Read profiles of all the winners here.
Law School: Emory University School of Law
Favorite women in history: Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt
Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
A: I didn’t have any lawyers in my family. I remember my mom telling me when I was young, “You argue so much, you ought to be a lawyer.” I’m getting ready to tell my daughter the same thing as she approaches that arguing age.
When I was in college, most of my friends were in professional-track programs, like pre-med. I realized I wanted to go on and have a profession. The law just started appealing to me. Once I got into law school, it became very clear that that’s what I should be doing. Unlike a lot of my peers at the time, I loved law school. I did not like college courses and wasn’t particularly attentive to them, but I loved law school.
Q: What was your first job after law school?
A: After law school, I went to do litigation at about a 30-person firm in Atlanta. They had just started doing medical malpractice defense; this was back in 1981, and that was premiere work at the time.
Q: How did your career progress after that?
A: The practice group that I was in [at the Atlanta firm] split off from the firm after my first nine months, so I then was in a much smaller firm doing a lot of medical malpractice defense and products liability work. Then I became a partner there.
I had been practicing for about eight years when I made an attempt to go back to the Northeast [I’m from Connecticut and Philadelphia]. I moved to Boston and worked for Morrison Mahoney and Miller, which was a large firm at the time. One of their partners had just been named to the bench, and they needed someone to come in and take over her caseload. So I went in there and tried a ton of cases over a two- or three-year period. I got to the point where every month I was going to another trial.
Q: What obstacles did you encounter during this job?
A: I was working on what was probably my 15th trial in a two-year period and found myself driving to court to begin a trial one day thinking, “Ugh.” I kind of caught myself thinking that and thought, “OK, I’ve got a physician who cares very much about his reputation, and his practice is on the line. Get it together.” So I did, and we got a defense verdict. But at that point I thought, “Maybe I better take a break and figure out whether this is really what I want to be doing for the rest of my life.” It was kind of my first mid-life crisis. I was in my late 30s.
After that, I actually decided to take a year off from the practice of law. I went to talk to the partner who had brought me in and said, “I’m leaving. I’ll give you as much notice as you need, but I really just need time to think about what I want to do with the rest of my life.” And he said, “No, no, no … let’s call it a leave of absence.” And I said, “OK, we can call it whatever you want, but I’m going.”
And then I spent the next year reflecting. I had the ability to do that because I didn’t have any dependents and I had been making a fair income for an individual. It was just wonderful. I didn’t go to Nepal or do anything exotic, but I did some traveling. But I really just tried to figure out if I was doing this litigation practice just out of momentum or if it was really what I wanted to be doing.
Some of [my reflecting] was instigated by a conversation I had with my father. He was this middle-management kind of guy who had four kids. He told me that he had always wanted to go to law school—I didn’t know that at the time. But he had these family obligations, so he didn’t go to law school when he came back from World War II. He liked his job fine—he was an engineer—but I said, “Where do you get the passion?” He said that other than his family, he really liked to do volunteer work. I had never done a day of volunteer work. He made me realize that there’s more to life than just going to work every day. I wanted to figure out how I was going to get the most out of life and contribute the most to life. So that’s what spurred me to say, “It’s OK, you can go ahead and take a year off and take a break. You don’t have to just keep doing what you’re doing because you’re doing it.”
Q: What was the outcome of your reflection period?
A: When I got to the end of that journey, I realized I really wanted to find a way to give back and volunteer. I started working for the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts in Boston on a volunteer basis. Then I got involved with gay and lesbian civil rights and volunteering for the Human Rights Campaign. I went on the Human Rights Campaign Board of Directors and have a long history there.
As for my professional life, I decided that I really did want to practice law. I did really enjoy litigating and trying cases. There are pros and cons to it, and the days when you’re pushing paper aren’t as exciting as the days when you’re actually in trial cross-examining an expert witness in front of a jury. But all in all, it’s a pretty good gig, and I decided that I did want to continue doing that. But I realized it’s OK to not focus totally on that in my life and to figure out where else my passion is in terms of how to make an impact on the world. I also decided I wanted to move back to Atlanta. So I came back and I started with Alston & Bird.
Q: Did you begin focusing on mentoring women lawyers when you returned to Atlanta?
A: When I came to Alston & Bird, because I was in a much bigger environment, there was much more opportunity to mentor. And I was much more senior, so it was more natural for me to be mentoring the people who were coming up behind me and the associates who were working directly for me.
I’ve always been kind of a mentor. Even when I was younger, I was always focused on the people who were coming up behind me. Not just lawyers and not just women.
There’s no formula [to mentoring people]. It just comes from befriending them, being available to them and encouraging them to ask questions. Then you develop personal relationships with them, and it becomes natural for them to seek your counsel. It’s not only giving advice; it’s also trying to find opportunities for them and putting them in front of other people, either in the firm or with a client, who will see their talents and give them opportunities.
Q: What advice would you give to a young woman lawyer wanting a successful career?
A: I would say you’ve obviously got to find your own way, but try to be as thoughtful about it as you can as early as you can, rather than just going along and checking off the boxes. Make sure you’re being deliberate about understanding what you want and then planning a course of action. The lawyers who do that are much more successful and much more content with where they are.
Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?
A: When I graduated from law school and passed the bar exam, that was a pretty proud moment for me because I never envisioned it, and no one in my family at that point had an advanced degree or a profession.
I’ve had a lot of clients, cases and trials. I’ve had plenty of victories. But the one that stands out the most in my mind was a medical malpractice case that I tried about 15 years ago for a doctor who had really taken very personally this claim that he had committed medical negligence on a patient who he had tried very hard to help. All throughout the litigation for the couple years leading up to this trial, he was someone who needed handholding more than most of my clients. It was a very big deal to him, and he was very emotional about it.
We went to trial, and when the plaintiff’s expert was testifying, I asked to voir dire the expert—to examine him on his credentials to see if he really was qualified to be giving this opinion. I moved to exclude the expert in the middle of trial. And it was their only expert, so if he was excluded, I would then move on to direct a verdict, and it would be granted. So the judge went back in chambers after I made this motion, and he was back there for maybe an hour. And he came back out with this long, rambling opinion, and my doctor client was holding my hand. He was tense. And the judge issued his ruling—he excluded the witness and he directed a verdict for us. We took a break and went to the back of the courtroom, and my doctor just started sobbing on my shoulder. I get choked up just thinking about it. It was so meaningful to me—not the legal victory, but how much it meant to this individual.
Q: What is your personal motto?
A: Find your bliss. It was my motto for a very long time, and I’ve come a long way toward finding my bliss, especially after my kids were born. I’m a late parent; my kids were born when I was 48. I have 10-year-old twins. So now I’ve got a totally different life. I’ve gone through these different periods in my life, and I started a whole new life 10 years ago.
Q: How do you manage work-life balance, especially with 10-year-old twins?
A: It’s not easily managed, as any parent will tell you, man or woman. Sometimes I do it better than others. Oftentimes my life is totally out of balance. It’s hard. But it’s one of those things you continue to work on. I’m very fortunate right now to have particular clients who I really care a lot about. I’m grateful to be able to work with them. I want to give them a lot of attention too.
Q: How will you continue to help advance the careers of women lawyers?
A: I do it best on a personal, one-to-one basis. I have a number of informal mentees here at the firm in various stages—some who are now partners and have been for several years, some who are right on the cusp of partnership and one who is very young but just fantastic and will probably be President of the United States one day.