Many are the cases where a small town upbringing makes ambitious people search for greener pastures. For Columbus, Mississippi native Yawanna McDonald, her small town roots brought an early realization of the potential to be had elsewhere.
Environmental science was her first passion. A biology degree followed by a Masters in Environmental Science from Mississippi State University put her squarely on target for a position with a leading U.S. environmental consulting firm. In an industry focused on helping industrial and other clients maintain compliance with the large body of U.S. environmental regulations, McDonald found herself often dealing with environmental attorneys.
That made an impression, and after several years of working with the consulting firm in their Birmingham office, she turned her energies to law school. “I had always been intrigued by the prospects of a law career, but wanted to get some work and life experience first,” she says. Already married and with two small children, the young mother enrolled at Samford University’s Cumberland Law School in Birmingham. Graduating in 2013, she easily passed the Alabama Bar.
The years spent in environmental consulting taught her skills and lessons she still uses today in her successful practice at Birmingham’s Campbell Guin. “I learned to work with all types of clients. I honed skills in leadership and time management, which helps me today with my law practice and my everyday life journey”
During law school, she derked in a position that helped her narrow her area of interest, and it wasn’t environmental law. The newly-minted attorney found wills, trusts, and estate administration and litigation fascinating. Much of her practice focuses on working with estates worth millions. When money and family members are involved, things can become complicated.
“There is always a back story, with family history and emotions involved. It’s not just your simple ‘breach of contract’ type of case. We deal with issues such as second spouses versus children from the first marriage. These things can get very personal,” she says. “You have spouses vs. kids, kids vs. parents, siblings vs. siblings. It can be a family civil war” McDonald has represented both sides. She has fought to uphold the decedent’s last wishes, protect the persons left in charge to administer the estate or trust, and also ligated to repeal the will when she believes the testator was influenced or lacked capacity.
In one particular case that really stands out, McDonald represented heirs of the decedent who had been heavily influenced by a caretaker to leave all her assets to the caretaker. There, McDonald was able to assist the heirs in their successful recovery against the caretaker and others. McDonald says, “When you’re able to right a wrong and help a client, it’s a wonderful day?’
McDonald became a partner in 2018. Although her practice focuses on Estate and Trust litigation, she also handles demanding and challenging cases in commercial and business litigation, and shareholder disputes, representing both plaintiffs and defendants. The busy attorney, wife and mother still finds time to give back. Her community involvement includes serving as a junior board member of the Birmingham YWCA, where this past year she co-chaired the annual Kids Komer fundraising Luncheon. “Kids Komer is one way the YWCA offers affordable child care services to working women with children. Mothers know their children will be safe, loved, and well-cared for while they work. It’s a world-class learning environment. The Luncheon is our one fundraiser for the year, and this year we raised over $170,000,” she says. McDonald has decided to co-chair the Luncheon again this year and hopes to exceed their past fundraising efforts.
This year, due to her family and professional commitments, Yawanna McDonald reluctantly ended her six-year tenure as Girl Scout Troop leader. She spoke of some regrets in having to give up that position but knew it was the right decision. She enjoyed being a part of the organization and being able to influence the lives of young girls—for her it was more than selling cookies. “I saw it as a way to expose my scout troop to people, professions, and activities that they might not otherwise see.”
With three children ranging in age from age two to age 15, she says “I’m in different time zones” with their different life stages. But she credits Vemell, her husband of 17 years, with his willingness to pitch in and help shoulder the load. “He’s been very supportive, which allows me to be a successful partner in this firm.”
And, she says, the firm’s managing partner, Andy Campbell has also been supportive of her and her colleagues’ professional goals. “I’ve been with Andy now for five years. He has been very supportive of my career, especially in light of being a working mother. I appreciate that he does not make me pick and choose between being a mother and an attorney. He truly has helped me become a successful attorney.
“I, along with my colleagues, am very passionate about the practice of law and helping our clients obtain their goals. One of our firm’s top priorities is to vigorously litigate our clients’ interests— which is embodied by Andy Campbell’s leadership.”