in our corner.”

Williams entered pageants while also studying for a master’s in public administration at Rutgers and later during her first year of law school at Northeastern University. She learned to handle her time carefully.

Some of her pageant habits continue to this day. “When I introduce myself in court I always envision myself standing on stage at the microphone talking to the pageant judges,” she says. “So there are times I catch myself having to smile less and remind myself not to be in my pageant stance all the time.”

She retired from competition after law school, but continues to keep her hectic and ambitious schedule. She interned at the Clinton White House right after the Lewinsky impeachment hearings (she found the place surprisingly calm). As an associate at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo in Boston, she represented a man who wanted to build a dock on Martha’s Vineyard, which sparked her interest in both real estate law and government affairs.

In 2002, she returned to New Jersey to become an assistant U.S. attorney in Newark, and worked on gang cases, drug cases and crimes against children. One of her cases, U.S. v. Marchand, helped set the bar for determining if sexually explicit images depict real children rather than digital representations; Williams’ team used an array of experts—computer experts, pediatricians, law enforcement officers—to erase any doubt that the victims were living, breathing human beings.

In 2005, she joined Riker, Danzig, Scherer, Hyland & Perretti. Brian Cige, a civil rights and employment law attorney in Somerville, recalls facing Williams in Morales v. Bound Brook, in which a municipality was alleged to have committed housing discrimination. “We had a very emotional litigation, and she helped steer the boat in a steady course through it,” he says. “She kept everyone on track and brought reason to the process.”

Bryant Brewer, assistant general counsel in the litigation department of Wal-Mart, one of Williams’ clients, says he sees something else in her law work.

“There are certain qualities that she exudes that you can tell she is a spiritual person,” he says. “Her quiet confidence, which is one of her primary strengths. Her wherewithal to stand by her sentiments.”

And that leads to the latest change in Williams’ life: She was recently made a minister in her father’s church. She founded a nonprofit leadership group for girls and adults, and has worked with the Garden State Bar Association, the New Jersey State Bar Association (which named her Young Lawyer of the Year) and the Association of Black Women Lawyers. She is president-elect of the YWCA of Central Jersey and is a member of the transition team of Newark Mayor Cory Booker. And, of course, she has kept her hand in the pageant arena, sponsoring the Miss Somerset County preliminary to the Miss America Pageant.

She sees her ministry as an extension of the kind of work she has already done inside and outside the courtroom.

“Faith is what drives her,” says Greg Gamble, vice president of a community bank and one of her clients. “She’s driven first and foremost through God and second by her own initiative and her need to get things done.”

Williams wouldn’t disagree.

“I do have a high energy level, and if you call my voice mail, you’ll hear me say, ‘The joy of the Lord is my strength,’” she says. “And I believe that. I believe that.”

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