Photo by Felix Sanchez.
There was no six-figure job offer from a major firm waiting for Tonya Jones when she completed her law degree at Southern University, no immediate prospect of a luxe lifestyle behind the wheel of a Mercedes convertible.
That was fine: The oldest of five siblings and the first person in her family to complete college, let alone become an attorney, she hadn’t expected winter getaways in the Caribbean.
Instead, she carved her own path. Taking advantage of every possible internship and opportunity to expand her professional skills, she initially sought work in indigent defense.
She lacked trial experience, however, which Public Defender’s Offices deemed crucial for new employees.
“It felt like one ‘no’ after the other with employers,” she recalls. “And boy, I was sending out resumes and filling out applications morning, noon and night for months and months and months. Nothing seemed to pan out for me.”
She took a job as an unpaid intern at a family law firm, which proved a stepping stone toward a criminal law practice. It also fueled her semi-secret dream of becoming a judge.
“When I say that the steps of my life are literally one foot in front of the other and things just kept happening, that's really what it was, because there was no concrete plan,” Jones says.
There were plenty of rough spots along the way, months when she had to decide which of the bills needing payment were most important, and Jones grew frustrated more than once.
The only choice, she knew, was to keep moving forward. Seeking election as a criminal court judge in Harris County, Texas, in the late 2010s was no easier, but she triumphed nonetheless, becoming one of 17 new Black women jurists on a bench that had previously held only two.
“Once I got on the bench – and it took me a few years in this position – I was able to see more clearly why I might have experienced some of the things that I experienced,” Jones explains. “Because you're dealing with people and life happens, right? People whose lives intersect here come from all walks of life in our society. And they need to know that, ‘Hey, everyone's story is not the same. Even though you may be in this particular place today, it doesn't mean that it's going to dictate or has to dictate the rest of your life. I'm not so far removed from you because I have this robe on. Let me just tell you, I've had some experiences as well.’”
Lawdragon: I love your story so much because it's real. Nobody said, "Here's the fancy law firm job. Congratulations. You're set.” You had to keep trying.
Tonya Jones: Absolutely. It was a struggle, and I didn't come from the pedigree of having a blueprint either. It just wasn't my story. If any path was to be carved out, I had to do the carving. It used to frustrate me, because I was like, "Geez, why are things so difficult?" So I understand that sometimes things are not easy. Sometimes life happens. I understood the value of those struggles more, being on the bench. They give me perspective. They didn’t make sense at the time, but they make sense now.
LD: You just have to have faith that those experiences are leading somewhere, don’t you?
TJ: Yes, you do. And you have to keep at it, because life does go somewhere. It turns around.
LD: Before we go further, let’s go back a little. Tell me about where you grew up, what you thought you'd do when you were a kid and how you decided on becoming a lawyer.
TJ: Sure. I am originally from Houston, and I grew up in the inner city, in a neighborhood called South Park. Originally, I thought that I wanted to be an OB-GYN. There was a life-skills course we took in fifth grade, where they taught us how to write checks, for example, and I had a play checkbook and I wrote myself a check. It was only $1,000 and I spelled obstetrician incorrectly, but I had the idea that I wanted to help people. I still have that check, in one of the binders where I scrapbooked some of my memories. In high school, though, I started speech and debate. I’d never had an interest in it before, and even then, I was more interested in prose than speaking, but my debate coach insisted that if you were going to be a part of the debate team, you were going to participate in debate. That was not up for discussion. And as it turned out, I loved it. Absolutely loved it.
LD: That’s awesome. It’s fascinating how experiences like that can introduce us to parts of our personalities we were unaware of. So what happened next?
TJ: There was a personal injury attorney here in Houston who spoke at career day and began serving as one of our coaches. And he actually told me, "You don't want to go to medical school. I mean, doctors are cool, but I think that you'd be a really good lawyer." And it was really as simple as that. That was when I made the decision that I was going to change my major from biology and a pre-med track to political science and pre-law.
LD: What great advice. Are you still in touch with him? Is he still around?
TJ: Absolutely. He spoke at my investiture ceremony. He and his law partner gave me my first internship during the summer after my first year in law school, and I still keep in touch with him. His name's Clay Rawlings.
LD: So he became a mentor.
TJ: Absolutely. I mean, there has been a whole village of mentors, including teachers and people at my church, people who wanted to see me do well and saw that I have the drive and the passion to do something. So they did all they could to help me get there, but he was very, very instrumental in that decision.
