Alumni Spotlight: Tiffany Johnson ‘09
Tiffany Johnson '09 is an associate at a mid-size law firm in Atlanta. Much like her time at Princeton, when she balanced BodyHype Dance Company, an internship at the Center of African American Studies and her studies, she now balances her law firm job and life as a young professional in a burgeoning city.
A summer internship with a federal magistrate judge pushed Johnson into an interest in law. She turned passion into productivity at Wake Forest Law School where she served as Editor-in-Chief of a law journal. During her time at Wake Forest, Johnson worked for different law firms and finally found her place as an associate in commercial litigation at Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs, LLP.
In our interview, Johnson discussed her journey to her practice in commercial litigation and how professors in the Center for African American Studies prepared her for life “outside the orange bubble.”
To start, what did you study at Princeton and what activities were you involved in?
I was in the Politics Department with an American Politics focus. I got certificates in African American Studies and Near Eastern Studies. The two seem odd together, but I chose Near Eastern Studies because I put so much work into learning Arabic my first two years that it just made sense to get the certificate. To bring them together, I actually ended up writing my thesis on military service among minorities: I analyzed how many African Americans used military service to fortify their citizenship and compared that to similar trends among Muslim Americans post-9/11 .
As far as activities, I was in BodyHype all four years, and my junior and senior year I was artistic director. I was also an intern at the Center for African American Studies my junior year when the Center first moved into Stanhope Hall. My projects for the Center focused on different events to establish the expanding program at the University and in the community. I still have the t-shirt I designed for Class Day in 2008.
Was there a University experience that pushed you into the law field?
Actually, I went to a fine arts high school and I started dancing at age 10, so I wanted (or at least I thought I wanted) to be a professional dancer. When I got accepted to Princeton, my parents made it pretty clear that they expected me to “explore other career options.” Since I had no idea what to study, I took the lead from a classmate who told me Princeton graduates were getting great jobs as i-bankers and that Econ majors were doing well for themselves. It only took one Econ class, ECON 101, to change my mind!
I had taken a few politics classes – including one particularly intimidating class with Robert P. George – and I was hooked.
Junior year I was trying to figure what to do over the summer, and I discovered the Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS) program where alumni partner with the university to offer internships to undergraduates. I applied to work for Cheryl Pollak ‘75, a Federal Magistrate Judge in Brooklyn. I got the job as her intern for 10 weeks and fell in love with the kind of work we were doing. I decided that summer to go to law school, and it was all thanks to Princeton having a great alumni organization that opened their doors to undergraduates.
What have you done since graduating?
I attended Wake Forest Law School right out of college. During my time there, I served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Business and Intellectual Property Law. It was actually a lot like being artistic director of Body Hype. I had to be creative in leadership and make all the cogs work, which was a fitting role for me after putting together a few BodyHype shows.
During my summers, I worked for different law firms and corporations as a legal clerk/summer associate. This past September I was hired at Parker, Hudson, Rainer & Dobbs, LLP. I am an associate in the commercial litigation practice group.
How has your AAS certificate helped you in your current career ?
All of the mentoring relationships I had at the Center— Jennifer Loessy, Professor Eddie Glaude and others were all genuinely interested in our [CAAS concentrators'] success. The professors wanted us to have an intellectual experience; not just reading things for sake of reading, but understanding and having a dialogue. One of the most memorable experiences I had at Princeton was a class with Professor Noliwe Rooks. It was a small class of about 12, in conference room on the 1st floor of the Center. That 3-hour seminar was my first experience having a real intellectual dialogue with someone that didn’t agree with me on topics we were all interested in. It didn’t feel forced because it was a genuine academic experience. That kind of dialogue dominated law school, and now it is helpful as I develop as a young lawyer, so the skills I learned in classes like those at the Center were invaluable.
How do you view your role as an alumnus, given the help you received as an undergraduate from alumni?
As a young alumnus, I think the best way I can give back to Princeton is to be an active participant in the community. When I graduated from Princeton, I was left with a sense of responsibility to do something – anything – to leave an impact or affect change. I’ve actually had a lot of opportunities through my firm to volunteer – either through pro bono work for the Saturday Lawyer Program or by planting trees for the Trees Atlanta project. While I’m still new to the city, I hope to become more involved in community organizations in Atlanta and the Princeton Club of Georgia. I’d like to think that in the future I could give a Princeton student the kind of opportunity I had with Judge Pollak. With all that in mind, there is a particularly important role of alumni that I hope the class of 2009 will take seriously – showing up for Reunions!
Do you have any advice for students?
I am only four years out from my time at Princeton, so I guess the best advice I have to give is to stay focused and stay open to opportunities. From personal experience, it can be hard in this economy to stay motivated because our options appear as though they have narrowed. But some of the best advice I got while I was at Princeton – from Professor Glaude – was to not limit myself to small or comfortable pursuits. He told me to stay open to the world around me and the possibilities that present themselves.
For example, when I was interning for Judge Pollak, that experience made me think I would only be happy as a lawyer if I practiced criminal law. But I was presented with the opportunity to work for a firm outside of criminal law. Even as a commercial litigator, I still have the opportunity to do pro bono work and go out into the community and really contribute in ways that are important to me. As an African American female in private practice, I have the opportunity to help diversify our field, and I see the work I do as not only important to our clients but also for the community to see the face of the practice of law changing. I think what I am slowly learning, and what Professor Glaude was trying to tell me, is that there is always more than one way to get to your destination, but it’s more fun when your destination changes.