Courtney Tomlinson has known since the fifth grade that she wanted to be an attorney. Specifically, she had designs on being an environmental lawyer.
“I thought that meant I would be defending animals in court,” she laughs now.
These days she has the far more adult task of defending companies large and small as an employment attorney in the Memphis office of the national firm Fisher & Phillips LLP.
As a child, Tomlinson was a military brat and moved with her father and the Army from Germany to Illinois to South Carolina. She considers herself a native of St. Louis, however, and attended the University of Missouri at Columbia to study political science and history, graduating cum laude in 2005.
Law school found her at the University of Mississippi and it was during this time that she clerked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Office of Legal Counsel, the policy arm of the organization, in Washington where she discovered her love for employment law.
It was a strong foundation for Tomlinson, who worked directly for the assistant legal counsel, Peggy Mastroianni, and built strong connections while there. The EEOC recently came out with guidance on the use of criminal records in employment, something Tomlinson researched and helped form as an intern in 2008.
As a teenager, Tomlinson had worked for her father, then retired from the Army and managing a metals company in St. Louis.
“I really love what I do. I love the subject matter. ... I just really enjoy helping people and helping clients and engaging with HR folks.”
“I did everything from shipping and receiving to orders to answering the phone, so I always loved business,” she said. “When I went into law school and took an employment discrimination class, that’s when I became really interested in the law and that’s when I knew all I wanted to do was labor and employment.”
Other than a brief stint as a plaintiff’s lawyer while living in Washington after graduation from law school, she’s always been on the side of management.
Tomlinson and husband, Chuck, knew they wouldn’t want to raise a family in Washington and instead looked south. With Memphis being equidistance between her family in St. Louis and his in Jackson, Miss., it seemed the perfect location.
“To be honest, we didn’t really have high expectations of Memphis,” she said. “But we’ve been pleasantly surprised and we have really enjoyed living here. This is our life and we’ve embraced it.”
She took a job with Jones Walker in Olive Branch, finally working on the defense side, and found success representing the gaming industry in North Mississippi. She studied theater in high school and was also able to satisfy her “flair for drama” in front of the jury.
“I love it,” she said of being in the courtroom. “It’s kind of like the World Series for our profession. In labor and employment we don’t see trials that much because of people wanting to settle, so when you do … everything that you’ve been preparing for culminates in a couple of days of trial. It’s my favorite thing, probably.”
In May she followed mentor Steve Cupp to Fisher & Phillips, the national boutique firm representing management in all matters of labor and employment, and she says she has enjoyed the challenge of the new firm while wrapping up ongoing obligations. She said of her practice area that “reality really is stranger than fiction” and can be very personal, especially when it comes to cases of sexual harassment.
“I find it incredibly interesting,” she said. “I put it right up there with family law in terms of emotional type of litigation.”
Tomlinson is the legislative chair for the Northwest Mississippi chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, and a member of the national organization. She is also a volunteer for Mewtopia Cat Rescue.
Though in her earliest imaginings she saw herself representing elephants and chimps in the courtroom, Tomlinson’s path has been set since childhood when she first felt the flicker of justice. The commitment toward her career is exhibited in the rewards she reaps from being a problem solver, adviser and counselor.
“I really love what I do,” she said. “I love the subject matter, I’m so glad that I discovered this type of law in law school. I just really enjoy helping people and helping clients and engaging with HR folks.”