Trial Briefs

Johnson To NCAJ Members: ‘Be an Effective For NCAJ’

September 06, 2022

In her speech at NCAJ at Annual Meeting this summer, President Valerie Johnson urged NCAJ members to work to expand the dreams of our founders. Her remarks are reprinted here and in the summer edition of Trial Briefs, available online and in member mailboxes.    

Together we are the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. Some of you are lawyers, some of you are paralegals or law students. Some are not members but support our mission in other ways, as sponsors, exhibitors, judges or friends and family. We came together here and now with a purpose.  

We love this gathering so much that we call it Convention. We do not call it the convention. Instead, we ask each other, “Are you going to Convention?”  To us, Convention is a reunion, a chance to see old friends, and, this year, to have fewer speeches and more parties. But most of all, Convention exists so that we can be more effective, grow and share the tools for success in our work. And so that we can join with other like-minded people so that we may do great things as an organization.  

To be effective for NCAJ is to be successful, convincing and persuasive. In other words, to get things done.  

This Friday we had an event planned at Convention. Hundreds of people were expected at the Charlotte Knights baseball game. People were excited but worried about the extreme heat. Then it got windy, the sky darkened, and lightning struck. Some saw on the website that the event was canceled. The clock was ticking. What the NCAJ team had worked on, what they knew was good and ready to go, could have failed. What could be done to salvage that situation and make it a success?  Could it be even more than we planned? 

We should reflect on past successes to inform our future.  

The first Black woman to be elected as your president, I am a Tar Heel in both senses of the word: a native North Carolinian as well as a double UNC-Chapel Hill graduate. I was born in Henderson and I live in Durham, where we have an office, as well as one in Charlotte. But my roots in North Carolina go much deeper in fact than the places I was born or where I practice law.  

Both of my parents were the grandchildren of enslaved people who worked the soil in North Carolina. Many of the Alstons, my father’s side, came from one of the largest plantations in the state, which took up most of Chatham County, and from other Alston plantations in the Piedmont. My grandfather, Herman Alston, was a sharecropper in Wilson County. He farmed and gave the landowner the crop in exchange for a part of it. The system of sharecropping was a successor to chattel slavery.  Being a sharecropper meant that you had to move when you owed the farmer too much money — because you could never pay off your debts.   

In Burgaw, in Pender County, my mother’s grandfather was the son of his slave owner and an enslaved woman. After slavery ended, William Walker lived on the other side of town from his brothers and sisters because they were not white, as his siblings were. Though my great grandparents owned some land, they did not have much and there was not much precedent for future success. But my ancestors had a vision for their children and their grandchildren. They yearned for their hopes and dreams to be successful. 

Imagine the first meetings of the founders of our organization.  

They – Eugene Phillips, Jim Clontz, Charlie Blanchard, Allen Bailey and William Thorp – had the idea for an organization that would support the members of small firms and solo practitioners as they fought for people’s rights in North Carolina. It was revolutionary. We knew it as the N.C. Association of Trial Lawyers. The great Ebbie Bailey, as much a founder as her husband, Allen Bailey, was there helping to create the organization. She came to the first meeting of the founders and waited in the car until midnight. At the first convention – one block from the site of our 2022 Charlotte convention, Ebbie Bailey took down everyone’s names as they showed up, on a yellow pad. At one time she had to go home and get a blanket because she was cold, and then she came back and got to work again. There is no better example than Ebbie Bailey of how you do not have to be a lawyer to further justice.   

The founders fought against unfairness in the courtroom and in the legislature. The organization would expand to include criminal defense attorneys in the 1970s, and then go on to change its name to the North Carolina Advocates for Justice. Along the way we got our first woman president, Mary Ann Talley, and our first Black president, Charles Becton. Both of these former presidents went on to become distinguished judges.  

When they started they did not have much to work with, but they had a vision.  

Sixty years later we have a proactive public policy agenda, which includes ending contributory negligence, supporting the workers’ compensation stakeholders’ agreement, eliminating billed v. paid and raising the minimum auto liability limits. We also partner with other organizations and support advocacy on other crucial issues. 

We have been successful in our plans to be more deliberate in our use of our resources, creating an advocacy funnel for committees, sections and divisions to use to decide when we will weigh in on issues, and an advocacy committee for advice and review.  

