Ron Freeman on the porch of his firm's office in Union City.
Ron Freeman sat in the room at the Georgia State Capitol and listened. It was 1982, and Freeman, then a senior at Morehouse College, was an intern for Senator John Foster, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, which was discussing the establishment of a new law school in Downtown Atlanta.
With a partial scholarship offer to attend Stanford Law School in his pocket, Freeman listened as the members of the committee engaged in a heated debate over the merits of creating Georgia State University College of Law. Not surprisingly, legislators from those areas where law schools already existed in Georgia were very much opposed to the idea.
“I would sit in on these committee meetings,” he recalls, “and the senators from Athens and the senators from Macon were basically saying why we did not need another law school and why they did not think it would succeed.”
Freeman agreed with them.
“I did not think it would succeed. But more importantly, I did not think any young person would stake their future on attending a school that was unaccredited on the whim that accreditation may happen when they could go immediately into an accredited institution.”
Freeman soon realized, however, that the fledgling law school had an ace up its sleeve. Georgia State had Ben F. Johnson, Jr.
A self-professed lover of the underdog, Freeman spoke extensively with Johnson, a former state senator and former dean of Emory Law School. He soon began to see what Johnson was creating.
“I understood what the vision was,” Freeman explains. “And I soon realized that for this guy to leave Emory Law School and to have done all the things that he has done professionally, to basically stake his career on this move, he must really believe in it, and I believed in him.”
Johnson told Freeman he should think about coming to Georgia State, offering financial assistance if his grades were in line.
“The one thing he told me, he said that if you come to Georgia State, you will never regret that decision,” Freeman says. “And so I decided to come to Georgia State, and I can honestly tell you I have not regretted that decision.”
Riding in back
Freeman sits in one of the rooms of a spacious old Victorian three-story house in Union City, a small town just south of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The location is convenient to Freeman’s home in unincorporated south Fulton County and his firm’s other office in Midtown Atlanta. The house sits on a hill overlooking Roosevelt Highway, a road that runs parallel to the railroad. He splits his time between this office, which he opened two years ago, and the firm’s office on Spring Street in Midtown Atlanta, which opened in 1994.
Johnson & Freeman LLC has become Georgia’s premier minority-owned business litigation firm. The firm has expertise in corporate law, business litigation, governmental law, construction law and estate planning.
On a recent morning, Freeman was up on a ladder changing light bulbs in the ceiling of the old house, which he quickly notes was beautifully restored before he bought it. Freeman seems very at home here. The house agrees with him, you might say. He enjoys the somewhat quieter pace.
The youngest of Isaac and Dorothy Freeman’s five children, Ron Freeman didn’t spend too much time in one place when he was growing up. His father, Isaac Freeman, Sr., served for 32 years in the U.S. Army. The youngest of five children, Ron Freeman, was born at the Bad Cannstatt Army Hospital in Stuttgart, Germany. The family lived there until he was about five years old when they moved to United States – first to Atlanta for six months, then on to Alaska for the next seven years.
When his father’s tour of duty was up in Alaska, the family moved back to Atlanta, where Isaac Freeman, then a colonel, would serve as commander of the Atlanta Army Depot, now known as Fort Gillem. Young Ron was just happy not to be moving anymore.
“We had a station wagon, and because I was the baby I would always end up in the far back with the luggage,” he recalls. The drive from Anchorage, Alaska to Atlanta took 14 days. “I remember just being so glad that we were not moving.”
Growing up in Atlanta
Freeman would get up early in the morning to take the bus – first to attend Sutton Middle School and again when he went to Northside High School, where he lettered in wrestling and football. After graduating from high school in 1978, Freeman would go on to attend his father’s alma mater, Morehouse College and play football.
As a freshman at Morehouse, Freeman was more concerned with playing outside linebacker than keeping up with his studies. That’s when he met his wife, Gwen, who was attending Spelman on an academic scholarship.
“She made it very clear to me that I needed to get more serious about my education, and I did, and ended up graduating from there Summa Cum Laude and having done very well both academically and athletically,” Freeman says. “I loved the experience.”
When he accepted Johnson’s invitation to be among the first students admitted to Georgia State Law, Freeman would encounter two men who would have a profound influence on his life. Like his father, they were former military men.
Learning the law
“When I first came to the law school, I met Professor Ray Lanier, who is a reserve marine officer, and I met Professor Lynn Hogue, who is a reserve army officer, so these were really the first two pillar professors that kind of embraced me,” Freeman says. “And I think the reason why they were attracted to me and I was attracted to them, was because I was a military brat. And there was just something about their demeanor in the classroom that reminded me so much of my father, and so I kind of hung out with them a lot.”
Knowing the athletic young man was probably missing sports a little bit, Lanier started up an intramural football team at the law school and also allowed Freeman to wrestle in Georgia State’s wrestling tournaments.
“I will just tell you that the school fully embraced me, and it really embraced all the students. We were a very close class,” Freeman says. “But my first year, I think I probably went through the same trepidations that any first-year law student would have. But I always felt like Georgia State was an extended family, and I have always felt that way.”
After graduating from law school and passing the bar, Freeman went to work as a staff attorney for Judge Jerry Baxter, then a State Court Judge and now a Fulton County Superior Court Judge. Baxter says he doesn’t think there’s anybody who’s ever met Freeman that doesn’t like him. The two men hit it off immediately and remain great friends.
“He’s got a magnetic personality and is just a great communicator. I knew right off that he was going to go places and have a great presence in Atlanta. You could just tell that he had all the attributes of a leader and would be very active in the community,” Baxter says. “People are drawn to him, and to sum it up he’s a gentleman. He treats people the way he would want to be treated. There’s an x-factor that people have. Maybe one in 10 people have this x-factor, this personal magnetism, and he has it.”
