Jami A. Coleman ('08)
The path to practicing law did not go exactly as planned for Jami A. Coleman, but the end result is exactly where she is meant to be. Growing up in Germany as one of seven siblings, Coleman aspired to be just like The Cosby Show’s matriarch.
“Clair Huxtable was this beautiful, graceful woman that I so admired,” recalled Coleman, who was born in Germany and moved often due to her father’s military career. “She was a lawyer – a family law attorney – and had five beautiful kids and this successful husband doctor. They were like the perfect family and she was this powerful woman. I wanted to be like her.”
Coleman envisioned going to Georgetown Law and being a powerful corporate attorney. In high school, she participated in debate teams and held leadership roles. Then, she became pregnant with her first child at the age of 17 and her priorities shifted. While juggling being a single mom, working at The Florida Bar and attending Florida State University, Coleman remained steadfast in her goal to practice law.
Filing her first tax return as a young mother and getting back much more than she expected was a defining point in Coleman’s journey.
“It was more than half of what I made for the whole year. I thought, ‘Why am I getting all this money back?’” recalled Coleman. “It turns out there is the Earned Income Tax Credit specifically for low-income families and individuals, and that piqued my interest. From that point on, I knew the type of lawyer I was going to be. I was going to learn how to help people with their taxes.”
Coleman submitted law school applications to almost 100 schools over the course of three years, but initially received only rejection letters. She finally obtained a coveted acceptance letter from FAMU Law on her second try.
“I saved those rejection letters for a long time because it really motivated me to show the schools that I was worthy of being a lawyer and that I could be an asset to their school,” Coleman said.
Despite having a full-time job and being a mother to two children during her 1L year at FAMU, Coleman performed well. She then utilized her 1L credentials to transfer to Florida State Law, where she was closer to her supportive family.
Never one to abandon a goal, Coleman earned her LL.M. in Taxation from Georgetown University Law Center after graduating with her J.D. in 2008 from FSU. In 2009, Coleman returned to Tallahassee to begin her tax law career at the Legal Services of North Florida Low Income Taxpayer Clinic.
“I loved it because you got baptized by fire,” Coleman said. “I was actually hands on with the clients. Working for low-income clients is probably the best experience I have had because they are so eternally grateful. That experience helped me develop relationships, learn how to interact with people and I got one-on-one interaction with the IRS. A lot of people are afraid of the IRS, but on the other end of the phone is a person who has the same challenges that you have.”
Coleman worked at the clinic for several years before transitioning to private practice full time. In 2017, she became a partner at Williams & Coleman in Tallahassee, where she devotes her practice primarily to helping businesses and individuals with a wide variety of tax-related issues. She also handles business, estate planning and probate cases. Above everything else, helping people is Coleman’s passion.
“The people I encounter and the relationships are the best part of my job. I do not think it is an accident that the people who walk through my door are coming to me for assistance. I have cases that keep me up all night and cases that I pray about because I care so much about the people I am helping.”
Coleman, who was honored as a Super Lawyers Rising Star in 2017 and 2018, also continues to assist people who cannot afford representation. She still volunteers with Legal Services of North Florida and provides pro bono assistance to Legal Aid Foundation Tallahassee – an organization for which she is the immediate past president – and FSU Law’s Veterans Legal Clinic. In 2017, in honor of her pro bono work, Coleman received the Tallahassee Bar Association’s Thomas Ervin, Jr. Distinguished Young Lawyer Award.
In addition, Coleman teaches tax courses to undergraduates at Florida A&M University and she mentors law students and young lawyers. She often returns to FSU Law to speak to students. “I love Florida State and give back because the school instilled something in me that I wasn’t even sure was there. I gained mentors and developed lifelong friendships. If I can provide some type of guidance or be an asset to students, then that is what I want to do because I really feel that is what our purpose is. I know I am not the only first-generation law student or the only unconventional law student. I know I can share those experiences with other students and encourage them that their present circumstances in no way have to define their future.”
As a board member of the Tallahassee Bar Association, Coleman also organizes an annual event for high school students interested in the law. “Every year, I take a group of about 70 high school students and expose them to the practice of law. The event is centered around exposing students to the diversity within the legal profession. The students spend a day pretending to be judges and lawyers, watching a first appearance at Leon County Courthouse, then taking a tour at the FSU College of Law, participating in mock trial, and then a speed-networking luncheon with judges and lawyers in the community.”
Coleman may be able to relate to young people in part because of her two children. She spends much of her free time with her 14-year-old daughter Ariel, while her 18-year-old son Khari is studying biomedical science at the University of Central Florida. Coleman also devotes her evenings and weekends to connecting with other family members and her many close friends – some of whom she met at FSU Law and still sees regularly. She and a group of three other FSU Law alumni have reunions every year at the Florida Classic.
“Family and friends are so important to me,” Coleman stressed. “I enjoy being a mother – I think that’s the biggest accomplishment I will ever have. Relationships with friends help you get cemented and remind you of your purpose and of what’s important, so when I’m not working I’m trying to maximize the time I have with family and friends.”
Coleman also is extremely involved in Bethel Missionary Baptist Church – where her father and mother serve as a deacon and deaconess. Her parents, James and Judy Coleman, provided much inspiration and support to Coleman as she reached for her goals. Perhaps it is because of their influence that Coleman yearns to do even more to assist others in the future.
“My biggest goal is to reach my fullest potential, whatever that might look like,” Coleman said. “I want to be able to recreate myself in the next 10 years and be something more than what I am currently. I want to touch and help as many people as I possibly can before I leave this earth.”
As printed in the 2018 issue of Florida State Law magazine.