GC Insights with Nina Hickson

September 2, 2020

Latitude Atlanta President, Logan Ide, recently spoke with Nina Hickson, City Attorney, City of Atlanta. Nina is the chief legal officer for the City of Atlanta, with a $2.2 billion operating budget. Nina’s previous roles have included General Counsel for the Atlanta Beltline, City Attorney for the City of East Point, Presiding Judge of the Fulton County Juvenile Court, General Counsel of Atlanta Life Insurance Company, Associate General Counsel of Primerica, and Adjunct Professor at Emory University School of Law.

Latitude: You’ve been busier than usual the last 6 months, fair to say?

Nina: Coronavirus response, then the social justice uprising and high-profile shootings, a high-profile lawsuit with the state – all on top of what was already busy times for the legal department – so, yes, it’s been fairly incredible. In a normal year, I would have visited my mother in Maryland at least three times by August, but this has been anything other than a normal year.

Latitude: Your legal department is right up there in size and complexity with some of the biggest corporate legal departments with whom Latitude works. What does that look like, organizationally?

Nina: Our 90 personnel support the mayor’s office, city council, water, fire, police, zoning, finance, parks and rec, and others, as well as committees of the council. So, like some larger companies, we have attorneys assigned to provide advice and counsel for those individual departments and committees, as well as cross-functional groups like litigation that work across the enterprise.

Latitude: How would your private-sector peers be surprised if they spent a week in your shoes?

Nina: Probably the biggest difference is “practicing law in a fishbowl,” as I call it. Our decisions and activities are subject to Sunshine Law disclosure and regular scrutiny by any number of stakeholders, including constituents and regulators. So, we need to get the big and little things right and communicate in a way that withstands scrutiny now and in the future.  We have a level of scrutiny that is not present in the private sector.

Another key difference – private sector goals are usually closely aligned with the “bottom line.” The City of Atlanta is driven by what is in the best interest of our constituents as interpreted by our elected leadership.  So, as a starting point, we may not have agreement on the specific goals or even the methodology within government. That dynamic can make for a challenging “client.”

Latitude: You mention stakeholders. While you represent the City of Atlanta, you report to both the mayor and the city council. Any challenges with that?

Nina: Absolutely. Agendas, approaches, and requests can vary widely. It has required me to try and be very purposeful and transparent in how I interact with the mayor’s office and the city council as organizations, as well as engendering the trust of the individuals in both organizations – folks need to know that I’m not going to play politics.  Navigating those relationships is one of the most important things that I do, and it’s a skill that is outside the practice of law. It’s a tightrope at times, especially when there are diverging or conflicting opinions and approaches, but I think we’re doing pretty well. I work very hard at being fair and direct.

Latitude: We don’t have space to delve into the incredible events of the past 6 months, but what has been the practical and management impact for you?

Nina: Working remotely and with the current demands has meant an expanded schedule. (If your readers are curious, jobs in the City of Atlanta legal department are neither 9-5 nor stress-free, but they are rewarding!) Also, I’ve noticed the loss of some of the natural structure and the rhythms of moving between meetings in different parts of City Hall as well as the benefit of ‘accidental’ interactions. So, I’ve had to be more purposeful about allocating my time and communicating in all directions. I will say that it’s been easier to schedule meetings in this environment – everyone seems more available.

Latitude: You are a regular employer of law firms and lawyers – what pet peeves, best practices, or trends are top of mind with you today?

Nina: In selecting outside counsel, it is important that the firm seeks to understand the needs of the client and stays in close contact with in-house attorneys.  In other words, the firm needs to demonstrate an understanding of the fiscal limitations of the City as well as the many constituencies who are impacted by the work of the firm.  I appreciate firms with alternative billing methods and who are willing to offer some opportunities for attorneys under my supervision to develop professionally, whether it is through offering training opportunities or allowing one of my attorneys to “shadow” and learn more about the area of specialty of the firm.

Latitude: What led you to law school?

Nina: [Laughs]. I was going to be a journalist and interned at Essence Magazine in my last year of college. I learned that even then it was hard to make it as a journalist without working 2-3 jobs. My professor at Howard suggested I could study communications law as a compromise, which was my intent when I enrolled at Emory University School of Law. In a twist of fate, the professor teaching communications law took a three-year sabbatical, but I never looked back!

Latitude: Role models or mentors?

Nina: Too many to name them all. Growing up, they would include my father, the late Dr. W.F. Hickson, and my mother Dr. Charlestine R. Fairley, Barbara Jordan, Patricia Harris, Shirley Chisholm, the principals of my schools. I was on the national board of my sorority (Delta Sigma Theta Sorority ) and had the honor of serving and sitting in meetings with Dorothy Height and Jewell Lafontant-Mankarious who was the first black woman to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. My relationships and admiration of these women was enriching in my ability to navigate my commitment to service, and service is now the heart of what I do.

Latitude: How about a parting thought for your peers leading legal departments, our experienced Latitude Attorneys, or young attorneys just starting out in this unusual legal environment?

Nina: I would encourage attorneys to approach their tasks with excellence and flexibility.  It is also important that they engage in intentional “self-care” of their physical, emotional, and mental health.

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