WCW | Jessica Tehlirian, Esq.

Jessica talks shift from being State Attorney to private attorney at the Cochran Firm, getting her MBA, the creation of Lawyer Baes and gives advice to young lawyers

It is with great pleasure that I introduce my first WCW: Jessica Tehlirian, creator of Lawyer Baes, former Florida prosecutor and current attorney for the Cochran firm (yes as in Johnnie Cochran). This year she was named one of the Top 40 Under 40 Civil Plaintiff Lawyers by the National Trial Lawyers for the second year in a row. She’s killin’ the legal profession at all angles and as a young woman entering the legal field, she is definitely an inspiration to me.

So you grew up in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan for undergrad, can you tell us a little about your childhood? What were your aspirations growing up?

I wanted to be a doctor originally growing up actually. So I was going back and forth with that from high school through college, but when I would look at attorneys I just really liked that they were very well put together, and I also liked the idea of being able to help people in their time of need, not to mention I was always pretty good in school.

I think it’s so dope that you became a licensed attorney before your 25th birthday. As I understand it, you began your career as a prosecutor for felony cases in Florida ranging from rape to murder. what made you decide to pursue criminal prosecution?

Actually, I started doing prosecution when I was in law school. I did an externship with the state attorney’s office, but when I graduated I did this position in foreclosure for like a year and a half and really did not like it. I eventually went back to the state attorney’s office. I loved working for the state. At first, I was working for the juvenile department when I was in law school, and when I graduated, I started working in the misdemeanor department initially, felony prosecution and actually got to work with the state attorney (DA). I had a murder trial that I was second chair on. I was consistently having trials and in court and got a lot of experience that you don’t necessarily get in the private sector. For example right now, I have been doing personal injury for almost two years and I haven’t actually tried any cases. I have a lot of cases right now in litigation; they are primarily litigation cases, but I haven’t had an actual trial on personal injury cases. The cases are mostly settled. Here in Jacksonville, when you set the trial date, it’s not going happen for at least another year after the date is set, but by the time we do some mediation or go over settlement, it typically ends up being resolved prior to the actual trial.

Now I know there were very few black prosecutors at your office, much less black female prosecutors, how was that experience?

I was primarily the only black female prosecutor in the circuit. There was one other black male attorney who was there for probably about 12 years and he was very helpful to me. There was another guy there too who had about two additional years of experience than me at being an attorney—he was also pretty helpful. I guess it was kind of strange being in an office with so many people who were not of color, especially when such a large portion of the population that we were prosecuting were largely African American. And I think a lot of that is because, minorities, when they think of their idea of working for the government doing criminal law, they think of the public defender’s office and shy away from the state attorney’s office. As a state attorney, your goal is to help people so you have so much discretion with being a prosecutor.

Okay, well this sets up my next question perfectly. I read before that you would receive the common question: “As a black woman, how can you be a prosecutor?” What would you say to that, because I’m sure that there are so many misconceptions about prosecutors in general?

There is a benefit of being a state attorney over being a public defender. For example, as state attorney, you see what someone has been charged with by the police, whether it’s first degree felony charges or misdemeanor charges etc. There will usually be a detention hearing and then after that the state attorney decides whether or not they will charge the person with the charge the cop gave, or if they will go with lower or higher charges. Attorneys are human and are subject to generational and personal biases and their own experiences when making those decisions. So sometimes it can be of help to have a state attorney who is of the same demographic as the person charged, who can kind of understand where they are coming from and how they got in that position. I think a lot of people in the black community shy away from going into positions of power—we get frustrated with people who have to be in those roles: cops, judges, and other forms of law enforcement such as the state attorney’s office. But people who are fair in those positions, is one of the best ways to help with some of the issues that we face in the criminal justice system.

Can you explain a little more what you mean by that—that is how having fair people in law enforcement positions can help with issues like sentencing in the criminal justice system?

I can’t speak to other offices, but from my experience, if I wanted to drop a charge, I didn’t really get too much push back about dropping it. Dropping charges from upper level felonies to lower level felonies, it really wasn’t a difficult process. Whereas if you are a defense attorney, if the charges are trumped up, or if you don’t think there is a basis for it, the state attorney can go forward with it if the state has probable cause. Consequently, if that person gets convicted of the crime and the state has the evidence to go with, there is a lesser possibility of that person getting out early.  That is the moment when a defendant can be forced into a plea deal—where they might not have committed the crime, but they are thinking ‘well I’m facing life imprisonment,’ or ‘I’m facing 50 years, I’ll just take 5 extra years in prison,’ knowing that they didn’t do it. Whereas if you’re a state attorney, and you see that evidence, you can say “well this is kind of harsh,” or “I don’t think this person did it” and can potentially drop the charge or reduce it down.  That’s also why you can do the most good, in my opinion, in being a state attorney.

