They’ve Got Next: The 40 Under 40 – Shirlethia Franklin of Jones Day
Please describe two of your most substantial, recent wins in practice.
I served as first-chair trial counsel in a matter representing four Charlottesville city councilors who were sued in their individual capacities after voting to relocate the Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. Jackson statues at the center of the violent rally in Charlottesville in August 2017. Our Jones Day team advanced important equal protection and immunity arguments, secured the councilors’ right to trial by jury, and ultimately prevailed in getting the councilors dismissed from the suit.
The statues were removed in July 2021 following the enactment of a path-marking Virginia law permitting the removal of Confederate war monuments—a fitting epilogue to our hard-won victory on behalf of the councilors. I currently play a leading role as outside counsel for a major retailer in nationwide civil litigation concerning prescription opioids.
What is the most important lesson you learned as a first-year attorney and how does it inform your practice today?
One is never too junior to have a bright idea or share a unique perspective that could make a difference in the strategic direction of a case. While unsure of my legal abilities as a “baby lawyer,” I was compelled to speak up in a strategy meeting regarding a high-profile wrongful death matter and share insight based on my knowledge of the issues presented and my personal background (which was very similar to the young decedent in the case). The lead partner immediately implemented my suggestions and noted that he had not thought of the case from the perspective shared.
Having the courage to speak up, the confidence to trust my knowledge and instincts, and the audacity to believe that I belonged and added value to my team proved to be a critical turning point for the case. Today, this lesson allows me to contribute to my case teams in a meaningful way by both using my voice as the most junior partner in a number of trial/case discussions and by creating an open environment in which junior associates can feel comfortable and confident doing the same.
How do you define success in your practice?
While I have typically viewed “success” as an abstract term that is not readily definable, I have since found that my personal success can be measured only through the lens of the amount of hard work, effort, and intensity I bring to my practice. Whether I receive a favorable ruling after a motion argument or “lose” in my attempt to seek dismissal of a case on behalf of my client, I consider both outcomes a success if I have given 100 percent of my best effort, if I have overturned every stone possible in the case, and if I can say with complete confidence and assurance that “I gave it my all.” Even if the result is less desirable than intended, I often find that my work ethic itself brings feelings of success, recognition, and gratification.
What are you most proud of as a lawyer?
As first-chair trial lawyer on the Charlottesville Confederate statues litigation, our victory on behalf of the city councilors was incredibly gratifying. I am proud that the litigation paved the way for the enactment of a law overturning the Commonwealth’s prohibition on the removal of Confederate war memorials, resulting in the ultimate removal of the Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues in Charlottesville.
I am proud of having the courage to step into a leadership role in that case. I was the only Black lawyer with a lead role in the case and had to navigate unwelcoming sentiments and symbols that awaited my arrival as I approached the steps of the courtroom for hearings and other proceedings. I am most proud, however, of our team’s unflagging effort on behalf of our clients, our desire to confront and combat both symbolic and expressed representations of hate and oppression, and our banding together to be bold agents of change during this pivotal moment in our country.
Who is your greatest mentor in the law and what have they taught you?
My greatest mentor in the law is Eric H. Holder Jr., first African American attorney general of the United States. I was privileged to serve on Mr. Holder’s small team of counselors during my time at the Department of Justice, and he has graciously extended his mentorship and imparted his wisdom to me over nearly a decade.
I am most inspired by Mr. Holder’s authenticity, his humanity, and his unyielding desire always to be a force for that which is right and good. He taught me first and foremost that being one’s unapologetically authentic self is the truest strength of leadership; that displaying humanity, uncompromisingly choosing kindness, and doing what is “right and good” cost absolutely nothing; and that embracing my responsibility to be a leader in the legal profession and to pave the way for those coming behind me—particularly other diverse lawyers—is the highest gift of service.
Just for fun, tell us your two favorite songs on your summer music playlist.
(1) “A Beautiful Day” by India Arie: I have played this song daily for more than 10 years, as it is a constant reminder to embrace a spirit of gratitude, optimism, hope, and courage each step along this journey of life.
(2) “Leave the Door Open” by Silk Sonic: Is an explanation even needed for this 2021 breakout jam?! I have not yet found a 2022 song that tops this one on my summer playlist, but I will continue to “leave the door open” for its replacement.
Shirlethia Franklin is a leader of Jones Day’s Hate Crimes Task Force. A Mississippi native and first-generation college graduate, she was recently appointed by President Joe Biden to be a White House Fellow Commissioner, following her service on the Biden-Harris presidential transition team.