Seeing the big picture
For Freeman, who aspired to be a trial lawyer, the experience he gained working for Baxter was invaluable. He watched the trials, observed how a good lawyer works, and learned the value of getting to know everyone in the courtroom, from clerks to bailiffs.
Just over a year later, Freeman joined the firm of Arrington & Hollowell, an insurance defense law firm where he would practice for the next four years. He left to join the business litigation department at Nations, Mayer & Yates, a boutique law firm in Atlanta, where he would be a partner. After a few years learning from another good mentor, Randy Mayer, Freeman decided it was time to start his own firm.
The decision to leave the firm and strike out on his own was not an easy one.
“I think it had a lot to do with the way that I was raised. You get a job, you stay on it for 30 years, 40 years, they give you a watch, and you retire and you go fishing the rest of your life,” he says. “So I intended to go into the law profession, work with a firm for 30 or 40 years, retire, and do just that.”
But Freeman realized that was not the track that he was going to take. For years he was presented with opportunities. Many people had taken an interest in his future. He had begun doing government work while at Arrington & Hollowell, where Marvin Arrington, now a Fulton County superior Court Judge, was Atlanta’s vice mayor at that time, would expose him to numerous professional opportunities
“I realized that governments were beginning to establish what we call diversity initiatives, where they were trying to incorporate more minorities into government projects and into their procurement,” he says. “And I felt, you know, being a military brat, just my entire career with doing insurance defense, my trial work, my business litigation, that I could really position our firm to take advantage of diversity initiatives in government.”
Growing the firm
Freeman went into practice with Horace Johnson, Jr. Johnson was outside attorney for Newton County, and Freeman was outside county attorney for Fulton County. They came together and started representing government clients. The partnership was successful, and the firm did very well.
In 2002, Johnson had a new opportunity and became the first African American judge in Newton County, where he is a Judge today. Freeman bought out his share and became the sole owner of Johnson & Freeman, whose roster of clients includes large financial and religious institutions, corporations, governmental entities, small businesses, construction and engineering firms, unions, medical organizations, transportation companies, educational institutions and individuals.
When the city of Atlanta was looking for a minority firm to joint venture with a majority firm (Kilpatrick & Stockton) on what was then the largest procured legal services contract in the State of Georgia – the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport construction – Johnson & Freeman was chosen, based on the firm’s extensive government experience.
As successful as the firm’s government business has been, Freeman says he is beginning to transition into other areas. Because so many private employers now have diversity initiatives, the firm is getting a good amount of business from fairly large corporations that are very passionate about making sure that there is a diverse group of lawyers and people in their work force. Among the private clients on the firm’s roster are Coca-Cola Enterprises and Camp Dresser and McKee, along with a number of construction companies.
For many years, Freeman’s good friend Judge Baxter had encouraged him to be a county magistrate. So in 1991, when Judge Floyd E. Propst, then the Fulton County Probate Judge called to tell him he was going to appoint him as a magistrate, Freeman jumped at the opportunity. Today, Freeman is Chief Judge in three different cities – Riverdale, Morrow, Jonesboro – as well as the pro tem in Union City. He spends two weeks a month as a Judge.
Recently, however, Freeman’s desire to spend more time in the courtroom representing clients has been rekindled.
“I need to get back in the courtroom, because that really is my passion,” he says. “So this year I am going to get more directly involved in a few client matters that I think are going to go to court.”
Freeman’s interests extend beyond the law. He doesn’t hide his passion for the Young Family YMCA, his church Hoosier memorial U.M.C., Morehouse College and Georgia State Law. He traces his desire to give back to his father.
“My dad - I can remember this as vivid as if he were standing in this room today – but growing up he always told us, and this was his kind of mantra: ‘To him that much is given, much is expected,’” Freeman recalls.
“And that was kind of the Freeman creed, and it is so odd that that is the creed in my house now with my kids. But I have always taken from that; that when you are blessed and you are given opportunities, it is your responsibility to give back and to give other people those same opportunities. And he always told us you are supposed to do it cheerfully and not grudgingly. It brings me so much joy to be able to do it.”
As one of the first graduates of Georgia State Law, Freeman has an interesting perspective on how far the law school has come in a relatively short time. Honored to be a graduate of the law school, Freeman now serves on its Board of Visitors. It makes him feel good when friends from around the United States tell him their children are looking at attending Georgia State for law school.
“I think the law school taught us that the law profession is a very endearing and humbling experience, and you have to pace yourself, and you have to be flexible and understand that things are not always going to go your way, but there is a silver lining in everything,” he says. “When I hear some of the stories now of how people got to the law school and the personal circumstances that they experience to attend law school, I am simply amazed regarding their commitment to the profession. I think this character trait is very important, because those same people, they will be able to weather what I call the vicissitudes of life and do just fine, and I think that is a compliment to the administration of the law school.”
The house he shares with his wife Gwen and their two children will be getting a little quieter this fall as their daughter, Chelsea, heads off to college at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina. His son, Ronnie Jr., starts fifth grade this fall.
Freeman says he has the best job in America. He considers himself very blessed.
“I feel great,” he says. “I think everyone has kind of an ordained purpose, and it is our goal to find out what that is. I feel like I found mine. I like helping people, and the law allows me to do that. And I am the kind of person that likes short-term gratification, so I can see a pretty quick return from what I do and how it positively impacts someone. This is what I want to do. I think this is my calling.”
~ Jim Hellegaard