THAT GIRL: B.J. Bernstein (Atlanta, GA – Trial attorney, legal commentator, speaker and consultant tackling issues at the heart of justice and fairness, and author of that book you’ve been looking for about how to be brave and successfully open your private practice or bring more clients to the firm you work for…release date, tba.)
Susan Carns Curtiss (SCC): Hi, BJ, first of all – thank you so much for taking time to do this with and for us here at GIRL ATTORNEY. I’m excited to introduce you to the Community!
B.J. Bernstein (BJB): De nada!
SCC: Will you first please tell us a little bit about yourself and your path to becoming a lawyer?
BJB: I have “lawyered” in Atlanta now for 30 years. I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina and knew in 8th grade I wanted to be a lawyer. My school had a program to try a case, and I was hooked. I started at Emory University in Atlanta, at age 17, graduated in 3 years I started law school at the University of Georgia at age 20. No lawyers in my family, but I was always talking and solving problems for friends and family so everyone around me thought I would be a lawyer.
SCC: Wow, you really started the profession at a particularly young age, do you think that your youth has affected your practice/perspective?
BJB: I was very naïve, which helped in the sense I was too young to think that there were any obstacles. I was pushed to be self-sufficient by my parents and to have confidence from Girl Scouts. Mom put herself through nursing school. Her adoptive mother died at age 4 and adoptive father at 16 and that was before family services so she just did for herself alone, finished high school and got into nursing school—so she was adamant that you had to know how to be self-sufficient and handle obstacles. She had no one growing up and she wanted us to have those life skills. She encouraged me in Girl Scouts and I stayed involved through graduation from high school. Scouting really had me believing I could do anything and trusting my own voice. In fact, I was in the group of the first “girl” National Board Committee members in Girl Scouts so I flew by myself to NYC for meetings.
I think that just do it mentality made it easier when I left the District Attorney’s Office and opened my own law practice in 1995. Maybe it would have been easier if I knew more and had been older but her voice of doing it on your own was a strong one.
SCC: Your mom sounds like an amazing woman.
And, you clearly didn’t fall far from the tree. ♥
BJB: She was and thank you. She really did make sure we knew how to do it all. She was very proud.
I also am oldest of 3 girls—one sister became a golf pro and another an executive in the computer industry. That made her very proud.
SCC: A family full of strong, ambitious, women. ♥ Going back to something you mentioned earlier, it sounds like mentorship for you, through Girl Scouts, was a pretty influential part of your confidence. Are you involved in mentorship in your community?
BJB: I have mentored over the years with the different program. One young lady touched me in particular whom I still see regularly. I met her when speaking about law to a group of young people in foster care – and I am proud she is now a Junior at Howard University.
SCC: BJ, you mentioned that you’ve been an attorney for about thirty years now – and indicated that you went out on your own – will you tell us a bit more about the type of practice you have?
Also, please tell us how you made the jump to private practice.
BJB: Here we go. Started out doing insurance defense for about two years. I really wanted to go to court so I became an Assistant District Attorney. Tried a lot of cases – but my frustration was with autonomy. I would get frustrated with the hierarchy of government work and felt like I could never make them happy. I could try the most cases on my trial team, create a special team notebook, and well… the criticism at review would be like, “that’s good but you still get so emotional or involved.” To me, I thought – I have done crimes against children for years and serious felonies – and that brings out emotion.
That’s when I decided to open up on my own. I asked my Dad for my wedding fund. He was thrilled because he thought I should make more money and work for myself like he had. I approached a very high-profile top criminal defense lawyer about space available for work and he said yes.
I bought a desk, a computer, and opened up in May 1995.
SCC: So it’s all been easy and like an amazing bed of roses where the big money and most socially-important cases rolled in, right? 😉 Or, tell us about how it was….’cause it’s been twenty years since you opened your own firm – but so many of the hurdles for folks interested in going out on their own are still the same.
Also – since I know for a fact that your firm has been financially successful, and you HAVE had some of the most important cases, your advice is even more relevant.