Think of our vision to make the organization sound and financially secure and to create a new and modern governance model. And now think of our new goals: to increase fundraising to support our work and to increase our membership to retain and to grow our numbers. To not just play defense, but to actively push for change in the political arena to further our goals.  

Our founders’ vision came from a deep desire to make change, and to be successful and well founded. Our founders wanted to help people and to serve them. We still share that vision, and the belief that we will be effective in meeting our goals. 

When you are determined to realize your vision, you have to react and regroup as necessary. 

As it started to sprinkle before the big event, the baseball game, and as the doubts intensified among the attendees, the NCAJ team launched into action. They huddled, called the venue, confirmed that the gathering could take place and let everyone know. They set out ahead. Others gathered in the lobby, directing traffic, suggesting Ubers. They regrouped. They rolled with the punches.  

In rural North Carolina, my parents likewise took action. And so did their community. They were smart but faced challenges. There was no high school for my father to attend, so the community built one. It took four years, and then four years for him to finish it. It took more time for the family to put together $100 to get my father to college. As the eldest son, he was the one who stayed behind during WWII on the farm, while his brothers went off to war.   

 Despite the odds my father, Roosevelt Alston, became a teacher, and then a school administrator. He was a minister in Henderson for 64 years. My mother, unable to become a doctor as she dreamed, regrouped and taught chemistry and biology in high school. First, in segregated schools, and after integration, at Vance County High School.  

Imagine the classroom my mother faced – a few pieces of glassware, a few chemicals, outdated text books, little hope for funding. See the old periodic table on the wall and the old desks and tables. And students who came from the poorest county, and who had very little. My mother fought to help them learn.  

As we always have, we face well-funded adversaries

We face the state of North Carolina across the courtroom and behemoth insurance companies. We face those who belittle our causes and who tarnish the very idea of justice. We challenge judicial decisions that are misguided and unfounded. We fight just as the founders of our organization did.  

In truth there are not enough of us to go around. Who among us has been in a courtroom and seen people who needed a lawyer and didn’t have one? Who has answered the phone, heard a plea for help and in fact stepped up to help, knowing that your work may go unpaid and unacknowledged, in order to right a wrong?   

I have seen some of you do it. In employment cases, in expunction cases, in cases with bad injuries and some bad facts, cases where your heart was broken so badly by the injustice that your head did not catch up before you stepped into the arena to help.  

You step up to do what is right and to be effective. The NCAJ fight with BCBS that you have followed is one example. It is a classic case of David v. Goliath, and NCAJ is there, to intervene, and take action in an unprecedented manner. We recognized Doug Maynard for his unflinching commitment to the cause. This fight is not something we expected to do. It is not something we wanted to do. But to be effective, you have to react and regroup. Roll with the punches and come out fighting.  

Though everyone likes a smooth victory, we appreciate and remember the challenges more than the easy wins. The fact that after the storm at the baseball game, the sun came out. It was 72 degrees, not 98, as we had expected for the game. The sunset was spectacular. Everyone except for the Charlotte Knights had an incredible time. The plan ended up being effective, and much more than we anticipated. 

As we move forward with the search for a new executive director, we reflect on the tenure of Kim Crouch, and thank her for all she did to lead us through the pandemic, the sale of the building, and to make sure that we were positioned for the future. Though her departure was unexpected, we are excited to move forward with Shannon Leskin as interim executive director. Shannon has been wonderful, the team has been fantastic, and it has led to this wonderful time in Charlotte. The NCAJ team is personifying effectiveness.  

And now we celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, gathered in the light of those first meetings. Amazing how that vision developed into our mission to protect people, prevent injustice, and promote fairness and still shines 60 years later.  

When we first met, my NCAJ NEXT mentee, Gagan Gupta, told me that he wanted an associational home in NCAJ. That phrase was genius. It took me back to an old advertising jingle, “I like calling North Carolina home.”  And “I like calling NCAJ home” works too. The founders built this home for us.  

When you choose a home, you work to make it better. You make sure that your home is appealing. You need its structure to be sound and able to weather the inevitable storms. My vision for NCAJ is that all of us will work to make it your home. Because your NCAJ fights to effect change, for you and for other members.  

