Janica Pierce Tucker is the first Black woman to lead a Columbus law firm, and one of very few women to do so. A natural leader, she makes it look easy. But it's not.

When you’re a Black woman and an attorney, the odds of rising up the law firm ladder are stacked against you. There are currently only five people who fit this description who are partners at a major Columbus firm. And so, when you have an opportunity to connect with someone like you who has accomplished great things, this is what you do: “I said to myself, this may be the only time I’ll see this woman and I have to say something,” says Janica Pierce Tucker, 43, remembering the day in 2000 when she came across Janet Jackson at the office. No, not that Janet Jackson. This is the one who was the first African American woman judge in Franklin County history and then the first woman to serve as Columbus city attorney. A pioneer and role model.

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At the time, Pierce Tucker was attending Ohio State’s Moritz College of Law and was a law clerk in the Columbus city attorney’s office led by Jackson. They’d never met. “I introduced myself and asked if I can have some time to meet, and she said yes,” says Pierce Tucker, who has an outgoing personality and the ability to quickly connect with people. And make them laugh. “To this day, she is my mentor and friend. I was bold enough to ask, and the cool thing I’ve experienced in Columbus is there are people who are willing to invest in you, but sometimes you have to make that happen.”

Pierce Tucker has connected with several mentors over the years and has made a lot of good things happen. In January, she was named partner-in-charge of Taft Law’s Columbus office, becoming the first Black woman partner in charge of a large Columbus law firm, and one of very few women to hold such a position.

“It’s huge. Someone needed to break through what I call the concrete ceiling, and she’s now become that role model, the person younger African American lawyers can look to and say, ‘She did it; I can do it,’ ” says Jackson, who retired a few years ago after leading the United Way of Central Ohio for 14 years. “And knowing her generous spirit, when younger attorneys reach out, I know Janica will pay it forward.”

Mississippi roots

Pierce Tucker traces her family’s history back to Mississippi and slavery. “My great, great grandparents were both born slaves,” she says. Racism, Jim Crow and segregation were prevalent in Mississippi. “And my grandmother, when my mother was 4 or 5, made the conscious decision that she didn’t want to raise her children in that environment, and she moved to Dayton,” Pierce Tucker says.

From an early age, and for no apparent reason she can recall, Pierce Tucker, who was born in Dayton, decided on a law career. Indeed, it was to become her path. “When I graduated from law school, my grandmother gave me something I wrote in the first grade about what you wanted to be when you grew up,” Pierce Tucker says. “I wrote lawyer. I have no idea why I wrote that, but every time someone asked me that question, I would say lawyer.”

Several members of her family worked at the General Motors Moraine Assembly plant. They learned the lessons of hard work and were able to make a decent living. Pierce Tucker attended the University of Tennessee on a scholarship funded by General Motors and awarded to the children of employees. She enjoyed her time there, becoming a Tennessee Volunteers football fan. But she also felt unsettled by things she saw.

“I’m a Vol through and through, but…” she says, trailing off. While driving near Knoxville, “there was a man on a hill on the side of the highway dressed in a KKK outfit. I will never forget that.”

Learning leadership

One of the requirements of her GM scholarship was a commitment to work summers for the company. The first summer, Pierce Tucker worked long, hard hours on the assembly line, installing windows in SUVs. The next summer, her job was in management. “Here I was, 18 or 19, and I’m telling people my parents’ and grandparents’ age what to do,” she says. “That was rough.”

These older employees weren’t exactly thrilled taking orders from a college student, and they weren’t bashful about challenging the new kid’s authority. “I had to decide who I was going be and what kind of leader I was going to be,” Pierce Tucker says.

She decided she would be respectful of everyone, because that’s the way she wanted to be treated. She also decided it’s OK to give employees some leeway—when possible. “There were times when I knew I was right, but I had to step back and say, this is this person’s livelihood. You’re going to leave and go back to school and they’ll still be working here.”

Learning the law

While in law school, Pierce Tucker also clerked in the law offices of Frank Ray, a veteran—and white—trial lawyer, who quickly saw talent and became a mentor.

“Greg Kirstein (now senior vice president and general counsel for the Columbus Blue Jackets) came back from interviewing her and was just gushing about Janica, and I remember that because he never gushed about people,” Ray says. “Greg was right—we sure hired a winner. She did the highest quality of work and had the best work ethic and undertook complicated assignments that surprised us in terms of a second-year law student.”

Ray offered Pierce Tucker a full-time job upon graduation, and she accepted. She worked primarily on personal injury and wrongful death claims resulting from vehicular collisions, workplace injuries and product liability. “You wouldn’t find too many white guys with excellent practices who would hire an African American law clerk like Frank did,” Jackson says.

Ray took great pride in being the only lawyer at the table with clients, while there were often three or four attorneys on the other side. This changed with Pierce Tucker, who often sat by his side as co-counsel, “because she was special and earned it. You have to be comfortable in your own skin, and she embodies that.”

Ray mentored Pierce Tucker in and out of the courtroom, connecting his protege to some of the more prominent Black attorneys in the city, such as Alex Shumate and Yvette McGee Brown. Shumate is managing partner of the Columbus office of Squire Patton Boggs; McGee Brown was the first African American female justice on the Ohio Supreme Court. She is currently the global partner in charge of diversity at Jones Day.

“I’m Irish and heard about the prejudice my great-grandfather and grandfather and his brothers experienced being Irish,” Ray says. “Their stories were borderline frightening and left an indelible impression of man’s inhumanity to man, and the Irish never experienced anything close to what Black people brought here as slaves experienced.”

