Tiffany Graves is an associate at the Jackson firm Watkins & Eager, PLLC, where she works as a corporate employer litigator and counselor, but she remains passionate about the state’s underserved children.
Graves, who grew up in Winchester, Va., and obtained her law degree from the University of Virginia School of Law, came to Mississippi as the fifth honoree of The Powell Fellowship in Legal Services, which enables a graduating student to work in public interest law and to enhance legal services to the poor.
Graves was awarded the fellowship based upon her proposal to work at the Mississippi Center for Justice handling cases involving children in juvenile detention facilities and those suffering from mental illnesses – an undertaking she continues in her professional career through pro bono work.
Graves said working at the justice center gave her an immediate sense of the number of underserved Mississippians.
“The Mississippi Center for Justice tackles issues facing the poor on a global, universal scale,” she said. “There are quite a number of Mississippians who need lawyers and can’t afford them.”
Graves said she also saw first-hand the need of improved mental health services not only in juvenile detention facilities, but in the state’s school systems and communities.
And, she said, children struggling with mental health issues struggled in other facets, as well.
“That was something I kept stumbling into,” she said. “Children with mental health problems also struggled academically. It went hand-in-hand.”
The job was most rewarding when she presented cases at educational hearings, advising educators of the child’s issues.
“I could be a voice for the child, and say, ‘Yes, she’s acting out, but here’s what else is going on,’” Graves said. “’She does need to learn the consequences of her actions, but she doesn’t necessarily need to be put out of school.’”
Graves said victories such as having an expulsion reduced from 60 to 30 days had a huge impact on the parents of the children she served.
“Those were small victories, but the parents were so grateful,” she said. “It meant the world to them, and that’s why I’ve continued that as my pro bono work. It’s a mutual benefit. You think, ‘That’s why I went to law school.’
“There’s nothing quite like helping someone who otherwise would not get legal assistance.”
In addition to her continued work with the underserved, Graves is a president of the Mississippi Women Lawyers Association, serves on the executive board of the Jackson Young Lawyers Association, serves as a pro bono attorney for the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and is a member of the Mississippi Bar Association.
Being involved in the women lawyers association has helped the Virginia native get acclimated to her adopted state.
“Not being from here, I’ve had the experience to meet women who have taken this Virginia girl under their wings and shown me the way things work in the legal profession and the way things work in Mississippi,” she said.
Also helpful in getting Graves acclimated to Mississippi has been the family of her husband, James Graves III, who she met in law school.
The two met as members of the law school’s Black Law Students Association, and she noted that while many of their classmates planned legal careers in cities like New York and Chicago, Graves was intent on returning to his native Jackson.
“Mississippi was certainly not on my radar,” she said. “But what impressed me about James was that he knew he wanted to come back home.”
After graduation in May 2006, the couple did just that. They both took the Mississippi bar exam that summer; afterward, Graves went to work for the justice center, and Graves began his career at Wise, Carter, Child & Caraway, P.A., where he continues to work in railroad, energy and insurance defense.
The couple was engaged that December, and married in Oct. 2007.
When the one-year fellowship at the justice center ended, Graves was looking for a place to develop legal skills outside the public sector.
About that time she met another UVA grad who was a partner at Watkins & Eager, Rebecca Wiggs. Graves was attracted to the firm because she could continue pro bono work and remain active in lawyers associations.
“That partner is now my mentor at the firm, so our relationship has continued,” she said.
Working at the Jackson firm has helped develop Graves into a well-rounded attorney, she said.
There, she handles corporate employer issues like labor and employment, product liability and insurance defense.
“I focus on helping employers become more proactive to problem solving before a problem develops,” she said, noting that that can include updating employer handbooks and policies and helping employers stay up-to-date with family, medical and pregnancy leave laws.
She also defends corporate employers when the need arises.
“I have been able to develop skills in counseling, defense and litigation,” she said. “I am in courtrooms and taking depositions when I have friends working at big firms in big cities who have never been in a courtroom.”
“That’s not been my experience. I’ve been able to do a lot of things that I never thought I’d be able to do in such a short time. I’ve developed so much in such a short time, and that’s been a good experience.”
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