Florence M. Johnson is one of the newest members of The Brief editorial board. Considering what our nation and profession are emerging from, Florence wanted to challenge herself in new and diverse ways through her membership in the American Bar Association (ABA). One of her mentors in the practice of law, Steve Zack, partner at Boies Schiller Flexner LLP and former ABA president and Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section (TIPS) leader, encouraged her to become involved in TIPS. Florence “could think of no better way to do so than to work with The Brief. Steve encourages me to never become bored in the practice of law, and this new endeavor is certainly not boring.”
Florence has always enjoyed new challenges. From her college years to her law practice, working through change has seemed to be her theme: “When I went to college, I applied at a small liberal arts college then called ‘Southwestern at Memphis.’ When I arrived on campus, the name had changed to ‘Rhodes College.’” While at Rhodes, Florence was one of the first students to receive a bachelor of arts degree as a bridge major in political science and international studies. The Rhodes College bridge major program sought to integrate traditional legal studies with a focus toward studying the changing world at large. After college, Florence went on to study law at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
She recalls, “I first became a member of the ABA while a law student when I clerked with the Previant Law Firm in Milwaukee. I did not know then that my work there would form the direction of my legal career for the next phase of my life. I later worked for a firm in Memphis, Tennessee, that practiced labor law, and one of the partners got me involved in helping her edit a chapter in The Developing Labor Law published by the ABA. I remember getting a certificate and my name published in the forward as a participating editor. I was hooked from that point on. I stayed with the firm and participated tangentially in ABA life, going to conferences and meetings.”
After seven years of practicing labor law in Memphis, Florence decided that change was again needed, and she became the founding female partner of Perkins, Johnson and Settle, PLLC—at that time, the largest majority African American firm in the state of Tennessee. A change that was a long time coming.
Through the years, the firm has changed membership, but the passion Florence feels for representing employees and small businesses needing advice and direction has not waned. She believes that the work relationship is one of the longest a person will have in life—“Why not make it harmonious?” As a member of the Tennessee Bar Association, Memphis Bar Association, Ben F. Jones Chapter of the National Bar Association, and Society for Human Resource Management, Florence has been described as the “go-to” authority in the area and spends time advising individuals and lecturing legal professionals on a host of legal issues in the labor and employment arena. She is also a proud member of the ABA Labor and Employment Law Section, Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, Litigation Section Minority Trial Lawyer Committee, and Commission on Women in the Profession.
Florence also takes seriously what she feels is her responsibility and obligation to give back to the legal and professional community that has given her so much. Her most noteworthy moment came in 2007, when she spearheaded an effort to reunite a young disabled mother separated from her minor son during Hurricane Katrina. Florence recalls, “The mother was relocated to Memphis, and she contacted my office. With the help of the ABA, I was able to get a temporary law license in Louisiana and Texas to assist her. The effort spanned three states and nearly a year, but ultimately resulted in the mother and child being reunited. I believe this is the most rewarding case of my career. My work for this client was pro bono, and I continually impart the importance of helping others to summer interns who come through our office.” Afterward, Florence was appointed to the ABA’s Standing Committee on Disaster Response and Preparedness for two terms.
Florence believes the face of the nation is changing, and so should the practice of law. “I have fought hard to be a voice for young lawyers leaving law school to ensure that their practical needs are met. I take the extra efforts to hire and promote new law clerks. I mentor young women lawyers and encourage their participation in community and bar activities and have offered to represent new law candidates in hearings before the bar license board because I do not want there to exist artificial barriers to entry to the practice of law for worthy students,” shares Florence. She is pleased to have been appointed to the ABA Legal Opportunity Scholarship Fund for the past three years and has met some impressive new student lawyers working through their law school years.
When Florence is not working on legal concerns, she coaches young women in Tennessee and Mississippi who are participating in the Miss America pageant system. During the summer months, you can find her in her home garden, where she grows a variety of vegetables, including several varieties of hot peppers. She has even produced a line of hot sauces called “One Hot Johnson.”
In October 2021, Florence was honored by her alma mater, Rhodes College, with the Distinguished Alumni Award. During her remarks, she told the audience: “Never forget that the most important thing, I believe, that humans can do as we walk through this life is to not view strangers we encounter as ‘the other.’ Try to see the commonality in each other, and the most important thing that we can do is to be kind to one another.”