Updated: Nov 27, 2021
Despite biases, Atlanta lawyer enjoys successful career
When Monica Ewing started her own law firm in 1992 she was one of three minority female lawyers in the USA who specialized in entertainment law. As a woman of color and native American heritage, to call her trailblazing would be an understatement.
But Ewing never doubted her abilities and her business grew quickly. She was also lucky. “I started my law firm when the entertainment business was really blowing up in Atlanta but it was a predominately white, male, profession at that time. There was only one firm representing people in Atlanta and a lot of the kids in hip hop wanted minority representation. I happened to be there at the right time and was able to carve out a niche for myself.”
Ewing was brought up with a strong belief in herself. She spent most of her childhood shadowing her grandfather, a dentist, but he discouraged her from following the profession herself. When she was around 14, she “fell in love with F. Lee Bailey,” she says, referring to the lawyer who defended Patty Hearst “and I got really honed in on law.”
And her great-grandfather, she points out, was a local business owner, and although he died when she was 10, “I now realize that my resilience and unwillingness to lay down came from him.”
Twenty-nine years after going it alone, Ewing is still running the same business but she’s packed a lot into those three decades. She’s now also a judge, a published author, a member of the American Society for Bioethics & Humanities, a board member of the South Fulton Bar Association and serves on the advisory board for the True Colors Theater Company in Atlanta. Ewing also worked as an adjunct professor for many years at Georgia State University, where she taught legal and music business courses.
That’s a lot to pack into any career but Ewing, as a woman and a Native American, has faced more challenges than most.
Becoming a judge
Although her race helped her when setting up her multi-media law practice, it also helped afterwards, when she was appointed as a judge.
Attorney and politician Maynard Jackson, Ewing says, “was very committed to diversifying the bench in Fulton County, Georgia. “He wanted to bring in younger judges who could stay longer, so I was approached.” Eventually she began a part-time position as a pro hac, or a kind of substitute, in 1996.
However, as a child, Ewing came to identify as something she wasn’t: Black. Some members of her family, she says, have darker skin, and began identifying as Black in the 1800’s. “There was a time when it was safer to be Black than indigenous, because as free people of color, my ancestors became easy target practice.”
As a result of that, she says, two of her great-great-grandfathers became slaves, voluntarily. “It was simply easier and safer to assimilate. From that point forward my family ticked that box. It was complicated for me because I was raised one way and expected to culturally identify another.”
Without a doubt, says Ewing, being female and being minority “has had its challenges.” She was one of seven minority students in her law school class, where there were racist and sexist teachers and classmates. “Trail blazing, no matter what scale it’s on, is difficult.”
Law school was the most difficult time in Ewing’s life, she says. “I had never been face-to-face with blatant, accepted bias. However, at some point a resilience I didn’t know I had kicked in and became motivation. That resilience got me out of there, and tethered me through similar barriers as I built a career.”
And luckily, Ewing had her own traits that drove her through. She’s always been goal-oriented, competitive, and if someone told her she couldn’t, she’d do it to prove she could.
But the last two years have brought struggles to the forefront once more. The murder of George Floyd hit very close to home to Ewing because her husband’s a retired police officer. But she does feel his tragic death has helped with the race conversation. “We don’t have to keep justifying why we’re uncomfortable, why we’re upset. They can’t say any more that this happened a long time ago because it happened last summer.”
Ewing is clearly a survivor and in 2020 she survived something else: COVID-19. Besides the fear of the ravages of the disease and the possibility of death, Ewing and her husband, who was also infected, worried about the cost. That is, two legal, professional Americans with healthcare, worried about payment.
But what stayed with her the most is that she knows there are many people, especially Native Americans and Black Americans, who don’t have any healthcare, who haven’t sought help due to the fear of financial ruin.
A brighter future
Despite all the changes that have happened since Ewing set up her own company, she doesn’t think life, or getting ahead in business, is a lot easier for minorities or women these days. “It just looks like it’s easier. The dangerous window we grew up in on the tail end of the civil rights era and Title IX is gone, but for instance, women still make less than men for the same job.”
There are many more opportunities today, for women and women of color, she says, both of whom are now represented in all aspects of the legal profession.
And Ewing’s three grown children have had a much easier start than she did, she says. “Many of the barriers I faced are no longer there. I watch my daughter go after her dreams without any of the reservations I had. That’s progress. She will still face the institutional discrimination of her generation, pay disparity, and gender bias, as an example,” she points out.
“They say the person who plants a tree doesn’t always get to bask in its shade,” Ewing says. “People planted trees that I benefited from, and I like to think there are a few trees I’ve left behind.”