Merging ahead

Ray’s firm merged with Chester Willcox & Saxbe LLP in 2006, and he brought Pierce Tucker with him. In turn, Chester Willcox & Saxbe merged with the larger Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP in 2012 and Pierce Tucker again made the jump, joining the growing Columbus office. She had made the transition into employment law in 2008 and was named a Taft partner in 2015.

“To make partner, you need a mentor and sponsor within the law firm to make sure you’re busy. That’s how you work your way up,” McGee Brown says. “Janica had Frank Ray, who saw how talented she is, and he invested in her. He recognized her skill and helped her grow that skill.”

Personality is important, and Pierce Tucker seems to have an abundance of this quality. “Janica is the person, when I’m having a bad day, I can call her and not only will she listen and have some advice, she’ll make me laugh in the process, and that really is her gift,” McGee Brown says.

“She’s so kind, but don’t let that kindness fool you, she’s a ferocious lawyer,” Jackson adds.

Within employment law, Pierce Tucker specializes in executive agreements (hiring and firing), workforce reductions, and navigating the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

More diversity

Diversity has always been a challenge for law firms. Women of all races made up 23.36 percent of partners in 2018, while only 1.83 percent of partners are African American. And only about a third of this total—0.68 percent—are women, according to a 2018 national survey by the National Association for Law Placement. The study also found that 3.63 percent of partners are Asian, with 1.38 percent women; and 2.49 percent of partners are Hispanic, of whom 0.77 percent are women.

“The law firm model depends on partners mentoring and pushing associates forward,” McGee Brown says, adding it’s not that the white men who traditionally have been partners won’t mentor women or associates of color. “It’s just human nature to spend time with people who are like us, and it takes effort to step outside that bubble and reach out to people who are different than you.”

Taft seems to be a bit ahead of the curve. It was named one of the 2020 “Best Law Firms for Women” by Working Mothers magazine. There are two Black women partners in the Columbus office, Pierce Tucker and Rita McNeil Danish. The three other African American women partners in the city, according to Pierce Tucker’s tabulations, are McGee Brown and Tiffany Lipscomb-Jackson at Jones Day and Lisa Kathumbi at Bricker & Eckler. The five have formed a club of sorts. They meet quarterly and mentor other young, Black women associates.

Generating clients and revenue is one of the keys to making partner at a law firm. And again, the longtime model has made it harder for women and attorneys of color to crack through. “It’s not that African American attorneys can’t build business,” Pierce Tucker says. “But what happens is that, let’s say a client has been working with a partner for years. That partner retires, and rather than work with an associate on the team, that client goes with another partner.”

Who is statistically much more likely to be white and a man.

But slowly, ever so slowly, the numbers are changing, and the charge is being led by large corporations, which are big-money clients for law firms. “They’re saying I want more diversity on your team [of lawyers] working on my matters, and some clients want a report, they want to know who’s on your team, and they want more diversity,” Pierce Tucker says.

Partner in charge

Pierce Tucker has several qualities that made her the logical choice for partner in charge, says Robert Hicks, Taft’s chairman and managing partner, who is based in Indianapolis. “She has a very balanced approach to issues, she understands people very well, and she has the courage to always do the right thing,” he says. “She also is able to manage all levels of people, ranging from staff persons to associate attorneys to partners.”

Hicks believes diversity is important because, “we reach far better decisions and deliver better service by having diverse viewpoints and perspectives represented.”

Pierce Tucker has done well as partner-in-charge, but there have been some challenges. “I do feel the pressure that I can’t fail,” she says. “If I fail, does that mean I’ll block the opportunity for someone else? That’s a heavy burden, but it’s real. I have to approach this job as a practicing lawyer and provide the best service to my clients, and I also [have to] succeed as the partner-in-charge to grow this market. I’m accountable to all the people who work in this office and to Taft that this office does what it has to do in terms of the bottom line.”

When she’s really feeling the pressure, Pierce Tucker can look back several generations and think about the incredible adversity and suffering her ancestors faced. “I don’t think of the sadness of what they went through; I think of their survival, how they were able to survive,” she says. “That inspires me on those tough days, and I say, almost every day, the quote: ‘I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.’ I hear it, and I know it, and I’m reminded of it every day.”

Q&A

Janica Pierce Tucker is the type of leader who shows up for her team and with her team when things get tough. The coronavirus pandemic is a case in point.

You were named partner-in-charge in January and then, two months later, the Covid-19 pandemic hit. What was that like?

Things got crazy. Everyone shifted to working in their houses and were sitting in their living rooms working 13- and 14-hour days. Everyone was at home for three weeks, and then we were deemed essential. As a leader, if I encouraged people to come back to the office, I needed to be there and to support everyone and implement safety procedures. I was hands-on, moving chairs and wiping down counters.

Soon after you were named partner in charge, the Black Lives Matters movement and demands for social justice came out in full force after the death of George Floyd. What can and should Black attorneys do?

There’s so much you can do, and it depends on what you want to do. It can be as simple as having conversations with people who want clarity and education. Or, you can represent folks who might need representation after the protest who may have been arrested. It’s recognizing that there’s systemic racism in housing and in so many other areas and how can you use your legal skills to assist. And with this election, you can help register people to vote, you can serve as a poll worker.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am a very compassionate person, and that comes across in my leadership. I genuinely care about people and what that means is I make myself available to everybody, all the staff and all the attorneys, and I listen to them.

What do you do when you’re not working?

My mom and I, we love to decorate and do parties. We have such a fun time doing that together. And I love to travel, and to be with friends. Greece was next on our travel list, but that didn’t happen this year.

Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.