Past BLI AlumnI FEatures
Lauren Leader, BLI Class of 2018
Feature from March 2021
Family Law Partner with James, McElroy & Diehl, P.A.
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Education: B.A. in Journalism and B.A. in Political Science, both from UNC-Chapel Hill; J.D. from Campbell Law School
What you value most about your BLI experience: I most value the friendships made with other lawyers, particularly those who I otherwise may not have met since we practice different types of law. Pre-pandemic, we got together several times per year to catch up. During COVID, we have remained close through a large group text thread. We bounce ideas off each other, talk about opportunities within the Bar, and support each other as our respective careers advance.
Your favorite MCB/MBF role: My favorite role was being a member of the BLI. I simply cannot say enough about the friendships that stemmed from my experience.
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: I would like to learn more about immigration law, particularly as it is a major political issue and one that impacts many living in our nation. One of my close BLI friends practices immigration law, and I am fascinated by her job.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte (pre-pandemic): I have always enjoyed Stagioni – Four Seasons of Food. The environment lends itself to good conversation and the food is consistently great. I also like Freedom Park for walks with my husband and son.
What you do when you're not lawyering: I enjoy painting, traveling (pre-pandemic), and spending time with my family and friends.
TONJA DAMON BROOKS, BLI CLASS OF 2003
Feature from March 2021
Criminal Justice Act Coordinating Attorney, Western District of North Carolina, Federal Defenders Office
Hometown: Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Education: Wake Forest University, Wake Forest University School of Law
Your most vivid memory of your BLI experience: Our retreat.
What you value most about your BLI experience: I valued the exposure to other members of the Bar and the opportunities to learn about our community.
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: Come prepared for transparency, and be willing to contribute to the experience by sharing your unique self.
Past and current MCB/MBF volunteer service: I have served on the MCB Board of Directors, Diversity Committee, Grievance Committee, the Foundation's Grant Review Committee, and the BLI Committee. I enjoyed every committee, but my favorite is probably the Grant Review Committee. The Grant Review Committee gave me an opportunity to see how the Foundation is committed to supporting community service in a tangible way. I like being a part of that.
Current personal or leadership goals: As 1 of only 5 people in the country in my position, my goal is to create the standard or blueprint for CJA Coordinating Attorneys throughout the United States.
Greatest leadership accomplishment and why: Being a wife and mother; which has nothing to do with the law; but everything to due with fine tuning leadership skills like patience, creativity, communication, listening, decision making.
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: I am fascinated with great communicators and consider myself a student for life on this subject.
What you do when you're not lawyering: Spending quality time with my family.
Favorite family tradition: Movie night every Saturday night at 8:30.
Colleen MOlner, BLI Class of 2018
Feature from March 2021
Partner, Garfinkel Immigration Law Firm
Hometown: Charlotte, North Carolina
Education: Elon University School of Law (JD) and N.C. State University (BA)
Your most vivid memory of your BLI experience: The retreat – it was such a great opportunity to bond with your classmates and really get to know them. We had a lot of fun together in that setting and it set the tone for the rest of the retreat/class.
What you value most about your BLI experience: The relationships and friendships that I made with my classmates. They’ve already proven to be long-lasting!
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and build relationships with your classmates.
Past and current MCB/MBF volunteer service: Communications Committee (Member); Law Day Committee (Member; Chair); BLI Committee (Member); Immigration & Naturalization Section (Member/Vice Chair).
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: Employment law – it has a lot of overlap with my practice of business immigration law.
What you do when you're not lawyering: Traveling (pre-pandemic)! Hiking, hanging out with my husband and family, and keeping entertained with our puppy!
Favorite vacation spot: Daufuskie Island, South Carolina.
Lakai Vinson, BLI Class of 2018
Feature from February 2021
Partner, Wooden Bowers Vinson
Hometown: Durham, North Carolina
Education: Hampton University, UNC-Chapel Hill School of Law
What you value most about your BLI experience: The connections that I made with my class. I have forged lifelong friendships and relationships with colleagues that allow us to discuss everything from legal issues to life experiences.
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: Take advantage of cultivating the relationships that you make in BLI as they will be well-appreciated as you navigate the practice of law in the years to come.
Favorite volunteer role with the MCB/MBF and why: My most recent leadership experience was serving as a Board member on the Mecklenburg Bar Foundation Board of Directors. Part of building my own law firm has been understanding the necessity in sharing information about my practice area and how I can assist potential clients with their issues. My role with the Foundation certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone to make the ask, which I believe translates into my practice, as I must make the ask every time I consult with a new client.
Current personal or leadership goals: My number one goal is to make sure that I raise well-rounded, kind, and intelligent children who make a difference in the world.
Greatest leadership accomplishment and why: Recovering the third largest verdict in Virginia in 2015 for eight million dollars in a civil rights case was an accomplishment that I am particularly proud of.
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: I would like to learn more about bankruptcy.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte (pre-pandemic): Sea Level
What you do when you're not lawyering: Spending time planning weekend entertainment for my three children and husband.
