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When new corporate law firm Molden Holley Fergusson Thompson & Heard opens for business on Monday, it will be making history, said its five partners. Molden Holley will be the first African-American firm in Atlanta made up of lawyers with big-firm corporate experience, they said. Four of the partners are Alston & Bird alums and the fifth worked at Sutherland Asbill & Brennan and Hunton & Williams. Three other lawyers are joining the firm as of counsel. Regina S. Molden, the new firm’s founder, was a fourth-year associate in the securities litigation group at Alston & Bird. She has the fewest years of legal experience of anyone in the firm, but a prior career in business made her the obvious choice for managing partner. Three of the firm’s other partners, Oni A. Holley, Colette Y. Fergusson and E. Steven Thompson, are also Alston alums. The fourth, Bradley E. Heard, was a classmate of Thompson’s at Yale Law School. The new partners said there’s an unmet demand in the Atlanta market for an African-American firm capable of doing complex business transactions and litigation. “That would be unique,” agreed H. Eric Hilton, the general counsel for H.J. Russell & Co., the city’s largest black-owned construction and real-estate development company. Hilton said that most African-American firms in the city are sole practitioners or small partnerships. These firms generally focus on criminal, personal injury and employment matters — and, to a lesser extent, corporate work, he said. Molden Holley, by contrast, will focus on big business. Practice areas will include mergers and acquisitions, business torts, corporate transactions, employment and commercial real estate. The firm also will handle juvenile defense and special education matters, which, Molden said, are a passion for two of the partners. Molden sees Atlanta as the ideal city for a black-owned corporate firm. There are plenty of Fortune 500 companies in Atlanta interested in partnering with minority lawyers, and the city is full of thriving black-owned businesses, she said. She said that 23 of the nation’s 280 leading African-American businesses are in Georgia, according to a survey by Black Enterprise magazine. Plus, the city is home to several Fortune 500 companies. The new firm will pitch its services to local minority businesses that balk at paying big-firm rates, as well as Fortune 500 companies, said Molden. Although Atlanta is known as a black business Mecca, few African-American law firms have sprung up to serve them. Two of the first African-American lawyers to practice here, in the late sixties, said that in the past African-American lawyers could not get the clients — and did not have the political and business connections — to support a large corporate practice. The two, Sampson Oliver and Paul T. Robinson, were speaking at a panel last week on the history of African-American lawyers in the city, organized by the DeKalb Bar Association and the county’s minority bar, the DeKalb Lawyers Association. Many of the big Atlanta firms that exist today were able to grow because they had either a political connection or a relationship with one of the city’s nascent Fortune 500 companies, Robinson said. “It’s very hard to put a law firm together and hold it together without those kind of anchors,” he said. “We haven’t quite been able to develop those large-scale relationships with business and political entities.” Oliver said that he and Robinson, along with other African-American lawyers, thought about putting together a sizeable black firm but were unable to do so. In the late sixties, Oliver said, he could count all the black lawyers in the state using “both hands plus one.” “We were not strong enough in our own individual right to form the type of law firm that exists downtown with 200 or 300 lawyers,” he said. Hilton, the H.J. Russell general counsel, pointed out that it’s a challenge for any lawyer to start a law practice and find clients. “Minority attorneys in the profession are few and far between, period, so a lot of times they elect to stay with majority firms,” he said. Molden thought differently. Her prior career in business gave her the confidence to start her own firm, she said. “I’m not risk-averse. It took my background to be the catalyst,” she said. Molden spent almost 10 years in ad sales for radio, TV and newspapers in Tuscaloosa, Ala. — always on straight commission — before going to law school. She’d embarked on a career in ad sales after marrying and having her first child at 18. In her late twenties, her employer, a newspaper company, offered her a management position, but after thinking it over, she decided she’d rather be an attorney. Her husband pointed out that she needed a bachelor’s degree first. She graduated summa cum laude in three years while working full time and raising two young children. She did it by attending three schools simultaneously, combining home study courses from the University of Alabama with junior college on her lunch breaks and night classes at Stillman College, which awarded her degree. “I was on a mission,” she said. She was an “A” student by necessity, she said. “I had to get a scholarship. It was the only way I could afford law school with kids.” After law school, she joined Alston’s securities litigation group in 2001. But she said she always knew she wanted to start her own firm and has spent the last year putting her team together. Holley was a sixth-year associate in Alston’s securities litigation group. Fergusson was an associate in Alston’s corporate group until 2003, when she left to go solo. Thompson comes from the commercial real estate group at Powell Goldstein, where he was an associate. He was at Alston until 2002. Heard started his own practice three years ago, after a combined six years at Hunton & Williams and Sutherland. Molden also recruited three lawyers who will be of counsel: Makila A.K. Sands comes from Alston, where she was an associate in labor and employment. Junwon Choi was a member of the liquid and natural gas group in King & Spalding’s Houston office, and T. Deon Warner left Andrews Kurth’s Houston office in 1997 to start his own firm. He is also a past chairman of the Texas State Securities Board. Holley said she was “getting all the right signals” and likely would have made partner if she stayed at Alston — but joining forces with Molden sounded more exciting. “This was something I believed in strongly. I was willing to walk away from that to be a part of this,” she said. Thompson said that several partners at Powell Goldstein tried to talk him out of leaving, telling him he had a “strong future” at the firm. But “this grabbed my attention.” “When Regina approached me, I thought — this is what I went to law school to do,” he said. “Before I went to law school, I had a vision of a firm like this one,” he explained. But in law school, he “got sucked into the system and started thinking differently.” Heard and Fergusson already had been bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, but said the scope of their practices has been limited by their solo status. Fergusson said the new firm will give her the resources to go after larger, more sophisticated matters. Ben F. Johnson III, managing partner of Alston, did not respond to requests for comment.

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