NCBA Member Profile: Tawanda Foster Artis

Tawanda Foster Artis Reflects on Her Career

Tawanda Foster Artis

Tawanda Foster Artis

Tawanda Foster Artis is General Counsel for the NC Community Colleges System. In this interview, she describes her career path, the mentors who influenced her, and her experiences in the different roles she has held. As Senior Staff Attorney with the N.C. General Assembly, one of her achievements was authoring the “Raise the Age” legislation. Artis is a member of the NCBA Board of Governors and co-chair of the NCBA Minorities in the Profession Committee.

During your career, you have practiced in the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Department of Justice, the District Attorney’s Office, and the North Carolina General Assembly. How have your roles leading up to your new position impacted the attorney you are today?

I have practiced in a wide variety of roles and practice areas in my legal career and that is something you do not see often from attorneys. I started my career as an Assistant District Attorney, not so much out of an interest in criminal law, but out of a desire to become a strong litigator. As a prosecutor, I spent a substantial amount of time in court trying cases. Also, because state government offices are often under-resourced, I got exposure to all levels of litigation much faster than most of my peers in private practice. I transitioned to my next role as an Assistant Attorney General to continue to build those litigation skills before transitioning to become the Appellate Counsel for the Administrative Office of the Courts and arguing before the highest appellate courts in our state. Being a litigator taught me to be effective and efficient as an attorney – by teaching me to analyze the law and legal arguments quickly, to be able to multitask and think on my feet in a crowded, busy courtroom, and to be able to advocate clearly and succinctly. I also enjoyed my time at the General Assembly being a part of the lawmaking and law writing processes. All of these roles have helped me to see different aspects of the legal profession, all while serving the people of our great state. I would not change anything about my career path; every step was valuable and shaped me as an attorney.

What did you enjoy the most about your previous role as Senior Staff Attorney?

The legal nerd in me loved writing the legislation that would ultimately become part of the N.C. General Statutes. Nothing beat being able to look in the statute books and see statutes or parts of the law that I wrote. It’s an incredible sense of accomplishment, and you directly see your contribution and impact on the law in our state. It’s something I never imagined or even knew I could when envisioning my career path in law school. I’m so grateful I had the opportunity to have that as part of my legal career.

What are you most looking forward to about your new position as General Counsel for the NC Community Colleges System?

I am most looking forward to helping the system and its president continue to grow and advance its mission to “open the door to high-quality, accessible educational opportunities that minimize barriers to post-secondary education, maximize student success, develop a globally and multi-culturally competent workforce, and improve the lives and well-being of individuals . . .” I am also excited about the indirect impact my work will have on students matriculating in the community college system. Our community college system is the third largest in the nation, so the potential to impact students’ lives through offering a quality education is tremendous.

One of your many achievements was authoring the legislation for “Raise the Age,” which became law on December 1, 2019. What was it like to draft this legislation and see it enacted? I would like to hear more about your role in writing this piece of legislation and the importance of passing this bill.

It honestly is/was one of the proudest moments in my career, even though it’s not one that most people will likely ever know about. There were many drafts of legislation that would raise the age of juvenile jurisdiction in North Carolina over the years, and the effort had been pushed by both Democrats and Republicans over the years. I was able to merge some of the concepts from the previous efforts to create what ultimately became known as the Juvenile Justice Reinvestment Act. I wrote many versions of the bill for lawmakers and rewrote it a number of times before it was ultimately incorporated to the budget in 2017. While some parts of the legislation became active in 2017 the portions that changed the juvenile jurisdiction were effective at the end of 2019. Being the last state in the U.S. to raise the age for juvenile jurisdiction, we were able to learn a lot from other state’s experiences. It is clear from those other state’s studies that this change in the law not only benefited the youth of the state; it also lowered recidivism rates among this population and saved the state money.

Although the law on this issue will continue to evolve for some time, I’m really proud of the work I and my colleagues were able to do to finally make this change in the law a reality in our state. I’m also hopeful it will have the intended positive impact on the youth population in North Carolina.

You were elected to the NCBA Board of Governors in 2020. What has it been like to be a member of this board during the 2020-21 bar year?