Favorite family tradition, vacation spot, or something on the horizon that you're excited about: Destin, Florida
Rob Heroy, BLI CLass of 2012
Feature from February 2021
Partner, Goodman Carr, PLLC
Hometown: Greensboro, NC
Education: Double Tar Heel
Your most vivid memory of your BLI experience: Being forced to face my greatest fear in life, karaoke. I seem to remember Sarah Hutchins selecting Britney Spears to really ice the cake. Second place goes to being called out for terrible journaling by Lindahl and Lanning.
What you value most about your BLI experience: Developing strong friendships with other young lawyers at similar places in their careers. Our class is still tight after almost 10 years.
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: It’s a great time to build relationships with Charlotte lawyers involved in the bar and the community. Plus, the Mecklenburg County Bar is a small world. Our paths cross consistently.
Past and current MCB/MBF volunteer service: Current: MBF Secretary and Board Member and member of the Development Committee. Previous: MBF Treasurer and Chair of the Development Committee. President of the Criminal Defense Bar.
Current personal or leadership goals: Making time for topics I'd like to learn more about.
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: Tons. But between work and three kiddos it never quite seems to happen.
What you do when you're not lawyering: Escaping to the mountains for hiking or skiing. Hanging out with my wife. Watching the kiddos grow up fast. They are learning chess and poker, which has been a blast to watch.
Michael L. Martinez, BLI Class of 2014
Feature from February 2021
Partner, Grier Wright Martinez, PA
Hometown: Melbourne, Florida
Education: University of Florida / UNC School of Law
Your most vivid memory of your BLI experience: Strangers showing up to the Catholic Conference Center in Hickory during our BLI retreat asking to speak with me (call me if you want the whole story).
What you value most about your BLI experience: What I value second most about my BLI experience is that I gained tools to help me assess how effectively I am communicating with others and strategies for honing my actions to more efficiently achieve desired outcomes. What I value most is the friendships/relationships, but I’m sure almost everyone responds to this question with that answer because it is the objectively correct response.
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: You get what you give.
Past and current MCB/MBF volunteer service: MCB Communications Committee, MCB CLE Committee, MCB/MBF BLI Committee, MBF Board, MBF Development Committee, MBF Executive Committee.
Current personal or leadership goals: My goal is to be more consistent in my leadership style (and, similarly, parenting style). Consistency in tone and method is crucial to effective leadership (and parenting).
Greatest leadership accomplishment and why: Working together with a physician friend of mine who was practicing palliative medicine at Levine Cancer Institute, we founded an initiative to assist terminal cancer patients with end-of-life planning, particularly immigrant parents leaving behind orphaned children. I am most proud of this because it was difficult work that had a significant impact on some people.
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: Having recently completed implicit bias training through Race Matters for Juvenile Justice, I’d like to learn more about how Bar leaders can identify and seek to address institutional racism within our local legal/court/law enforcement systems.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte (pre-pandemic): Any brewery.
What you do when you're not lawyering: Hanging out with my kids, playing tennis, playing guitar, woodworking.
Something on the horizon that you're excited about: Can’t wait to resume the annual trip to Folly Beach that we do with friends from college.
Liz Vennum, BLI Class of 2019
Feature from February 2021
Principal, Vennum Law
Hometown: Lakeland, Florida
Education: Vanderbilt University / Wake Forest Law
Your most vivid memory of your BLI experience: How impressed and humbled I was when I showed up to the Bar Leadership Dinner and saw how many other lawyers and how many judges considered it important enough to attend.
What you value most about your BLI experience: The ongoing friendships and relationships I've built, as well as connection to and engagement with the Bar.
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: Give it your all, the more energy you put into the program, the more you benefit.
Your favorite volunteer role with the MCB/MBF: Mentoring, especially mentoring other women lawyers at small firms or who are hanging their own shingle.
Current personal or leadership goals: It doesn't sound very ambitious, but at least it's honest-- to stay positive and support my family, my firm, my clients, and anyone else I can to make it through the rest of this pandemic and come out on the other side. In particular, I'm working on connecting with other solo and small firm lawyers who are struggling with the isolation and uncertainty of trying to keep things together right now. (If that sounds like you and you're reading this, send me an email. You're not alone.)
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: Noncompetes, my secret nerdy obsession, about which I plan on writing law review articles someday when I have time.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte (pre-pandemic): Menchie's Frozen Yogurt or Ray's Splash Planet with my kids.
What you do when you're not lawyering: Enthusiastically dive into and subsequently abandon various wobegone craft projects and home decorating ventures.
Something on the horizon that you're excited about: I can't wait until the day I can go out to lunch with friends and greet them with a great big hug.
Shantia Coley, BLI Class of 2018
Feature from January 2021
Counsel, Wells Fargo
Hometown: Kinston, NC
Education: Elon University / North Carolina Central University School of Law
Your most vivid memory of your BLI experience: The retreat of course!
What you value most about your BLI experience: The relationships I built.
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: Definitely build relationships intentionally with your class members. This is a wonderful opportunity for meaningful connections.