What did you learn from that experience that you’d like to share with the women of GIRL ATTORNEY so that they would have a bit of a leg up on that process?
BJB: Over the 20 years on my own it has definitely had its ups and downs. First up was getting clients. I wrote my law school and got address labels for the class ahead of me, my class, and the one behind me. Essentially anyone who knew me from law school, or could have seen me in the halls, would receive an announcement that I was opening my firm. I was already involved in the law school alumni association and the Younger Lawyers Section of the State Bar of Georgia – and so sent announcements to those people as well. To my astonishment, classmates sent me cases. Many reached out by phone or lunch asking to know more about what type of work I wanted. Even some classmates I knew casually reached out and sent cases. At that point, it was only criminal defense work that I was doing – and most of my friends did not touch it so they were sending it to someone they don’t compete with. That started my first few cases. One classmate sent me the son of a partner at a major law firm. I tried that case and he was acquitted and that raised my stature at that large firm as a go-to for criminal representation. To this day I receive referrals from that firm.
That taught me the importance of connecting with others and doing the work well. They go hand and hand.
Some of those referrals made the local news. With time and networking my reputation grew and I picked up more complex cases. Some of those cases became national high profile cases that changed the law in Georgia. That certainly took my career to a higher level. I moved beyond just misdemeanors and court-appointed felony work to fully paying clients and some pro bono. If the case pulled at me and I felt it needed a law change I was willing to do it pro bono. It turned out that brought some high profile media coverage but I didn’t foresee that when I took the case. I just saw an injustice and it got me riled up and so I would take it and the next thing I knew I had some cases in state and national news.
SCC: That is great advice that is relevant in all jurisdictions – also, I can’t believe they gave you address labels!! I don’t know that they would do that today – but, of course, the principle is the same. GET THE WORD OUT, to folks that know you, especially.
BJB: Also get word and yourself out into the public. For me, it helped that around that time I had started doing some television commentary for cable networks. (I first appeared on MSNBC with Gloria Allred and Vinnie Politan and barely got to get a word in. Miraculously, I was invited back and from there I started doing legal commentary on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX – which helped later with my own cases that became part of the national news.
SCC: Being in the national spotlight provides a lot of opportunities to influence your client’s cases. Also – in related news – you’ve done a lot of high-profile cases, and I wonder if you would be willing to talk a bit about any of your cases that folks could look up after they read this interview – and tell us a pivotal part of that case. Where…you could see that YOUR role (the fact that it was you who was their attorney) made a positive difference in the life of your client.
BJB: In terms of national cases, two of the largest and most discussed come to mind. I represented on appeal a young man who was black in a more rural area and had another lawyer at trial and was acquitted of rape but because of Georgia law at the time he had consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old girl, when he was 17 – and that was Aggravated Child Molestation which meant a 10 year mandatory minimum and sex offender registry. If he had had intercourse it would have been a misdemeanor.
It took 2 visits to the Georgia Supreme Court and lobbying the Georgia legislature to pass a new law and he was eventually released. The media impact was huge and helped people understand it could be their son. Teens don’t know the laws on sex. That case was pro bono.
His case led other states to take a look at the Romeo and Juliet provisions (or lack of them) meaning when teens have consensual sexual relations they are not branded for life as felons. I know it helped many others either get out of jail or face consequences, but not to the extent that would ruin their life. Many of those cases targeted young black men with those harsh consequences.
Several years later I represented several young male church members who accused a nationally-known megapastor of sexual abuse. Again, it became a national case. It brought a lot of discussion of church abuse cases.
SCC: BJ, this brings me to something I have always admired about you — you represent the underserved. In your community, that often looks like young black males. Would you mind sharing insight on how you navigate representing the heart and soul and, sometimes the life, of a black male – as a white woman? P.S. I understand this cannot be summarized adequately in this – or any other – single interview.