You recently received your MBA from Florida State University. Were you still practicing law full time while taking those courses?

I worked for the state attorney’s office full time while taking my MBA courses, and I took the courses for free. That’s another reason I liked working for the state attorney’s office. Honestly, you don’t get paid much working for the government, but one of the benefits I really enjoyed that they have in Florida is that you can get free tuition for going to a state school as long as it’s within a certain program. You can’t do a doctoral program of any kind, but if you want to get a Master’s degree, you just have to get in on your own merit. As far as paying for it, you go for free and you can take two classes a semester. Basically, all of my classes were free except for a few classes I paid for when I stopped working for the state attorney’s office.

What made you decide to pursue that degree although already working as a practicing attorney?

The subject matter for my MBA was something that I was interested in, and I felt like if I am already interested in the subject matter, I may as well pursue the degree. Also, I feel that as a black female, it’s always better to have additional accolades. When your peers look at you, they often think you have the lowest bar or whatever, they won’t just think you’re a good attorney—and assume that you probably went to the worst law school, don’t have any extra degrees or whatever it is. I really wanted to throw some extra stuff on my resume. But mainly I just wanted the knowledge—it was free and it fit into my schedule, so I decided to do it.

Now you work for the Cochran Firm doing Personal Injury, what made you decide to shift gears into the civil arena?

I loved working for the State, but the problem was, I was never going to make the type of money that I wanted to make. I work for the Cochran firm now and do personal injury and run the Social Media for the firm. I really like personal injury, but the trials just don’t come with it like there are working for the state, but unfortunately working for the state just doesn’t provide adequate living wage at all. I always wanted to do personal injury, but I just wanted to get the experience first because a lot of these personal injury lawyers have never actually had a trial. I really enjoy being able to help people in this critical stage of their life.

Okay, let’s talk Lawyer Baes: You’re called “Muva Bae” for a reason. Can you tell us a little bit about how you thought of Lawyer Baes and what it’s about?

At the time I created it, different types of “baes” were kind of coming out, I saw a really pretty girl that went to dental school at the time had #dentistbae in her bio and I liked the whole idea a lot. I put it in my own bio right after I saw hers. Then I wanted to make an IG page for it. I was nervous about it because you know lawyers can be judgmental sometimes, but I just started posting on it and started getting a lot of followers and people asking me to post them and getting a lot of response. I did that for a while, because I wasn’t originally intending on monetizing it, I was just doing it because I felt there are so many so many young lawyers  who may feel ashamed to be pretty or afraid that people will think ‘omg, you post pictures in bikinis, how can you handle that case’—so I kind of wanted to show that there are all of these young attorneys that can be fun and enjoy themselves and travel and look beautiful and sexy, but they also can do their job well. You don’t have to pick between the two. So that was initially kind of why I wanted to do it.

Okay, so I know lawyer baes has grown from just an IG page, what are some things that Lawyer Baes does now and what are your hopes for Lawyer Baes going forward?

After the Instagram started taking off, I was approached by Jehan Carter who is now my partner. She basically asked me if I wanted to try to monetize it, and create a website. I didn’t really know how to go about doing that, so she and her sister basically went about designing our logos, the website, designed all of our products and we have been working together ever since then.We have done community service events, social events at clubs, we even had a legal aid event with Congresswoman Maxine Waters. We also have coaching kits for law students getting ready to take the Bar Exam and for pre-law students as well. We have a blog that talks about different topics and issues in the legal community. We have brand ambassadors who promote the brand and wear the clothing and we also have a directory that connects lawyers across the country.We are also trying to shine more light on other things as well. Personally, I am a part of the LGBT community. And I think that in the legal field, a lot of times we are the only person in the room. We try to suppress it to kind of just try to blend in to be able to do our job. I kind of want to take that away, instead of giving into it, go the complete opposite direction. I want to showcase that more. So many attorneys have reached out to me and are so happy because there is nothing really in the legal field that showcases that section of the profession. We also want to share people’s stories and their obstacles. We want to help people looking for jobs and internships. Those are the main things that we are working on right now.

Do you have any advice for young black women that are entering the legal field; whether it be entering law school, or just graduating law school like myself?

One of the most important things is to start networking early on. I think that everyone thinks that when they get this law degree that jobs are just going to fall out of the sky. There are a lot of unemployed lawyers and lawyers doing things that they hate. Although there are times where you may have to take that job that you don’t like from the outset, if you were networking the whole time with people, more jobs would have fallen into your lap. It’s hard to get a job sometimes by simply sending out a resume, and if you do, it may not be the one that you want. As far as entering the profession for our demographic, I think that it is important to probably have mentors that are in that demographic that can help guide you because if you only have yourself or people that are on your level, it’s kind of hard to go up from that level if you don’t have any guidance.

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