Past and current MCB/MBF volunteer service: Communications Committee, Law and Society Committee and my favorite: Young Lawyers Division volunteerism. I also enjoy the Salvation Army Ask-A-Lawyer Day every year and look forward to its return.
Current personal or leadership goals: Continue to move up in-house.
Greatest leadership accomplishment and why: Graduating from college as a first generation graduate.
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: The path to General Counsel for in-house attorneys.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte (pre-pandemic): Anywhere at this point. Seriously!
What you do when you're not lawyering: I’m a mommy of amazing twin boys and I host equity, inclusion and wellness workshops (www.shantiacoley.com). I also enjoy traveling and fitness!!!!
Favorite vacation spot: I love cruises! I'm hopeful they will return safely.
Mandy Schuller, BLI Class of 2019
Feature from January 2021
Senior Counsel, Wells Fargo Legal Department
Hometown: Sterling Heights, Michigan
Education: University of Maryland / Charlotte School of Law
Your most vivid memory of your BLI experience: The retreat. My class had such a great experience at the retreat, it was amazing to see so many different personalities come together to recognize those differences as strengths that ultimately created a very strong bond within the class.
What you value most about your BLI experience: New friendships. After BLI graduation and prior to the pandemic, my class was meeting frequently for lunches and attending events at each other’s offices and homes. During the pandemic we even had a Zoom lunch just to catch up with one another. The friendships I developed through BLI are like no other because I was given an opportunity to cross paths with folks that I would have otherwise not met, even as attorneys in the same town.
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: Be flexible. If 2020 has taught me anything it is that flexibility matters. Personal expectations can determine whether or not we appreciate an experience. If we go into 2021 knowing that we must be flexible and if we revise our expectations based on that knowledge, that is key to appreciating situations even if they change at a moment’s notice.
Past and current MCB/MBF volunteer service: Mecklenburg Bar Foundation Board of Directors and the Bar Leadership Institute Committee. Favorite role: BLI Committee because I have a voice in shaping future class experiences with the hopes that each class has as good of time and learns as much as the class of 2019.
Current personal or leadership goals: As the mother of a recently-turned-13 year old teenager I want to use my leadership skills to help her recognize the importance of giving and to help her overcome the sometimes selfish hurdles that being a teenager can create. I want to create opportunities for her to give of her time and talents, which does not always come naturally to people, especially young people.
Greatest leadership accomplishment and why: I am the Wells Fargo Charlotte Legal Department Pro Bono Local Coordinator, in this role I work with various non-profit organizations throughout the community to plan and hold pro bono events. I work to promote events internally, obtain volunteers to participate, and coordinate training for these events. Despite the challenges faced in 2020, we had a great year with nearly 500 volunteer hours devoted to pro bono. I personally devoted nearly 75 hours to various causes in our community which I believe is an accomplishment given the challenges 2020 presented and the changes we had to make to host virtual events.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte: National Whitewater Center.
What you do when you're not lawyering: Recently, camping. My family has become what I refer to as “Covid-campers,” we bought a travel trailer in spring 2020 and we have ventured out to various locations in North Carolina and Tennessee. I look forward to many more adventures, we already have an Outer Banks trip planned for 2021.
GABRIELLE G. KELLY, BLI CLASS OF 2008
Feature from December 2020
Assistant District Attorney/Team Leader, Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office
Hometown: I'm a military brat, but I call Fayetteville, NC home.
Education: Lenoir-Rhyne University/Wake Forest University School of Law
Advice you'd give to the next BLI class: Embrace vulnerability, especially during the retreat sessions. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” -Brené Brown
Past and current MCB/MBF volunteer service: Bar Leadership Institute Committee, Vice-Chair (current); Bar Leadership Institute Committee Member (previous); MCB Nominating Committee (previous); and Lunch with a Lawyer (previous)
Topic you'd like to learn more about and why: I'd like to continue learning more about tools for interrupting implicit bias. Since acknowledging that one has biases (we all do) does not automatically eliminate them, we as leaders can design systems that account for biases.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte (pre-pandemic): Belk Theater - I really enjoy the performing arts.
What you do when you're not lawyering: De-stress by practicing yoga.
R. Lee Robertson, Jr., BLI Class of 2016
Feature from December 2020
Partner, Robertson & Associates
Education: Charlotte School of Law
What you value most about your BLI experience: Meeting friends from across the Bar, and staying connected with them.
Advice you'd give the next BLI class: Have fun and enjoy the opportunity to meet people you wouldn't otherwise meet in the Bar.
Current and previous MCB/MBF volunteer service: MCB Board of Directors (current); Bar Leadership Institute Committee, Chair (current); Linking Lawyers Mentor (current); Bar Leadership Institute Committee Vice Chair (previous); Social & Networking Committee Chair and Vice Chair (previous)
Topic you'd like to learn more about: The role lawyers played in the growth and change of Charlotte.
Favorite place to go in Charlotte (pre-pandemic): The movies!
What you do when you're not lawyering: Hang out with dogs, go to the mountains, visit with my niece and nephew.