Coleman overcomes adversity to become top young attorney
[subtitle] ONE OF AMERICA’S BEST [/subtitle]
By St. Clair Murraine
Attorney Jami Coleman said all of the right things when she spoke to a group of young people who showed up at the Macon Community Center to hear a motivational speech.
What the young people didn’t expect was her brutal honesty about her struggles before she became one of the best young lawyers in the country.
Coleman spoke this past weekend about overcoming being a mother when she was just a teenager.
Her journey to educate herself was fascinating, but nothing was as profound as her description of how her desire to feed her children and stay in school led to a decision that would haunt her when she tried to get approved by the Florida Bar.
Coleman said she felt compelled to open up about her struggles and mistakes because of the impact it could have on others.
“I feel like my story is not for me alone,” she said. “I feel like my story is to share. The reason I’ve gone through the things I went through is to be a testimony for somebody else.
“I don’t believe that we are here for our own existence. We are here to leave a mark on someone so they can leave a mark on someone else.”
Indeed Coleman, 35, is leaving an indelible mark on others. For that she was honored by the National Bar Association as one of its recipients of the prestigious Top 40 Under 40 attorney’s award. She also was honored as the nation’s Best Advocate.
Coleman had been an advocate for the rights of others long before she became a full-fledged attorney. While in law school, she lobbied with FSU College of Law Public Interest Law Center for a law that provided an opportunity for children who committed adult crimes to have the possibility of parole. Early in her career, she also co-organized a march in Jacksonville for the slain teenager Trayvon Martin.
Coleman also was part of a team of attorneys, including Benjamin Crump and Robert Cox, that successfully represented seven members of the Madison 9 in one of the state’s famous voting fraud cases.
Still, winning the Advocate Award caught her by surprise.
“I was very shocked,” she said. “It was very surreal for me that I would be named the nation’s best advocate for this year. It means so much because I was among so many accomplished attorneys.”
But there were days when Coleman wondered if she’d even attain her childhood dream of becoming an attorney. She’s prepared herself well, earning a law degree from FSU after attending FAMU. Later she went to Georgetown to earn a degree in taxation, one of her fields of practice.
Overcoming one fault was a challenge, though.
Veteran attorney Chuck Hobbs was right at her side when she had to explain how she wrote checks with no funds in her account. He said he didn’t hesitate to explain Coleman’s plight to the Bar.
Her character was otherwise impeccable, he said.
“I saw a young woman that impressed me in terms of being able to be a single mother, having to work and do all those things and go to school at the same time,” Hobbs said. “I committed to help her in any way I could to navigate through the process of becoming a Florida lawyer. That can be a tough process sometimes.”
Hobbs recalled making such a succinct case for Coleman that some members of the panel that heard her case were emotionally choked up over her circumstances.
What Coleman endured on her way to gaining the right to practice law is proof that she deserved the National Bar Association honors that she recently received, Hobbs said, adding that her stick-to-it attitude should resonate with the young people she spoke to.
“Most people would have quit,” he said. “Her fortitude is strong and that’s why she has done so well in her career. I think those lessons she learned in becoming a lawyer, she applied that same sense of fortitude in her day to day business practices.”
Coleman currently works with the firm Viera Williams, P.A., with the primary responsibility of assisting business owners and individuals with tax-related cases.
Coleman was born in Germany, where her father was stationed while serving in the Army. The family eventually settled in Tallahassee in 1992. She attended Bellevue Middle School, then Rickards High School where she participated in the International Bachelorette program.
By her junior year at Rickards, Coleman was already enrolled in college classes at TCC and FAMU. She became a single parent soon after graduating from high school but that didn’t deter her, although she admitted there were times that she second-guessed whether she’d live her dream of becoming an attorney.
Support from her family helped her through, though, especially after she had a second child. But none of her struggles slowed her drive to commit to doing volunteer work. She’s still involved in a long list of civic organizations.
“Service to my community is my passion, so I make the time,” she said. “It is overwhelming sometimes (because) I find myself short on time a lot; I’m leaving a meeting to head to another. But God makes a way for me to do it all.”