E. Jewelle Johnson | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Pride of Accomplishment
By Robert Green
Jewelle Johnson was the youngest of four children raised by and the only girl born to Lizzie L. Johnson, a divorced laborer and autoworker. When Jewelle was a young girl, her mother instilled in her that neither her gender nor her race should be impediments to what she wanted to achieve in life and that she should always strive to be the best. In a lifetime of accomplishments, she has certainly done everything possible to make her mother proud.
E. Jewelle Johnson was born and grew up in Youngstown, Ohio. In her early years she was interested in writing poetry and short stories, a very insular occupation. “I was very shy,” says Jewelle. “My mother assumed that I would become an author. However, when I decided in the sixth grade that I wanted to be an attorney, my mother encouraged me to become involved in team activities.” As a result, Jewelle, who had always been an honors student, began playing basketball, acting and singing in school plays, being active in student and local government, her school’s speech team, choir, and a plethora of other activities. At the time she graduated from Cardinal Mooney High School as a National Merit Scholar with several scholarship offers from which to choose, Jewelle was voted “Most Likely to Succeed” by her senior class and was listed in “Who’s Who Among High School Students.”
Electing to spend her college years in Miami University’s Western College Program, Jewelle majored in Interdisciplinary Studies with a focus in Journalism and Pre-Law, which Jewelle believed would prepare her for law school. Jewelle also had a second major in Black World Studies. “College was very enlightening for me,” reflects Jewelle. “I had grown up very protected in a racially diverse atmosphere. I quickly learned that the world was not fair and that many still struggled with issues of oppression and marginalism. She became very interested in social action, including race relations and the intersectionality of race and gender. What was the sociology behind prejudice, she wondered and why is self-segregation so controversial? This led her to organize a forum on campus to discuss the issue. “The main thing I learned in college was how to think for myself,” she says and her course work helped. “The final exam on our study of Utopias was to create our own Utopia and justify why it would work,” she says, “it all had to come from me.” Jewelle, a member of the Miami Honors Program, worked during college for the Dean of Black World Studies and held a number of jobs in the summers, including working as a counselor for Upward Bound and even as a mail carrier one year. She was also involved in a number of community service activities through her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., and served as an officer for both the Black Student Action Society and the local chapter of the National Pan-Hellenic Council.
Jewelle’s study of race and gender issues foreshadowed her future career. Although she was accepted to several law schools-- including Columbia, NYU, Ohio State and Washington University in St. Louis; Jewelle decided it was time to leave the Midwest and moved to North Carolina to attend the Duke University School of Law. Initially thinking she would specialize in Entertainment Law, Jewelle was surprised when she fell in love with Labor and Employment Law. Jewelle’s first introduction to the field was from a first-year Employment Law professor who had recently left private practice and had an infectious excitement about the subject matter. With Jewelle’s background in race and gender issues and advocacy, it seemed a perfect fit, and Jewelle spent the remainder of her law school years taking as many employment and labor-related classes as possible.
After graduating from Duke, Jewelle moved to Atlanta to work at the firm of Mack, Williams, Haygood & McLean—a Labor and Employment boutique representing management. Jewelle’s initially worked on labor issues, primarily the defense of companies from union campaigns. She eventually transitioned to employment litigation defense, where she could also use her knowledge of race and gender issues to not only defend her clients, but to also help them prevent these type of lawsuits by providing training and insight. After two years, the firm merged with McGuire Woods and Jewelle left to work for a plaintiff’s attorney for a brief period of time. “Philosophically, I was a defense attorney, but the experience was invaluable. I was able to manage my own cases as lead counsel, take depositions, and argue motions at a relatively early stage.” Even so, Jewelle was more than ready to return to management defense when Fisher & Phillips LLP, a national Labor and Employment boutique, called.
