All-women law firm hopes to change communities by empowering clients

On the first day of biology lab at Spelman College, Shannon Worthy, then a freshman pre-med major, had an epiphany. She should have been dissecting the cat stretched out on her lab table, but when she saw it, she slumped against the wall and passed out. Worthy promptly changed her major to English.

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Across the country, Nicole Stanton was also figuring out what she wanted to do. She had spent time working for her dad, an attorney, but she found filing work to be too dull and routine. He fired her. By the time she arrived at the University of Michigan, she too had decided to major in English.

Yet, they both would still find their way to law. Worthy went on to earn a law degree at North Carolina Central. Stanton earned a law degree from Michigan State. Their paths first crossed five years ago, when they met at the Richard B. Russell Federal Building in downtown Atlanta and immediately connected. Today they are partners in what is something of a rarity — an all-black, all-women law firm in the heart of Old Fourth Ward.

“Everyone that I hired was the most qualified, and they just happened to be black women,” said Worthy, who knew Stanton would make a solid partner. “I needed to have someone there who had my back, and someone with as equal an interest as me. I was not doing this by myself,” she said.

Their law firm—Stanton and Worthy, LLC—specializes in bankruptcy cases and serves a clientele that is 90 percent African-American and about 60 percent female. Their mission is not just to thrive as a business but to help foster change in communities that are too often preyed upon by creditors and not well-versed in dealing with the fallout. They make it a point to get to know their clients and help them avoid making the same mistakes. “We are looking at the big picture. We don’t want to see you again,” Stanton said.

There are almost 50,000 attorneys in Georgia, according to data from the Georgia Bar Association. Women represent more than one-third of all attorneys in the state (39 percent) compared to 61 percent who are men. Though the state doesn’t track data on race, a 2017 survey from the American Bar Association indicates that only about five percent of lawyers in the country are African-American.

Georgia, however, offers strong support to black women attorneys with an entrepreneurial spirit. “The infrastructure of Atlanta just supports it more. If you were going to be an entrepreneur, wouldn’t you choose a city where you thought your business would be supported and you had people around you who are like you and who will support you?” said Rita M. Treadwell, president of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, an organization founded in 1981 with the mission of focusing on issues that impact women and children, taking a stance on political issues and increasing black female representation in the judiciary and public offices.

While nationwide the number of black attorneys and women attorneys appears to be small, Treadwell is sure those numbers skew higher not just in Atlanta but statewide. Among the young black women coming out of law school, the ranks of black women-owned firms are likely to grow, she said. “These young sisters are making sure they are polished. They also want work-life balance, and they want to do something they are passionate about,” Treadwell said.

A year before Ponce City Market brought massive revitalization to Ponce de Leon Avenue, Worthy and Stanton hung their red shingle with a laurel wreath logo on a nondescript tan brick building just down the street.

Worthy had previously been working for the bankruptcy division of the Cochran Firm, the law firm founded by the late Johnnie Cochran which operates a network of offices across the country. The managing partner was in another state, and Worthy mostly handled operations on her own. But he was an amazing mentor, and Worthy had blossomed under his tutelage. “He was a father-figure and a fairy godmother,” said Worthy. “He allowed me to just be.”

When he decided to exit the Cochran Firm, he asked if Worthy she wanted to take over the business. Worthy asked Stanton, then her associate, to join her as partner in founding their own firm while also managing cases filed under the Cochran Firm. Stanton agreed, but before they could complete the transition, Worthy—who had been pregnant with her first child—suffered a miscarriage and was out of the office for two months.

“I wouldn’t have been able to counsel people. I felt like I could have really messed some stuff up,” Worthy said. Looking back, it gave Stanton time to fully step into the role of partner. “She stepped up, and I’m glad she got a chance to taste that before we actually took over,” Worthy said.

Stanton was in transition herself. Her future fiance was residing in another state, and she had time to devote long hours to work which turned out to be a good thing. When clients come to Stanton and Worthy, they are often at their lowest point.

