by Art Levy
Updated 2 yearss ago
LaShawnda Jackson was 3 years old when her father died. She doesn’t remember very much about him, only that her mother shot him to death. His influence on Jackson endured, however. Thoughts of him motivated her to do well in school so she could get out of the east Mims housing projects where she grew up near Titusville. His memory also helped her during her time at the University of Florida, where she juggled academics and athletics as she competed on the track team. She went on to graduate with honors from UF’s law school in 2002.
“Always in the back of my head was to make my dad proud,” says Jackson, a 37-year-old partner at Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell in Orlando. “And those thoughts continue today.”
While her father inspired her, Jackson credits Sheri Johnson, a high school teacher and mentor, with putting her on a path toward the law.
“Around my sophomore year, I took an American government class and did pretty well,” Jackson says. “One day Mrs. Johnson came up to me and said, ‘You’ve got a pretty big mouth. You need to be on my mock trial team.’ I didn’t know what a mock trial team was, but because she gave me a complement on my big mouth, I said OK. That was my turn-around point for the law.”
Jackson turned out to be a mock trial star, particularly during cross-examinations. During one competition — judged by Brevard County Court Judge John Dean Moxley — Jackson fired questions at a witness so quickly that Moxley gave her the nickname “bullets.”
“I tend to talk pretty fast,” she says.
After her father’s killing and her mother’s arrest, Jackson went to live with her father’s sister, who raised her and whom Jackson now calls mom. After adjusting to her new family, Jackson set goals — the biggest of which was to not follow the example of her biological mother, who is now free after spending years in and out of jail.
“I didn’t want to live that life,” she says. “I saw so many people on the wrong side of the law. I wanted to be on the right side of the law. My mother was 19 years old when I was born, and I was her fourth child. I was not going to do that.”
Jackson focused on school (even when some of the kids from her neighborhood gave her a hard time about studying so much) and athletics. In high school, she played basketball and won state titles in the shot put and discus. Some smaller colleges talked to her about track scholarships, but Jackson wanted to focus on academics at UF. By the time she enrolled, she had earned 13 academic scholarships that paid the bills for her freshman and sophomore years. She competed in track at UF, too, but without an athletic scholarship.
Jackson thinks her early experiences contribute to her work today — mainly working cases involving casualty defense, product liability and insurance coverage. Ironically, one of her tasks is advising and representing government agencies, including housing authorities. Early in her career, she was asked to research section 8 housing laws — something she was already well aware of since she’d lived in public housing herself. She also thinks her background has helped her be a better litigator.
“I think a lot of litigators, when they talk to juries, overlook that jurors are people — everyday common people,” she says. “My approach is, in my head, I’m going back to Titusville and to Mims and I’m going to sit somebody down who I’ve grown up with in my neighborhood and I’m going to talk to them about the case. What language can I use to help them understand? What analogies can I use? Also, people have experiences and I try to figure out how I can relate to those experiences. I do all of that when I litigate and I think I do it pretty well.”
Outside of work, Jackson volunteers for various groups and charities, with a focus on activities involving children, from judging mock trials to heading up a program that buys shoes for needy children in the Orlando area.
“People took time for me when I was young, so anything to do with kids, I have a hard time saying no,” she says. “They may never want to go to law school, but I want to show them that anybody can do anything, no matter their circumstances. They can be a doctor. They can be a lawyer. Hopefully, what I’ve done will inspire them.”
LaShawnda Jackson, 37
> Job: Partner, Rumberger, Kirk and Caldwell, Orlando
> Exercise: During college, when she competed in shot put and hammer throw, she could bench press 285 pounds and squat 500.
> Achievements: She served as a member of the Florida Bar’s Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors since 2009 and was chair of the Young Lawyers’ Continuing Legal Education Committee. She is also an instructor at the Florida Bar Leadership Academy.