Tampa lawyer forges his own path, ‘trying to impact change where you can’

A conversation with Cory Person, president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association, about lawyering and the turns a life can take.
Attorney Cory Person outside the the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa.
Attorney Cory Person outside the the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Oct. 21, 2021

On a June afternoon last year, about 200 lawyers and supporters marched the streets of downtown Tampa in a show of solidarity after the killing of George Floyd while he was being arrested by Minneapolis police.

“A new generation of lawyers are picking up the mantle and are marching for this great cause of equal justice,” one of the event’s organizers, Tampa attorney Cory Person, told the crowd that day.

Person, 44 and now the third Black president of the Hillsborough County Bar Association in its 125-year history, recently talked about his path: from inner city to boarding school to the Army to the University of North Carolina Tar Heels, followed by a law career in, surprise, Tampa, where he now works at the powerhouse firm of Hill Ward Henderson.

Tell me a bit about your history and what your family was like.

I grew up in what I think would be considered inner city — East Orange, N.J., primarily raised by my grandparents. I had a single parent, my mother. I had godparents.

My grandfather cleaned hospitals and my grandmother was a housekeeper who cleaned other people’s homes. Everything they earned went to feeding me and my brother and often a couple of cousins living with us.

My grandmother had a third-grade education. My grandfather graduated high school. But they understood the importance of education.

(My godfather) had gone to a New England prep school. He thought it was a good idea to get me out of the environment I was living in. The school I went to is called the Berkshire School in western Massachusetts. (Person went in 10th grade on a scholarship.)

I think there were nine African-Americans in a school of 350 to 400 students. That was quite a significant culture shock. But the school was a great school, and I had a lot of support there. It was an incredible experience.

What kind of kid were you?

Smart, curious, definitely into sports. I always enjoyed reading. I think a probably-more-confident-than-I-should-have-been kid as well.

You spent three years in the Army. How did that shape you?

I was in undergrad. I think I had the wherewithal that I was not really disciplined enough, not focused enough. Also it was a financial struggle in college for me. I just made a decision I wanted to be better and do better.

I absolutely loved it. It gave me the opportunity to get some better focus, to earn some income, to finish my degree.

I was a paralegal (in the Army), giving support to our trial counsel and our command. It kind of opened my eyes to the law, really piqued my interest and curiosity. You have that a-ha moment.

How did your law career proceed?

My wife got a job in the Florida market. Florida wasn’t even on our radar. We liked the area, really. We thought, hey, this could be more permanent for us.

After (Tampa law firm) Trenam, I went to work for Delano Stewart. (Stewart was a barrier-breaking Tampa attorney who has been called the state’s dean of Black lawyers.)

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We had a federal trial. We actually lost. I think it was a good fight. About a month out of the trial, Rob Radel (lead counsel for the other side) reached out and asked if I would consider coming to work with him.

I’ve been working in that field ever since — primarily personal injury defense, catastrophic injury and wrongful death claims. Our clients are the businesses that are sued (including) folks that get injured on your premises, motor vehicle accidents, things of that nature.

Event organizers Robert Shiimberg, left, and Cory Person, right, lead lawyers and supporters at the Lawyers March For Equal Justice on June 24, 2020.
Event organizers Robert Shiimberg, left, and Cory Person, right, lead lawyers and supporters at the Lawyers March For Equal Justice on June 24, 2020. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

You co-organized the Lawyers March for Equal Justice after the killing of George Floyd. What was the goal?

If there was going to be change, that lawyers would be in the forefront of that change. (Colleague and fellow organizer Robert Shimberg) and I said if it’s just you and I, we’re going to march and hold this banner and make a statement.

We were between 200 and 250 folks. We enjoined (Hillsborough State Attorney) Andrew Warren and (Hillsborough Public Defender) Julie Holt to be there, and they were. It was important to show solidarity.

The issue was not every police officer is bad and doing something wrong. But there are some, and that has been going on for some time, and you have to address it.

You are your firm’s diversity and inclusion shareholder. How do you make those things happen as a practical matter?

We felt we could have a larger impact beyond our firm — that we’re hiring more diverse lawyers, that our workforce reflects the community, that we’re giving them the opportunity and support and mentorship.

It’s not like, hey, we got it figured out and we’re done. We’re working on it. A lot of firms are working on that.

I think the overall goal is trying to impact change where you can.

What do you do to decompress?

I enjoy reading. I enjoy spending time with my family. I’m also a person of faith, so that’s very important to me.

What are you reading now?

Peril. I just started last night. Bob Woodward is brilliant.

How did you meet your wife, Maria Ramos-Person?

So my wife and I are members of a historic Black Greek fraternity and sorority. At first she didn’t want to go on a date with me. But I was persistent. I beguiled her with my charms eventually.

I have a 16-year-old son, Cory Jr., and a 13-year-old daughter, Adriana.

What do you think of where you live?

It has everything we like in terms of a bigger city without some of the other stuff. We love Tampa. It’s home.