The new president of the Orange County Bar Association, LaShawnda Jackson, has been practicing in the areas of casualty and product liability at RumbergerKirk since 2002, often working with manufacturers. But her story started long before then. Growing up in the projects, Jackson didn’t have access to professional role models, but she did have three teachers advocating for her every step of the way: Evelyn Scott, Betty Ryland and Sherry Johnson. She might have become a teacher, Jackson said, if it weren’t for Mrs. Johnson’s 11th-grade American government class, where she joined a mock trial competition team.
“I traveled around Brevard County competing against other high school students arguing cases in front of real judges,” Jackson said. “One of those judges nicknamed me ‘Bullets’ because of how I fired out cross-examination questions. He told me I should go to law school. Based on my background, I had never envisioned myself as a lawyer. But here was a real-life judge who thought I had the talent to become one, and I became determined to do so.” The nickname and the advice stuck, and more than two decades later Jackson has continued to learn and teach, to give back with gratitude both professionally and personally. Here, she talks to i4 Business about her love for law, advice for clients, community work and what it meant to be named the first African American president of the OCBA in June 2020.
You’ve served in various roles for the OCBA over the past 16 years. What have you learned in your time there? How has it helped you and informed your work?
In the 16 years that I’ve been involved with the OCBA, I’ve learned that although there are a lot of negative feelings toward lawyers, the OCBA is made up of a diverse group of lawyers who truly care about giving back to each other and our community. We are a bar of volunteers, and many have demanding practices. Yet we volunteer countless hours to mentor law students and young lawyers, to provide pro bono or free legal services and to help each other become better lawyers. The OCBA has provided me, and others, with the opportunity to hone leadership skills, networking opportunities to build law practices and a platform to learn from each other. I’ve learned many litigation tactics from members of the bar and have implemented some of their strategies for pitching clients for new or expanded business.
You’ve mentioned how the OCBA is an essential link to resources and information in the Ninth Judicial Circuit. How do you hope to strengthen that link?
The OCBA has always been at the forefront of providing resources to the legal community. My goal is to strengthen that link by also providing resources to the general Central Florida community. My first step in doing this was creating the OCBA’s first community service committee. Through this committee, we hope to provide valuable resources to citizens about the law and the legal system. In the coming months, we will release free educational videos to the public about the importance of health care directives, powers of attorney, living wills and other important legal documents. We also hope to hold a community fair in the spring where we will provide free legal services in drafting some of these important documents for members of the community.
What does it mean to you to be the first African American president of the Orange County Bar Association?
I am proud to be the first Black president of the OCBA. But more important to me than being the first is to make sure I am not the last. I see my role as paving the way for others who look like me to have the same opportunity I had. I hope I’ve shown them that through hard work and dedication, any perceived ceiling can be broken and any goal can be achieved. I hope my presidency serves as an inspiration for others who look like me to take leadership roles in organizations.
Why were you drawn to your casualty and product liability litigation practice at RumbergerKirk? What does this kind of litigation entail?
When it comes to the practice of law, all I ever wanted to do was litigate. I took every class I came across with “litigation” in the title, including a business litigation class in high school and criminal justice classes in college. Two of my favorite law school classes were torts liability and products liability. Both involved claims where people allege they or their property were injured through the wrongful action of another individual or entity, such as in a car accident or a slip-and-fall, or by an alleged defective product. These classes fascinated me, and I would sit behind the law school cafeteria arguing the cases with fellow classmates. Upon graduation, I was thrilled to get an opportunity to work at a firm known for its product liability and other litigation practices. There I had the honor of representing manufacturers, businesses, organizations and individuals in casualty and product liability cases.
These types of cases entail diving into medical records to understand the nature of injuries, taking depositions, consulting with experts, and preparing for and participating in trial. Sometimes the case also involves getting a random call to show up at an accident scene to be a part of the initial investigation. As a result, I often have steel-toed boots, a tape measure and a safety vest in the trunk of my car. With regard to the product liability cases, I particularly enjoy talking with engineers and other experts and learning how and why a product was designed a certain way.
What are some of your clients’ top concerns?
In light of the pandemic, clients are concerned about the stability of their businesses, the safety of their workforce and whether they will survive these unprecedented times. Interestingly, some clients are also concerned about what stance, if any, they should take in the wake of the social unrest and the fight for racial equality throughout the country. These clients recognize that many of their own customers are being affected by this movement and the customers want to hear where these clients stand.
Do you work with manufacturers often? If so, what kind of advice or guidance would you offer based on your work?
I have worked with manufacturers quite a bit over my 18 years of practice, including those who design and manufacture automobiles, motorcycle equipment, tools, forklifts, machines, appliances and other products. I would advise them to continue being creative and innovative with technology within their products, as well as in the design and manufacturing process. With the pandemic, more people have shifted to the use of technology for their work and daily lives. Now that they have come to adopt these new technologies in their lives, they will come to expect and desire more technologically savvy products. There are also those who care about the environment, and the use of design and manufacturing technology that creates efficiency and eliminates unnecessary waste will be appealing to many buyers.
How did you get involved with the Junior League of Greater Orlando’s MAGIC (Mentoring Adolescent Girls to Inspire Change) program? What has that work meant to you?
Many years ago, a co-worker asked me to speak to a group of girls in the juvenile justice system as part of the Junior League of Greater Orlando’s MAGIC program, which often has professional women speak to the girls on a variety of topics. I asked what the co-worker wanted me to speak about, and she simply said, “You could talk about the law, but the girls may benefit more from hearing your life story.” I spoke that night about how I grew up living in the projects, subjected to many of the outside elements the girls were facing as teenagers. However, I decided I wanted to be different and wanted to do better. I explained to them how I refused to allow my past to dictate my future and I was able to work to accomplish something that I couldn’t even envision at an early age. Because of the positive response from the girls, I have been invited back every year to speak as part of the program. It means a lot to me that I have this opportunity to give back to a group of girls who often have no inspiration or hope that they can do better. We talk about their dreams and goals — a conversation that many of them have never had — and how they go about making and achieving those goals. I feel like I am the inspiration to these girls just like my teachers were inspirations to me.
And finally, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
The best advice I’ve ever received is to never let anyone, especially yourself, stand in the way of achieving your dreams. Oftentimes we doubt who we are, what we can accomplish or even who we could be. But once you get out of your own way, you can accomplish anything.
Photography by Julie Fletcher
As seen in October 2020 i4 Business Magazine