Joni Poitier knew early on she was destined to join the legal field.
She knew in fifth grade after a former U.S. prosecutor visited her Miami elementary school and talked about making the streets safer for residents. Poitier liked that — it was a selfless role, something her father always professed to her even at a young age.
She still knew in high school, when as a junior she interned for then Miami-Dade County Judge Wendell Graham. It was an opportunity many college and law school students would have relished. She didn’t take it for granted.
“Within five minutes of talking to her, you could tell she would go anywhere she wanted to go,” said Graham, who is now an 11th Circuit judge.
Poitier didn’t grow up in Jacksonville. She didn’t go to law school anywhere close to Florida. But she calls the city home now and has carved out quite a career so far.
Poitier, 36, recently was named by the American Bar Association as an “On the Rise” Top 40 young lawyer. She was one of three in Florida and the only one in Jacksonville to earn the honor.
Those named “exemplify a broad range of high achievement, innovation, vision, leadership and legal and community service,” according to the ABA’s website.
When Poitier opened the congratulatory email, it took her by surprise. She didn’t know she had been nominated. She still doesn’t know who suggested her.
Poitier’s colleagues at Moseley Prichard Parrish Knight & Jones were possibly “happier than I was,” she said, as congratulations streamed in.
Phone calls and emails from her former peers at the State Attorney’s Office also were heartfelt in their praise.
Yet, when asked about how she feels about the national recognition, Poitier smiles but doesn’t take the opportunity to talk about herself.
“I was honored,” she said, quickly adding, “When you look at the other attorneys on the list, they’re pretty amazing.”
She’s never done her job or time-intensive volunteer efforts for recognition, although she admits it’s “nice when other people notice what you’re doing.”
She does it to help others, taking on selfless roles to benefit the community — just like she learned.
Sticking with the plan
Poitier grew up in Miami in a family of medical professionals.
So when she came home from elementary school one day saying she wanted to go to law school when she grew up, her mother, Arleen, was surprised.
No grand plan of being president or an astronaut, or other fantastical careers kids often dream. Instead, Poitier wanted to one day be an attorney and, eventually, a judge.
“Once she made her mind up, it never changed,” said Arleen Poitier.
Hearing from the former prosecutor triggered it. So when high school came around, a distinct opportunity arose with Graham through family and church.
The judge told the “effervescent and super bright” junior she could work with him the entire summer if she chose. He figured it would be a part-time learning experience and eventually her drive might taper off.
Nope. Poitier was there from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. five days a week, every week. Graham can’t recall her missing a day.
Of course, a high schooler can’t write briefs or do much in the way of the law, but Graham had her do some non-legal research, take notes and other odd jobs.
Maybe more importantly, he exposed Poitier to what it was like to be in the legal field. Meeting Bar members, elected officials and receiving a behind-the-scenes look.
After high school, Poitier went to Spelman College in Atlanta before attending law school at Vanderbilt University.
After graduating, she passed the Georgia Bar and wanted to go back to Atlanta, but her father encouraged her take a deep breath before jumping right in.
Besides, he said, maybe she could come back to Florida.
She did, passing that Bar exam, too, and ended up in Jacksonville for a job to blaze her own path away from her native Miami. Her aunt is now retired from the local Department of Corrections and her grandparents are about an hour west in Lake City, so family is nearby.
She applied to be a prosecutor, another surprise — and slight scare — for her mom.
A range of experiences
Poitier enjoyed her first legal job with the State Attorney’s Office. She worked hard and grew close to many of the young attorneys during her six years there.
Being a prosecutor wasn’t something Arleen Poitier expected from her daughter, but getting some criminal courtroom experience was always part of the plan, said Joni Poitier.
She had done some legal intern work for clinics while in school and decided it was a way to make a difference.
“I just woke up and said it’s something I want to try,” she said.
The last part of her time as a prosecutor was spent handling cases in the Sexual Assault Division with some of the most vulnerable victims — children. Those are the types of cases that can leave scars on even the most hardened attorneys. And generally there is a shelf life for just how much an attorney can take.
“Those are difficult … they sit with you,” Poitier said.
But, as her mother said of her daughter, “She knew the children needed to be protected.”
Sometimes Poitier would have to enter dangerous situations to do her job. That’s what scared her mom.
Being a few hours away, she couldn’t do anything if something bad happened. Eventually, she just told her daughter not to tell her when it would be dangerous.
Poitier enjoyed her time doing criminal work. But when a couple of former prosecutor peers told her about the job at Moseley Prichard, she couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
For the past four years, she’s done civil defense for corporations along with maritime legal work.
She said she’s loved learning about this side, too. It’s different — like when she walks on to a vessel for a maritime case, she can tell how crew members don’t always expect it’s a woman coming on board.
The work ethic and demeanor she displayed as a prosecutor stayed, too.
“I have found her unflappable,” said Jim Moseley Jr., one of the firm’s partners.
The firm encourages its attorneys to seek pursuits outside the courtroom, too, but no one has ever had to nudge Poitier to do so.
She volunteers with the Women’s Board of Wolfson Children’s Hospital and is on the board of directors for Family Foundations of Northeast Florida.
She also was appointed this year by Gov. Rick Scott to serve on the Florida Elections Commission.
“You’re here on this earth for what you can do for others, not necessarily what you can do for yourself,” Poitier said, recalling some fatherly advice.
The volunteering, the legal career — doing for others.
Some might say the efforts show a “broad range of achievement” for a young attorney. The ABA did with its national recognition.
Then there’s also a dedication to her church and her five godchildren.
It all keeps her pretty busy, but she strives to be a servant leader. One day, she’d like to continue that role as a judge.
As Graham said, given the effort and determination she’s shown, she could end up “going anywhere she wanted to go.”
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