Condensed and edited for clarity
Michelle Barclay: First congratulations on being sworn in as the 58th State Bar of Georgia President on June 13, 2020, and also you were sworn in as a non-voting Judicial Council member on June 15, 2020 to represent the State Bar of Georgia. Your leadership year is already marked by unprecedented times–a pandemic, a budget crisis, and a civil rights crisis with protests in the streets. How are you doing?
Dawn Jones: I am doing ok! I so appreciate that we are experiencing a real global awakening to these systemic race-related issues right now. As a black woman attorney in Georgia, I am personally familiar with some of these issues, so are members of my family.
Professionally, I am excited and inspired and invigorated and saddened all at the same time. I feel mostly positive because I have this opportunity to serve in this unique way. I’m excited about our new committee that will continue the work to address issues of race, racism, bigotry, and the inequalities in our justice system. I also understand that it is a unique opportunity for me as the second black woman, second person of color, and fourth woman to serve in this position, to be the leader of the State Bar. I can help address these issues. It saddens me at times that we have to have these conversations, but I feel supported and I need that support.
MB: Let’s talk a bit about your career path. You are a former nurse turned lawyer. Can you tell us a little about your career journey to nursing and then to law?
Dawn Jones: I always wanted to be a nurse and I had the nature for it. I am grateful that the foundation of my nursing career was in major urban hospital settings (University of Virginia, Georgetown, Grady Memorial, and Emory Hospitals), in ICU settings, and doing bedside nursing. I was able to work at the cutting edge of research and development, patient protocol, new equipment, drug studies, etc. I moved to Georgia in 1994 after I got my master’s degree in nursing. Over time, however, I realized that there were changes being made in the nursing profession that I felt were not in the best interest of the patients or in the best interest of nurses. There were severe budget cuts that I felt added too much stress to the entire system and to me personally so I began to think about a career change.
I took the MCAT and the LSAT and did well on both but I decided that I did not want to become a doctor. I had met some nurse lawyers during some of my graduate classes and was impressed by one presentation where the nurse lawyers talked about how they impacted millions of lives by making sure that hospitals, health care providers, and other institutions adhere to strict rules, policies, procedures, and regulations to ensure that the best care was given to patients. I thought that was pretty cool. I ended up applying to Georgia State University College of Law literally across the street from Grady Hospital. GSU Law had the only part-time program in the state and I was very fortunate that they accepted my application to the part-time evening program.
MB: Did you work as a nurse while going to law school?
DJ: I did. I even worked after I became a lawyer. I had a hard time letting go of nursing because I loved it. But at some point, I needed to focus on becoming a good lawyer. I have been practicing law for over 20 years now and I still use my nursing background and, frankly, my perspective as a nurse when I worked to defend nurses and doctors and to defend premises liability cases. There were still some elements of healthcare regulations and infrastructure that helped me when I served as an insurance defense lawyer, or when I was in-house counsel for the Grady Health System, or when I was working in a large international firm setting defending pharmaceutical companies. For the past six years, I have worked as a personal injury attorney on the plaintiff side and my nursing background helps me evaluate the personal and physical injury cases that I take on. I’m grateful that I’ve been able to continue using the nursing experience that I garnered the first 14 years of my adult life through the 20 years that I’ve been practicing as a lawyer.
MB: Tell us a little bit about your path to becoming the President of the State Bar of Georgia.
DJ: Frankly, I fell into it. I expect like every other bar member you get these brochures. I paid attention to the annual meeting brochure where it shows these wonderful beaches and it looks fun with CLE credit. So early on in my practice, I decided that I wanted to go to the annual meeting and one of the selling points of the annual meeting is that you got your year’s worth of CLE credits in a weekend, with really great classes. I have not missed an annual meeting since I started going. Also, early on, I just sat in on the board meetings because those meetings are open to everyone. I looked over people’s shoulders at their big board books and I just became interested in the work of the State Bar. Over time, my bar association activity at the local level connected me with people who were active within the State Bar. Then I started participating at the invitation of our leaders in the State Bar, in our State Bar Committees, and I began to develop a greater appreciation of how the State Bar of Georgia’s work directly impacts the legal profession. Some of those rooms that I first walked into did not have any person of color in the room which can be intimidating, but I remember approaching some women lawyers who were welcoming. We developed relationships and, in time, I met more people who were welcoming and my participation became less daunting and more comfortable. I got to know Ken Shigley pretty well when he became president. And with each bar president that served, I made a point of letting them know that if there was anything that I could do to help, please let me know and they took me up on that offer. Patrice Perkins-Hooker mentored me and when she was Bar President, she wanted to make sure that the leadership of the Bar looked as diverse as the membership. By the time Patrice served, I had served as president of GABWA, and had held other leadership roles as well as chairing multiple committees that had strong-willed lawyers, so I decided I was qualified. There were not a lot of applicants to the Bar leadership who looked like me and I felt that was important so I stepped up and decided to seek the Secretary position. And here I am today.
DJ: I hope the Standing Committee on Seeking Equal Justice and Addressing Racism & Racial Bias will be very active. This is a critical time for this committee to exist and my hope is that they will meet the needs of the Bar membership, of the citizens of Georgia, and of our society in general. The Executive Committee worked over four hours on a Friday and a Saturday to craft the statement for what we wanted to accomplish with this new committee. Saturday was not a planned part of our conversation, but we needed more time to talk and nobody objected, everyone participated. Those conversations solidified the statement we wrote which defined the committee’s purpose for all of us.
My expectation is that the new committee will meet monthly and work to identify areas where we can address systemic inequalities within the State of Georgia. I envision that the committee will help us figure out some short and long term goals, but also to help us educate each other on how to communicate so we can have a meaningful conversation. I can’t do this alone. These conversations can be exhausting and emotional for me so I look forward to this committee getting started. I’m hoping the committee will hold some town halls with wider audiences and that having these conversations can help address inequities in our justice system such as the many challenges facing people who come out of prison. If we as a society make things too hard for them to get a job, to start over, then those folks are more likely to fall back into criminal activity; that’s a problem for society, not just for those folks and their families. That is one example of a conversation that we need to have and we need to talk about solutions. These conversations will also help me set some longer term goals so that we can integrate the work of the new committee into every corner of the State Bar of Georgia to ensure that our system of fairness and equality and administration of justice continues into perpetuity.
MB: Last question for the interview–is there anything that our readers should know about you that we have not covered?
DJ: I have to think about this question and I think the answer is that I have learned from my lawyer friends, sorority sisters, and colleagues from all over the country that we in Georgia have a unique close and collegial relationship with our state’s judges. I have come to understand how critical this relationship is between the bar and the judiciary, not just for the business of the State Bar Association, but this relationship is critical to serving the public, supporting lawyers, and improving the administration of justice. I will not take that relationship for granted. I also will not assume that the relationship is completely healthy in every way so I will continue to actively foster those relationships to keep and improve our health. Improving health (in multiple ways) is my key theme this year. So I’d like your judge readers to know that I’m accessible, even though I am a solo practitioner. So many judges and justices have my cell phone and I will readily share it. I spend my weekends catching up and I want and look forward to hearing from you.