Attorney Carena Brantley Lemons: “Access to justice should not be based on affordability”
…I would start with access to justice. Many indigent defense programs are underfunded. Everyone is entitled to quality representation. It should not be based on affordability. Attorneys have to balance earning enough money to cover their overhead and compensating their staff to provide quality representation. Low bono representation has to be adequate to meet these expenses. Our state has consistently reduced the compensation for indigent representation over the last several years despite inflation. When the funding goes down, the quality of representation is compromised.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Attorney Carena Brantley Lemons. She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of South Carolina, where she majored in Political Science with a minor in Psychology in 1998. Attorney Lemons received her Juris Doctorate from North Carolina Central University School of Law in 2001. She has been practicing law for 13 years in Durham, North Carolina. She has been a general practitioner for most of her career but now focuses her practice in the areas of consumer and small business bankruptcy, consumer debt negotiation and litigation, driver’s restoration and entertainment law. She is also the host and creator of her own television talk show, entitled “It’s Your Life” as well as an actress.
She has a background in the legal areas of: bankruptcy, consumer debt litigation, entertainment, employment, driver’s restoration, criminal, traffic, small business, non-profit, family and abuse, neglect and dependency law.She is an active member in numerous legal and professional organizations. Attorney Lemons has received an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau and was recently awarded the Lead Counsel Rating in the Legal Discipline of Bankruptcy Law — Personal. When Attorney Lemons is not practicing law, she enjoys spending time with her family and ministering at her church through song.
Thank you for joining us! What is the backstory that brought you to this particular career path in Law?
I went to law school to practice entertainment law but started out my career as a litigator. Ironically, litigation is the one thing that I didn’t want to do in the legal practice. I began my practice right out of law school, taking court-appointed cases and practicing family law. This was a civil and criminal litigation practice. I eventually discovered bankruptcy law which is a non-adversarial practice that occasionally got me into the courtroom but was mostly transactional. I was able to utilize my knowledge base of the various practice areas that I had acquired over the years as a litigator.
Eventually, I phased out of court-appointed work and family law practice and transitioned into employment discrimination, bankruptcy and entertainment law. I was able to focus on the types of representation and clients that gave me fulfillment in my legal career. This allowed me to realize my purpose in an entertainment career of my own. I started with being the creator and host of a television talk show that educated people about the law and then ventured into acting. Acting was a great fit for me and became my new driver.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?
I have had many interesting and comical experiences practicing law. One of the stories that I can most vividly remember is when I represented a court-appointed client in a domestic violence court. We had negotiated a plea with the assistant district attorney but had to present it to the judge for sentencing and approval. The judge didn’t want to honor the plea agreement and imposed additional conditions on his probationary sentence. After we went before the judge, I went in the hallway behind the courtroom that was permitted for only judges, lawyers, law enforcement and court staff. The judge came up to me and said “You’re a damn good lawyer. Your client was the devil and you made him look like a saint.” I thought in my mind, “Was that a compliment, really?”
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Right now, I am working on a case where a local church has been the victim of fraud by the builders and lenders in the project. We are hoping to get justice for this church whose members have sacrificed much of their funds for a building that was never constructed.
Also, I am currently one of the many pro bono attorneys who will be representing protestors in North Carolina.
What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?
Speaking of protestors, I was a part of a large group of attorneys from across the state who represented protestors pro bono in 2013–2014 during the Moral Monday Protests. This highly diverse group of protestors were contesting the passage of laws that negatively affected: the environment, social programs, tax changes, abortion, public education and several other moral issues.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
I am inspired most by President Barak Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. Together, they overcame many challenges and broke down barriers. President Obama was the first African-American and bi-racial president of the United States. He was instrumental in getting the Affordable Health Care Act signed into law to provide access to healthcare for all Americans. First Lady Obama created initiatives to combat the childhood obesity epidemic with comprehensive recommendations for school meals, nutrition education, access to healthy food and increasing physical activity.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?
My advice would be to shadow lawyers in various aspects of the legal profession. Internships are not always available to non-law students.
What’s most important is that they expose themselves to a variety of opportunities in law. I would also encourage them to participate in as many moot court programs, teen court programs and other programs that give young people exposure to the court system.
If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?
I would start with access to justice. Many indigent defense programs are underfunded. Everyone is entitled to quality representation. It should not be based on affordability. Attorneys have to balance earning enough money to cover their overhead and compensating their staff to provide quality representation. Low bono representation has to be adequate to meet these expenses. Our state has consistently reduced the compensation for indigent representation over the last several years despite inflation. When the funding goes down, the quality of representation is compromised.
- Adequate funding for the representation of indigent persons
- Adequate funding of Legal Aid programs
- Grants, financial assistance for attorneys who represent indigent persons or primarily perform pro bono or low bono work.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Yes. I have used my skills and position to help those who are unable to help themselves. I have also used them to advocate for the most vulnerable members of the population.
I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?
My driver in the legal profession is providing jobs for my staff and helping my clients.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.
- I wish that someone had told me when I first started that being a lawyer is not always lucrative.
- I wish that someone had told me when I first started that you may not get your dream job right away and sometimes you have to create one for yourself.
- I wish someone had told me when I first started that hard work and tough skin is required in the practice of law.
- I wish someone had told me when I first started that having good writing skills and great persuasive writing skills is a crucial requirement of the job.
- I wish someone had told me when I first started that sometimes you have to sacrifice your own wants to further someone else’s dream.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to have breakfast or lunch with Oprah. She went from news anchor, to talk show host, to actor, to television producer, to media executive, to studio owner, to network owner, to philanthropist. She is a phenomenal businesswoman and visionary. She has led an amazing, full life and has helped many people along the way.