Gibson Becomes First African-American Woman Partner at Burch, Porter & Johnson

By Bill Dries


Tannera Gibson knew she wanted to be more than an attorney. She wanted to be an attorney at Burch, Porter & Johnson PLLC, one of the city’s oldest law firms with a deep history in and out of court and the business of law.

This month, she became the first African-American female partner in the history of Burch, Porter & Johnson.

“Once you become a partner you actually share in the profits of the firm. So you take ownership of part of the firm. Your responsibilities change,” she said of the eight-year transition from associate to partner. “Not to say you don’t have a voice before, but owning part of the firm, obviously your voice gets a little bit louder.”

As a student at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, following earning her undergraduate degree in computer science at Memphis in 2003, she took the legal writing course required of all law students.

The class was taught by Eric Plumley, also a partner at Burch, Porter & Johnson.

“And he would hold conferences for us to discuss our papers in his office,” Gibson remembered of coming to the firm’s office at the old Tennessee Club on the northern side of Court Square.

“I know this sounds kind of silly, but when I walked into the building I knew. I just knew. I walked in and I knew this is where I wanted to work,” she said. “It’s more family-oriented. There is not a focus on billable hours. Obviously you have to bill them. But if I want to raise my children and see them at night, this is the place to do that. It’s very open door. It truly is like a second family and I came to learn that over time.”

Gibson counts city attorney Bruce McMullen, a shareholder at Baker Donelson, as a mentor.

“As a minority, there are not a lot of people that you have in positions of power or positions like partnerships,” she said.

A 2015 study by the online site Law360 found African-American attorneys make up on average 1.6 percent of the partners at law firms nationally.

Memphis law firms or national firms with a Memphis presence are above that average, according to the study.

The Minority Corporate Counsel Association has annually surveyed law firms starting in 2004. Its 2016 survey of 225 law firms found the average of minority partners in large law firms is approximately 8 percent. Male partners outnumber female partners more than three to one.

McMullen was among those who spoke Thursday, June 23, at the formal introduction of Gibson as a partner. So was Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, an attorney with a practice on hold for now, who has hired Gibson to work as an attorney for the city.

“I loved to practice law,” he said. “It’s kind of different on this side, reading legal memos and so forth from the client perspective.”

In the most recent city contract negotiations, Gibson negotiated for the city in talks with the union representing machinists, and then with the Memphis Police Association.

“There’s no guideline. There’s no process,” she said of the experience. “You just kind of go in there and wing it and do the best you can. I used every skill set I’ve developed over the last eight years to get in there and get it done.

“It’s a lot of the human factor,” Gibson said. “My readiness came from a lot of the work I do on the plaintiff side.”

The experience was valuable, but Strickland said it also had it other consequences.

“It’s convinced her she doesn’t want to be in politics,” he said.