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Janet Ward Black: Turtle on a Fence Post

Janet Ward Black: Turtle on a Fence Post






“A turtle on a fence post” is how Greensboro personal injury attorney Janet Ward Black describes herself. “When you see a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself. I have had the most incredible opportunities in my life that I do not deserve,” said Black, a former Miss North Carolina and a long-time leader in the legal profession. (Point of order: She goes by “Janet Ward,” not “Janet”).

The fact of the matter is, Black was never supposed to be up on that fence post in the first place. She thought she would be “Dr. Black” and, right now, you’d be at her office with some ache or pain.  She received a chemistry scholarship to attend Davidson College. But fate intervened in the form of a C+ on her first organic chemistry test during her freshman year at Davidson. “Organic chemistry turns a lot of want-to-be doctors into lawyers,” said Black.

During her junior year at Davidson, she was invited to participate in a Miss North Carolina preliminary pageant and won Miss North Carolina five months later.  “That year of service [as Miss NC] allowed me to attend countless festivals, parades, mall openings, and community celebrations all across NC. I got to see so much of the state and meet North Carolinians in a way that most people don’t. Every day made me love living in North Carolina even more.”

After her year of service, Black handed off her tiara and finished her degree cum laude in economics at Davidson. In lieu of becoming a doctor, she became a lawyer, earning her Juris Doctor at Duke University School of Law.

Black as Miss North Carolina in 1980

Every day made me love living in North Carolina even more.”

An Entrepreneur

Black is the principal owner of Ward Black Law in Greensboro, one of NC’s largest woman-owned law firms. Her firm handles a wide variety of personal injury matters, including motor vehicle accidents, product liability, workers’ compensation, and environmental disease claims such as mesothelioma. The firm has five attorneys and 23 staff members.

But it was never Black’s intention to own a law firm or be an entrepreneur, for that matter. She stamped her ticket as an assistant DA for Cabarrus and Rowan Counties and as a personal injury attorney before joining Greensboro attorney Art Donaldson to form what became Donaldson & Black.

When Donaldson moved to Virginia, it left Black to learn how to make payroll, repair the copier, and run the business on her own.

“We run our business now on the EOS Strategic Planning Model. EOS says that every business needs a visionary and an integrator,” said Black. “I am the visionary. I’m the one who comes up with 100 ideas in a week and drives everybody nuts. But you also need an integrator, like my Executive Director Ronda Holloway, an engineer by education and training, who can put processes in place to turn vision into reality.”

“We want people of integrity here at our firm,” she continued. “We will back people up here to make the right decision, even if it is seemingly the wrong decision financially for the firm. We want to be able to sleep well at night. Character matters.”

“The joy that comes with being an entrepreneur is a remarkable thing,” Black added. “The freedom that it gives you is delicious. By the same token, it is a great obligation when you realize that the people who work for you depend on you to keep their families fed and clothed and housed.”

The wall outside the firm’s main conference room is completely covered with family photos of the firm’s employees. Half the staff has worked at the firm for more than 15 years. “The photographs are a constant reminder of our impact on our staff and their families.”

“Anytime we make a decision that affects a staff person, it affects that whole family. A number of people have worked here for 30 years. I have watched their children grow up. We have supported those kids. It brings me tremendous joy to know that those kids are comfortable enough here to go look in the refrigerator and get themselves a soda just like they might at their own home.”

Black demonstrates how to prepare for trial. (Actually, it’s a photo from 2023 NCAJ Convention Party).

Dime on the Dollar

Starting in 2013, a dime of every dollar that comes in the firm’s door is donated to nonprofits. That’s gross revenue, not net.

 “Most lawyers would say, ‘Have you lost your mind? Why would you give away $.10 on every dollar?’” said Black. “But if you talk to the staff here, many of them will tell you that, even though we help people for a living, the most important work we do is what we’re doing with that dime on the dollar.”

The firm’s “tithe team” selects nonprofits assisting “the hungry, thirsty, jailed, strangers (meaning people not from around here), sick, naked, widows, orphans and people serving in nonprofit leadership,” explained Black. Roughly half of the firm’s giving goes to organizations in NC. International donations are often used to build orphanages, churches, and hope centers in impoverished or war-torn countries.

The nonprofits are asked to keep the firm’s donations anonymous. “We want God to get the glory, not us.”

Black receives the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, NC’s highest civilian honor in 2016.

Camp Lejeune

Between 1953 and 1987, chemicals were found in the drinking water of the Camp Lejeune U.S. Marine Corps base in Jacksonville, NC, including TCE, PCE, vinyl chloride, and benzene, leading to various kinds of cancer, neurological conditions like Parkinson’s, and congenital heart defects.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act, enacted by Congress in 2022, created a two-year window for the Marines, their families, and civilians who worked on the base and developed illnesses to file claims against the U.S. government. That filing window ends August 10, 2024.