“People bring in their baggage, and they really leave it all out on the table,” Worthy said. “We are literally getting people when they are broken, and we sit there and try to put the pieces back together.”

They’ve had clients who haven’t slept in weeks, who threaten suicide, who are living in chaos and who are afraid to open the pile of bills they push across the table in hopes their attorneys will open it for them. (They will not.)

When Yatika Hunt first met Stanton, she sensed something was different. Hunt, a disabled veteran who had been injured in Iraq, was filing for bankruptcy for the second time. This time, Stanton was assigned as her attorney. “The other time, I felt like a case, a piece of paper. Nicole wanted to know about me, and what was going on in my life,” Hunt said.

The mother of three was nearly $100,000 in debt after having served in the armed forces for five and a half years. She also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. There were days, she said, when she felt like she just couldn’t do it. “(Nicole) said we are going to get you to the other side. She was like my little cheerleader,” Hunt said. Stanton would check in with her by phone or email to offer encouragement. She asked about Hunt’s children, and she always prepped Hunt for any courtroom appearances by telling her the personalities of everyone who would be there.

Initially, Hunt didn’t know that Stanton and her law partner, like Hunt, were women of color. She was pleased when she discovered it, but she knew their caring came from something deeper. “I know it is not a bias, and they treat all of their customers like that regardless of race or gender. They have nurturing spirits,” Hunt said.

Hunt is now about two-thirds of the way through paying her debt. “I feel like I won’t be in this situation again because of her,” she said of Stanton.

On a recent afternoon, Worthy has just finished meeting with a new client. She is speaking to Stanton about other concerns, but Stanton can tell she is distracted. “You’re thinking about that client,” Stanton said. Worthy smiles and nods.

The woman had started crying in the consultation. She was on the hook for a loan with an interest rate of more than 200 percent, and she had been out of work for several months. Her case wasn’t uncommon.

“It’s infuriating,” Stanton said.

“It’s the creditors,” Worthy said. “At what point do we stick it to them and say you can’t do this to our people?”

In some ways, for them, it is personal.

“I live in this community, so my clients will roll up on me in the grocery store or at church,” Worthy said. “I have to do right by them, but I also have integrity. I feel like I really have to educate you.”

Worthy and Stanton both know how hard it can be to make changes in life. Worthy lived with her grandparents and her mom who was 16 when Worthy was born. They didn’t talk about money. She didn’t learn about investments or finances until she was away from home, and she recognized the power of that kind of knowledge.

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“If you can change the way people think about money, you can really change a community. You have families that move through generational wealth, but people don’t talk about the other side when you are passing on generational poverty,” Worthy said.

Stanton said their goal is to help their clients feel better about money and that means having a lot of hard conversations that reveal long-buried secrets, bad habits and other missteps. It is the kind of information that helps the attorneys develop personal solutions that can make a real difference.

“That is what makes me come back every day. I may not be able to guarantee that I can save their home, but I can guarantee they will get some sleep tonight,” Worthy said.

As much as they hope to serve the community, they also hope to bring a shift in the lives of working women by creating a supportive and compassionate work environment where everyone can thrive.

When she began hiring staff, Worthy says she quickly realized some myths about women and men in the workplace were often true. She recalled one man with no experience who came in and asked for a salary of $80,000. “Women will ask for $5 and do everything. Women don’t advocate for themselves,” she said.

One employee who suffered from painful endometriosis was afraid to ask for time off. Another employee sat on a broken chair for weeks because she didn’t want to be a burden. “Men are not afraid to ask for what they want,” Stanton said. “Sometimes we have to tell our staff to speak up.”

Part of the journey as an all-female law firm has been reminding women—both internally and externally—to know their worth, and for Stanton and Worthy that goes beyond simple catchphrases like “black girl magic.”

“I am black girl magic, but this stuff takes work,” said Worthy who acknowledges being unprepared for the changes in her own work-life balance after her son Noah was born in December. “It is trendy now to support women,” she said, “but if you really empower women, you can move the world.”