When the Managing Partner of Fisher & Phillips, interviewed Jewelle, she knew she had found her home. “I loved the people at Fisher & Phillips,” she says. “We had a shared passion for our work, which made collaboration easy, but we also genuinely had fun together.” Jewelle’s work at Fisher & Phillips included representing companies a multitude of industries, including news and media, transportation, manufacturing, and innovation in wage and hour disputes, collective and class actions, and discrimination lawsuits. In January 2007, she became the first woman of color to make Partner at the firm. She was also a member of the Firm’s Recruiting Committee and helped to found its Diversity Committee.
After nearly ten years at Fisher & Phillips, an opportunity to work in-house for a $4.5 billion, global, publicly traded company arose, and Jewelle found it too good to pass up. “I had always enjoyed getting to know the client and helping them achieve their objectives,” she says. So she was happy to accept the offer from Graphic Packaging International, Inc. The leading provider of paperboard packaging solutions and packaging machinery to consumer product companies with 14,000 employees and more than 60 locations globally could certainly use someone with her expertise. In her job as Chief Employment Counsel, Jewelle works with management and human resources personnel to implement legally compliant policies and procedures tailored to the Company’s needs and workforce. She also handles all labor, employment and benefits matters before state and federal agencies, manages outside ligation on an international scale, serves as Secretary of the Retirement Committee, and provides general advice and counsel. Despite having 13 years of legal experience in the field at the time she joined Graphic Packaging, moving in-house was challenging. Jewelle had to learn to navigate international laws, pension and savings plans and the corporate landscape.
Despite her concentration on employment law, Jewelle also works as a commercial attorney for the Company. During the first three years of her tenure, she supported the Company’s Flexible Packaging Divisions and Mills Division, drafting commercial contracts and handling related disputes. Today, Jewelle still supports the Mills Division and serves as corporate secretary of the Flexible Division, while focusing more on the labor, benefits and employment work for the Company. Jewelle remains passionate about her work and serving her clients. “I sleep with my phone and I’m reachable 24/7,” she says, “it’s just what I do.” Jewelle regards work as service and being a lawyer as her calling – not just a job. “Sometimes people say to me, ‘a black female attorney defending companies, isn’t that counter-intuitive,’ but it is not. Most cases are frivolous and do nothing but dilute public and individual sensitivities,” she explains.
“However, mistakes are sometimes made, and when they do, we fix them.”
Despite a heavy workload, Jewelle serves the community in a number of ways. She is President of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys Foundation, Inc., a Coordinating Committee Member of the National Employment Law Council, and a member of the State Bar of Georgia Committee to Promote Inclusion in the Profession and the Atlanta Suburban Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. In 2007, she served as President of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys (GABWA) after having held numerous board positions from 2001 through 2006, including Vice President, Gala Chair, Historian, Membership Chair, and Parliamentarian. Her other leadership activities have included serving as a member of the Georgia Supreme Court’s Commission on Access and Fairness in the Courts, a Director of the Fulton County Chapter of the Metropolitan Atlanta Boys and Girls Clubs, and a Director of the Atlanta Legal Diversity Consortium.
Jewelle has received several honors and awards, including being named as a “Georgia Super Lawyer, Rising Star” by Atlanta and Law & Politics magazines in 2005, 2006 and 2009. Jewelle was selected as one of “Atlanta’s Top 100 Black Women of Influence” by the Atlanta Business League in 2007 and 2009, and was listed in the 2007 “Who’s Who in Law” section of the Atlanta Business Chronicle Power Book. In 2006, Jewelle was recognized by Atlanta Woman as one of “Atlanta’s 25 Power Women to Watch” and she was featured in The Fulton County Daily Report’s annual “On the Rise” issue that same year. Early this year, she was named to the Georgia State Personnel Board and State Employee Benefit Plan Council by Governor Nathan Deal.
Jewelle’s work as service attitude derives from gratitude. “I’ve been given a lot,” she says, “and my mother taught me that, to whom much is given, much is required. My mother passed away a few years ago, but my purpose in life has always been to make my mother proud. I am so humbled and grateful that she told me many times that I did just that.”
Jewelle lives in Mableton, Georgia and thinks of her mother every day.