BJB: I was sensitive to race in South Carolina growing up. Then at college, I knew I wanted to study history – but not just history, but Southern US history with a focus on the racial problems. At Emory, I had some top historians in that area including Professor Dan Carter, the author of The Scottsboro Boys, which was a book about a trial in rural Alabama where young black men were convicted for raping a white woman. In another history class Congressman John Lewis. At that time, he was an Atlanta City Councilman and he spent 3 hours with a small focused class of 6 students reflecting on the civil rights movement.
Then, as only fate can be, the case of the 17 year old young man I just mentioned to you hit the national media and the Chief of Staff for Congressman John Lewis called me after seeing me on the Today Show, and had the Congressman come to the prison to give my client his book and tell him to keep hope. My civil rights hero who I met in college was now encouraging my client, I literally wept. (Yes, that emotional part that was criticized in my early years).
Full circle when he was released, and I was honored by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice with their highest award, they surprised me with Congressman Lewis introducing me.
SCC: WOW. What an honor. I can only imagine what that was like to meet him in person. Sounds like your childhood, your awareness of racial issues, your education, your relationships with your clients – not to mention, the experiences from your cases themselves have all informed the way you connect with your clients, to bring their cases to justice. What a beautiful, if not challenging, roadmap for others to follow. Thank you.
….One last thing, I know you are doing some commentary work these days on TV. Particularly related to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
BJB: The dialogue is there and it is forcing change. The question for GIRL Attorney members is how they are part of that change. I was the victim of a sexual assault by a Judge as a young lawyer. I did not say anything until I left that job and an investigator from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation came and asked me about the Judge. I literally sat quietly for five minutes trying to decide – do I tell her. I thought I would never be able to be alone with a judge in chambers as can happen as a prosecutor. I decide to tell her. So did several others, and we all testified before a grand jury, and he was indicted. He pled nolo.
Watching the world in the last year I have been realizing that it’s not just enough to fight for clients, we have to fight for ourselves. I have had some time to reflect on how much has changed in law in 30 years but also how some things have not. It has prompted me to write, and I am soon going to have a book for women lawyers about what I have learned to do. I have shared these things I’ve learned with friends, but not beyond — the sexual harassment — that has pushed me to finish the book faster.
SCC: I am so excited to have that book in my hands. Your practice has been and continues to be, an inspiration to attorneys – especially women – across this country. I’m thankful that you didn’t take that early advice to not be so emotional – but, instead, parlayed it (seems to me) into the heart and soul of your practice. It has served you well, as you serve your community well.
Also, about that sexual assault, I’m so sorry to hear about that – there is no doubt that you are not alone in having been put in a compromising position (or worse) from a superior in the legal-field workplace. Standing up and saying it OUT LOUD – even when asked, in private – is still scary. Do you think the climate for that kind of allegation has warmed? Is it a “safer” place to talk about it today, than when it happened to you?
BJB: I stayed quiet about it until a few years later a female prosecutor had complained about a judge and was excoriated in local media about it. That led me to write an op-ed in the local legal paper telling about my own experience and how important it was to support her and her female investigator. The day after it was published I had other lawyers and even some female judges share privately they had been harassed or assaulted. To see this all come to light now is remarkable, and empowering, and why I really believe the next level of comfort is arriving to safely say without career repercussion that you as a lawyer or an employee in a legal setting can be safer and supported in making the complaint. I also think it’s casting a shining light on the promotion of women as partners in firms or comfort to include women as LEAD counsel in matters
I will say, the first time I was on CNN about Weinstein, I mentioned my experience with sexual assault in the workplace (with that Judge that assaulted me) and it caught the anchor slightly off guard, and a few people in Atlanta called saying I didn’t know that (not all lawyers read the legal paper).
SCC: Yep. So, here we are – punching out one glass ceiling at a time. 🙂
BJB: Maybe a few tiles more than one at a time
SCC: Most certainly a few tiles more than one ceiling at a time! BJ, thank you so much for your time today. I look forward to sharing this story with the women of GIRL ATTORNEY™; where can women find out more about you? Your website, I suppose?
BJB: Yes, here’s the web address: www.bernsteinfirm.com
SCC: Thank you!!!