“Time is short,” said Black.

Black recently was named to the plaintiffs’ steering committee for the Lejeune litigation. “We have a very long history of representing plaintiffs in NC federal courts for toxic exposures. We have represented a lot of clients who were exposed and developed cancers or other conditions in the military. We were getting many phone calls due to those connections when the act passed. The firm represents several hundred plaintiffs. We are honored to serve those who have served our country,” said Black.

The firm has been a very visible supporter of the Marines’ Toys for Tots program. From its high-traffic office location in Greensboro, Ward Black Law has served as the kickoff location for the Triad’s Toys for Tots campaign, on the first Friday in December, for the last 16 years. 

“We’ve had a special relationship with the Marines because of Toys for Tots. I had no idea we would be called upon to use our legal expertise now to help them in this important way,” said Black.

Getting People on Board

NCBA’s Immediate Past President Clark Smith passes the gavel to NCBA President Janet Ward Black in 2007.

Black has had and still has leadership positions with dozens of professional, civic, church and women’s organizations. She has served as president of both the NC Trial Lawyers (now NC Advocates for Justice) and the NC Bar Association. She was only the second lawyer to serve as president of both organizations. She was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine in 2016, NC’s highest civilian award for service to the state.

On volunteer boards, there are often as many opinions as there are board members. Black has found a leadership style that tries to keep the herd moving in the same direction.

“I wasn’t seeking the jobs of being president of the NCBA and NCAJ. Why was I chosen? I’m not sure, but I have always tried to do what I said I would do and do it on time. I have tried to apply some level of creativity and hopefully wisdom to solve problems or achieve goals,” said Black.

“Organizations look for people with leadership skills, meaning can you come up with a plan that somebody’s willing and excited to follow. You can have great ideas all day long, but if nobody’s willing to participate or follow along with your great ideas, that doesn’t mean you’re a leader.” 

“I’m a reasonably good storyteller, and I think almost every great leader has to be, to some extent, a storyteller. What often pulls people in is the story. Then I think a leader has to be able to formulate a plan and then find the right people to execute the plan.”

Black said one of her best leadership skills is connecting people. She used an example of packing food for a food drive.

“I probably can’t pack as many boxes as fast as someone else. Packing may not be my highest and best use for that organization. But perhaps brainstorming or connecting people may be my best use. Oh, let me introduce you to someone…or oh, by the way, did you know that this other organization has already fixed this problem? Let me introduce you folks to each other. Let me bring you into my office and put you in a room together or on Zoom and let you connect up,” she explained.

4ALL was a BHAG

Black answers a 4ALL call at a phone bank.

“I think the world needs visionaries.  I’ve always been a big-picture person,” said Black.

One of those visions, what she deemed a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), was launching 4ALL Day when she was president of the NCBA in 2008.  One day a year, lawyers across the state volunteer at phone banks to offer free legal information to anyone who calls.

“I hoped to mobilize the biggest volunteer event in Bar Association history. We set a goal to have 1,000 lawyers volunteer that day. We had 1,063 attorneys volunteer that day.” 

The NCBA has continued the yearly 4ALL Day since it started. In the 16 years since, 4ALL has answered almost 130,000 calls from North Carolinians, with participation from over 7,000 lawyers.

Another BHAG during her year as president of the NCBA was to raise money to help defray educational debt of lawyers at Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC). To date, over $3 million has been raised and is administered by the NC Bar Foundation.

But the work of providing legal services to those in need in NC is far from over, said Black. The 130,000 people served on 4ALL Days are “a drop in the bucket in a state where one-third of the population can’t afford critical legal services. We have got to figure out ways to fix that.”

One of those ways is the creation of LANC’s Innovation Lab, launched last year, which is the first in the country. Black, who now serves as vice-chair of LANC, is hopeful.  “I guess I am a turtle on another fence post. With AI, we are at an exciting inflection point to design and implement tools to serve many North Carolinians who now go unserved. But we need some other turtles to come alongside and help make ‘justice for all’ more of a reality for North Carolinians in need.”

 

Ben Redding and Black in front of artist’s rendering of future home of the LANC Innovation LAB during 2023 reception to launch the LAB.

At a Glance

Ward Black Law
208 West Wendover Ave.
Greensboro, NC 27401
336-333-2244
Wardblacklaw.com

Practice Areas

Education

Leadership

Professional Honors

The post Janet Ward Black: Turtle on a Fence Post appeared first on Attorney at Law Magazine.

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