The nomination and election were completely unexpected, and I am honored to contribute in such an important role. I’ve enjoyed learning more about how the NCBA operates and contributing what I can to ensure the longevity and effectiveness of the organization. This experience has been magnified given the pandemic. All of the BOG members were committed to ensuring the organization could weather the pandemic and emerge relatively unscathed.

You have served as co-chair of the NCBA Minorities in the Profession Committee and are an active member of this group, as well a member of the NCBA Diversity Task Force. I would like to hear more about your work in these leadership positions and some of the initiatives or events that you were (and are) a part of.

Again, I am/was honored to serve in these capacities – along with serving as an officer for the Juvenile Justice & Children’s Rights Section and on the Professionalism Committee. MIP will always be near and dear to my heart because it continues to thrive and promote the purpose for which it was created many years ago. MIP is not only one of the largest and most active NCBA committees, but it is also unique in that it focuses on providing programming not just for attorneys, legal professionals and law students, but also for the general public.

Some of my favorite MIP programs are:

  1. ¡Adelante! | Moving Forward, a program that focuses on helping law students hone the skills necessary to successfully transition from law school into the workforce as a well-rounded attorney; the
  2. Diversity & Inclusion Symposium, a conference that seeks to advance diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession; and the
  3. Legal Legends of Color Awards, which honors trailblazing, legendary minority attorneys.

During my tenure, we were able to secure a foundation grant for the symposium and transition it to a virtual format to ensure it continued even in the pandemic; and try a new and different format for Adelante, as well as find a way to continue to honor the awardees of the LLOC awards despite the event being cancelled due to the pandemic.

I’m honored to participate on the president’s Diversity Task Force and causes such as this one will always be important to me given the history of minority attorneys in our state and the barriers they faced in entering the profession and in seeking membership in the NCBA. I’m happy to be living my dreams as an attorney and to be a leader in NCBA, and I am certain it is only because of the trails they blazed, the challenges they faced, and the storms they weathered that I and so many others can stand in this light now. That light only shines on us because of them and their sacrifices.

You graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Law. Thinking back to your time in law school or to your early days as a lawyer, who was one of your mentors, and how were they influential in your life?

I’ve had many mentors, all of whom contributed much to my career path and success as a lawyer; I think it’s impossible to name just one. I’ll just highlight a few:

  1. Justice Michael Morgan who told me several years before I applied to law school that I should think about going and that I certainly had what it took to be a lawyer. I appeared before him as a guardian ad litem volunteer advocating for abused kids, when thoughts of law school were only a glimmer or fleeting thought in my mind. His words certainly had an impact and propelled me toward the goal of attending law school. He continued to offer sage wisdom throughout my law school experience and while I was a young attorney.
  2. Justice Patricia Timmons-Goodson, who returned to campus to speak to the students at UNC when I was a 1L and demonstrated all that was possible for us with her career. She was also never too busy to give me advice when I asked and was the person who encouraged me to become a prosecutor when I told her I wanted to be a litigator. She was right – I learned more about being a litigator and tried more cases (bench and jury trials) in those two years than I ever would have in a private firm.
  3. There are countless others that I’ve encountered on my career path who poured their wisdom into me and ensured my success, like Judge Addie Harris Rawls, Reggie Watkins, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, Phyllis Pickett and many, many more. I cannot overstate the importance of good mentors and sponsors in the legal profession.

What advice do you have for young lawyers who are beginning their careers in 2021, particularly those who hope to become attorneys in government and in the public sector?

My advice would be to get as much experience as you can, even if that means it is unpaid. Paid clerkships are sometimes hard to come by in government and public sector organizations. Clerkship, externship, and internship experiences help you determine what you like and do not like before entering the job market. Also, remember gone are the days when most people work for one employer for 30 or 35 years and retire – your career can be anything you make it and you can remake it and try new things as often as you’d like in your legal career. Your first legal job or career step does not have to be your forever or final position in the legal field – be creative and make your career your own.

Jessica Junqueira is communications manager for the North Carolina Bar Association.

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