LD: When did you start gravitating toward criminal law?
TJ: During my first year of law school at Southern, which is in Louisiana, the region was bracing for Hurricane Gustav. It was the first major storm after Katrina, and everybody was nervous about it. During one lecture, a professor started talking about Gustav, and that led into a discussion about poverty and crime. And he framed it in such a way that I was intrigued. Then more concretely, as a 3L student, I worked with the criminal law clinic, representing indigent individuals who were charged with minor offenses. That’s significant because if someone gets caught up in that particular system, it can be very hard for them to find work. It can be very hard for them to find housing. So I really felt like I was making a difference there and that stuck with me moving forward.
LD: Amazing. How did that experience influence your career track after graduation?
TJ: I never had a plan, per se, though I knew that I wanted to do something in the public sector. What happened next was that I participated in a legislative internship program that placed me at the Texas Indigent Defense Commission, which oversees indigent defense all across the state and provides grants and training to counties for that purpose. It was actually that office that gave our county, Harris, the grant to start our public defender's office.
Now, there were not job offers, let me say that, heading out of the gate with law school, but I had a lot of internships. Every time there was an opportunity to get some practical experience, that is what I did. Since I was in Austin, I ended up working at the Travis County Juvenile Public Defender's Office as a legal fellow. One opportunity led to another and before you knew it, I was back in Houston as a newly licensed attorney, applying to Public Defender’s Offices.
What they really wanted, though, was someone who had trial experience. They didn't want a baby lawyer, which is the thing they don't tell you when you're aspiring to go to these offices. The goal is to really make sure that the representation is stellar, which I get, but I was like, "It's kind of hard to become experienced if no one gives me a chance to get experience." Then I stumbled across a Craigslist ad where a family law firm was looking for an intern. So I was like, "You know what? I really am passionate about criminal law, but it won't hurt to get some knowledge." So I started working there and it was an unpaid position, but I was like, "I'm a baby lawyer. It won't hurt to learn. I mean, it's not like I'm doing anything else. I have plenty of free time." So I went there, and I worked there for several months. And actually, the managing attorney said, "We're going to pay you for your work. You're a licensed lawyer, and you have a very strong work ethic and we see that. And so we're going to pay you." Which I was like, "Great. This is fantastic. Sure. Yes."
She gave me an opportunity, and I appreciated that. I appreciated being there and learning and seeing a new environment, because it gave me a different perspective. And being there led me to my next placement, with a gentleman whom I consider to be one of my greatest mentors. He is a criminal defense attorney and happened to need an associate, and I was introduced to him by one of the members of my church. He didn't want to hire me, but his paralegal convinced him that, "Hey, you do need the help. You're expanding. And I think she'd be a good fit." And I was there for four and a half years.
TJ: Like I’ve said, I didn’t have a strategy. Ideally, I knew how I wanted my life to turn out, but I think it just went down the path it was supposed to go, and I've met people along the way. Graduating and thinking everybody's going to be driving a Mercedes and making six figures and doing all that, I mean, it didn't pan out for me that way. But my experience, my journey, has been so rich and so worthwhile getting to this place.
LD: And all the experiences, they just provide you more perspective with the people who appear before you. Which is just one of the biggest changes that I think, the 19 and a more inclusive approach to life in general provide.
TJ: Absolutely. People feel more comfortable, too, because they feel like you can relate to them and you’re not coming from a condescending place, so there’s not the same feeling of intimidation and fear. I mean, obviously, it’s criminal court, so people are nervous. I have an atmosphere in my court that's similar to my personality. It is serious business, but when people come in, I try to let them leave with their dignity, let them not feel like these circumstances are insurmountable. You give them hope for the next day, because it really is just a pit stop in life. It does not equal a destination.
LD: That’s such a beautiful way to express it. I think some criminal court judges, especially in the past, have felt like, "I really need to put the fear of God in you. Let's make this scariest day of your life, even scarier." And maybe some people need that, but many of them, they already get it. They’re terrified.
TJ: Yes. They've already had the worst day of their life. They have been arrested, had their mug shots taken, and been fingerprinted. The humiliation of that, you don't know how impactful it can be for some people. They get it. No one's coming in here skipping doodle. They get why they're here. We don't need to shame them further.
LD: Exactly. So when you decided to run for the bench, what was your motivation? What was the tipping point that, "OK, I'm going to do this?"