We need you for our next 60 years of effectiveness.  

We must finish what we started, continue the progress under our strategic plan and our advocacy strategic plan, and reach new goals in fundraising, in membership and in influence. We need you to play defense and also to actively push for change in the political arena to help our members and their clients. 

Join the NCAJ fight by serving on committees to figure out solutions. Join the fight by teaching at CLEs because our education offerings are tremendous. Volunteer to serve on a moot court because your colleagues need your input, and there is no better way to learn than by researching and teaching. Fight for your associational home by applying to be an NCAJ NEXT member or mentor. Give money to the NCAJ PAC to support our mission and become a trustee and have a seat on the table. Serve on the Diversity and Inclusion committee because our diversity makes us stronger and better able to serve our clients. Serve on the executive committee of a section. Attend and support the Women’s Caucus and section meetings.  

We heard the great work of the award winners. From setting the innocent free after decades to fighting for the injured to providing leadership in the legislature, there are so many ways to call NCAJ home. 

Last, to be more effective you must appreciate your allies

It is only through gratitude that you recognize the gifts that you have been given.  

I thank the founders who started this organization six decades ago. Remember we all stand on the shoulders of those giants, and I thank God for the opportunity to serve this great organization.  

I am grateful for my husband, Sam, who is the absolute best and more than I deserve. My children are the best and have given me grace when I am working: my favorite daughter, Alex, a third-year medical student at UCLA, and my favorite son, Sam III, who is going to continue the family tradition and attend UNC-CH in the fall.  

I am filled with gratitude for my wonderful firm: Ann Groninger, so amazing as a friend and partner, Jennifer Segnere, Helen Baddour and Drew Culler. They are effective advocates and amazing people. Also in attendance at their first paralegal conference are my brilliant paralegals Emily Stringfellow and Jenna Gatyas.  

The NCAJ team is so awesome, and I thank you for all you do, and have done to make such a tremendous conference, and for all the support you have given me.  

The Women’s Caucus members, who encourage me and each other are absolutely wonderful. To show their support, they designed and commissioned a lovely pin depicting Lady Justice.  

President John McCabe, is a persistent visionary and a smart and capable leader who has served NCAJ tirelessly. He is the best leader, and time and time again, he has shown his impeccable judgment.  

Past President David Henson’s workmanship during the COVID storm pushed us through. He was saluted last night at the dinner. He is a logical lawyer and a leader who doesn’t give up.  

 Peggy Abrams has agreed to be my past president on the executive committee and to serve NCAJ yet again to help me. To the other past presidents, who have unfailingly agreed to do whatever they can to help me and the organization, I thank you and appreciate your wisdom.  

I thank Patterson Harkavy, my home for 17 years, and especially Hank and Jane Patterson, who have been role models and mentors. I recall my first week on the job when Hank gave a client the money he had won from the case — $87. I realized then that it wasn’t $87, it was groceries and dignity in winning the fight, that Hank Patterson gave that man that day.  

Thanks to the NCAJ Executive Committee whose members have just been elected. Thank you for choosing your associational home, and for choosing to lead.  

And to my mother, Valeria Alston. To tell you how her story has unfolded is incredible. She transformed that classroom and started a curriculum called chemistry on a shoestring budget. A repeat honoree for teacher of the year, she won a presidential award from the White House and she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Shaw University for her excellence in teaching. Her children did well too: the first Black neuropathologist, a public school principal and me. She is ill, and I ask you for your thoughts and prayers.  

We are here the day before Juneteenth, and the significance is not lost on me. I hope you will pause and reflect on Juneteenth, its promise, on this 60 years and the progress that has been made.  

In the words of UNC Professor and MacArthur Fellow Tressie McMillian Cottom, “We are living our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”  I stand before you as a symbol of dreams, visions and the fact that they do come true.  

NCAJ is an effective organization. NCAJ can and will work to be more effective and to expand the dreams of our founders by protecting people, preventing injustice, and promoting fairness.  

To be effective is to be successful. But there is another meaning of the word effective. There is the noun, an effective. An effective is a well-prepared and ready soldier.  

Who is ready to be an effective and take action for NCAJ? 

Thank you all for the support you have given me and for joining this fight.