TJ: Deep down inside, becoming a judge is one of the things that I always told myself I wanted to do. But at the same time, life was happening and I felt like, "I can barely find work for myself as an attorney. I can't even think about being a judge,” so I put it in the back of my mind. I didn't think about it. But the idea remained. I remember flipping through Ebony magazine and seeing a picture of a black woman who was a judge. She had on her robe, she was there and I said, "Wow, I think I want to do this one day." It was just that simple. I read through her bio, found what she majored in, political science, and I said, "OK, I can do this."
So I set out with that thought in mind, and I can't say that there was one thing in particular that made it click for me. More so, it was a series of events. It's just between my life experiences, again, wanting to help people as a defense attorney within the criminal justice system, and seeing a lack of connection or compassion with people, and being the advocate and being responsible for having to convince another person of my client's humanity. It was frustrating. I eventually reached the point where I realized, "You know what, there's only so much you can do as an advocate. You have to be a policymaker in the sense that you're here at the table."
Now of course, judges, we don't make laws; we enforce them and interpret them. But we have the ability to create policies and procedures, to be the gatekeepers, and often, we can determine whether someone's going to be free to go home or they have to go into custody. So I knew I wanted to do it. It was just a matter of when. And of course, I tried to back out like a million times. Women, on average, seriously consider running for office a minimum of seven or eight times before they convince themselves that they're capable of doing it.
LD: Wow. I didn't know that.
TJ: That's a statistic I learned as I was running, and it makes sense. I mean, we do so much outside of the workplace, we manage so much and we’re already doing this work, but we have to be convinced that, "OK, yes, I can do it." That's where my mentor came in, the gentleman I worked with for more than four years, who said, "Listen, you're ready. Now, if you don't file the paperwork, I'm going to go and file the paperwork on your behalf. I'm going to pay the fees for you because you're going to do this."
LD: I love this person.
TJ: He doesn't know "no" for an answer. He was like, "You're ready. I've taught you, I've worked with you. You need to do this, and you need to do this now. What are you waiting for?"
And I thought, "You know what? He's right. What am I waiting for?" And just as green as a blade of grass, I didn't know anything about running a campaign, running for office, I knew nothing. All I knew was that I was passionate about what I was bringing to the table and I felt like that was something unique. Because when you think about a judge, you do not see me. You don't see a 30-something attorney, let alone a black woman, necessarily. That's not what comes to mind. I mean, that's not what we saw in Harris County either.
And even with the strides that the 19 have made, you still go to these judicial conferences in Texas, and we are not in the majority. And so I said, "You know what? I bring something unique to the table." And I believe that my life experiences, my passion and my ideas for this bench are worth bringing to the citizens of Harris County. So I said, "I'm just going to do it. I'm going to do it afraid. I'm going to do it not knowing all the ins and outs. I'm going to do it being green in this, but I'm just going to do it. And I'm going to let life happen the way I have done in every other aspect of my life. I won’t always have all the answers, but I'm just going to walk one foot in front of the other one day, one step, at a time."
And that's how it worked. And it was difficult because I got a lot of flak about my age. We say we like for young people to step up, but not really. There's the idea, and not necessarily a bad one, that age and experience matter. And I won't say they don’t, but I can't change how quickly I got here. I went straight from undergrad through law school. I got to the practice of law as soon as I could. I can't help when my parents met each other. I couldn't get here any faster.
LD: You gave it your all. You are just a person who gets things done and you were really dedicated.
TJ: Absolutely. There you go. You took the words right out of my head. That's it.
LD: And one of the strengths of the 19 is that you're not all the same. Some are older, some are younger. People came from different backgrounds.
TJ: We're dimensional, right? We each bring our own experiences, we bring ourselves. We're all different. Despite the fact that we all did it at the same time, we didn't orchestrate it. We could not have known that all of us were going to come together and run. It just really was a divine type of thing. We couldn't have put that together ourselves.
We're all relatively young, in comparison with tradition, but I'm the youngest one of them and so they call me, "baby judge." And I tell you, just to be able to have that perspective is wonderful. Being the oldest, I've always been the one charting the path and the courses. So what a refreshing and beautiful thing that I have sisters I can ask advice of. I call them about things, things that happen in court, things that happen in life. I mean, there's just a wealth of knowledge and experience that being in their company brings. So I appreciate them, probably more than they'll ever even know or realize, because now, I get to ask people questions and look to them for wisdom and guidance in certain areas, and it's so refreshing.