Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.

Celebrate Women’s History Month with this article in The Voice from DRI member Shalyn McKitt on how women are impacting the world at DRI and beyond.

Shalyn Smith McKitt

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March to many is when the seasons begin to change. Cold climates defrost. Holiday season ends. And the end of Q1 looms. But for some of us, the new month is more than that. It marks the month America has set aside to observe Women’s History Month. And especially for women in the legal profession, the history of those who came before us is symbolic of the pillars of jurisprudence: justice, equity, and resolve. Lady Justice has long stood as a representative of the practice of law. With her eyes covered by a blindfold and her strong arms carrying the scales of justice, she demonstrates poise, power, and patience. And today, more than any other day, it’s the lady lawyers of the past and present who make me excited for March.

When I first sat down to write this article, I thought of my favorite quote from one of my favorite female lawyers, First Lady Michelle Obama. In her final White House speech, she famously said “[B]e focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.” This speech was special to me. As a first-year, Black, female lawyer, I hung on her every word. She was one of the first lawyers I’d seen in mainstream media who looked like me. So, easily, I could relate to her as I stuck my head in books and tried to become the best lawyer possible. This experience made me realize that many other women in the legal profession also looked for examples to follow as they paved the path for generations of female lawyers to come. I imagine the feeling is similar in other fields, too. Take the little girl who meets her first female dentist and realizes she can be a dentist too. Or take the man who realizes that fashion design is not just for women. The power that comes from the examples before us is just as worthy of celebration as the wins we have in the courtroom. So, in honor of this month, I thought I’d share the stories of some real (and fictional) women in the law while highlighting the stories of some women in DRI.

Be Focused.

There are few women in this country with jobs as demanding as that of the Vice President of the United States, and Kamala Harris, the first female Vice President, is the definition of “focus.” Vice President Harris graduated from law school in 1989. From years as a district attorney to defending the State of California as Attorney General from 2011 to 2017, Vice President Harris had to be focused if she were to one day work in the White House. As an Asian American and African American woman, she did not have many people who looked like her to emulate. Famously, as she accepted her election as Vice President in 2020, she demonstrated her focus on laying a path for other women to follow by saying “I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” The ability to see ahead to successes by other women seeking to serve their country like she has shown a focus on the future that can only be admired.

DRI member Catherine Ava Leatherwood similarly demonstrates foresight in her daily practice. She says:

“[F]ocus on what you want to do and where you see yourself going. When push comes to shove, you’re ultimately in charge of your career and your destiny. It’s up to you to take the steps to mold your practice and your future, so it’s important to keep in mind whether the things you’re doing on a daily basis are advancing those goals. It’s so easy to get swamped in this line of work, but it’s important to take a step back every once in a while and take inventory of what steps you’re taking to move in the right direction.”

And Catherine has proved this more than once over her years in DRI. Catherine is the Immediate Past Chair of the Young Lawyers Committee, and she also serves as a Steering Committee member of the DRI Products Liability Committee. Her focus in those roles led her to her recent appointment to the DRI Board of Directors as a National Director. In just 10 short years of practice, she’s risen as a star in South Carolina and is a member at Rogers Townsend LLC. It’s hard to imagine one achieving so much without a bit of focus on their goals.

Be Determined.

Elle Woods is possibly the most iconic fictional lawyer of all time. Her bubbly personality and style made others often underestimate her in the 2001 movie Legally Blonde. Elle was a typical sorority president in college with a degree in fashion and an obsessive love for the color pink. But when her boyfriend Warner dumped her in anticipation of attending Harvard Law School and finding a “Jackie” as opposed to Elle’s “Marilyn,” Elle plotted to become a serious law student. And let me tell you, she was determined to get into Harvard Law. She skipped Greek week to study for the LSAT and produced a convincing video admissions essay. And even though she had a 4.0 grade point average, a nearly perfect LSAT score, and was admitted into Harvard, no one believed she belonged. In school, she dedicated herself to her studies, and even earned a coveted internship, but was still ignored when she offered ideas about defense strategy for a case she was assigned to. Still, Elle never gave up. In fact, the moment she attempted to stop trying, her Civil Procedure Professor reminded her that was not a quitter. Elle won the love of her client (a fellow sorority sister), was hired to lead the defense team instead of her overbearing Criminal Professor and used her unique skillset to earn an acquittal for her client. Sure, the story is very Hollywood… but it is also inspiring. The determination required to overcome the misconceptions of others is a trait many women in the legal profession must hold onto every day.

“In this profession, you will hear ‘no’ much more often than you will hear ‘yes.’ Embrace the ‘no.’ Do not let the ‘no’ stop you. Always remember who you are, what you want and what you are capable of. Use ‘no’ to empower to you stay on your path and prove them wrong. Be determined for yourself. Nobody else can be determined for you,” says DRI member Christina Gonzales. Christina is a partner in the Philadelphia office of Goldberg Segalla LLP. She concentrates her practice on environmental, toxic tort, and mass tort litigation matters. She counsels and defends clients in all stages of litigation, from inception through trial. In DRI, she serves on steering committee for the Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Outside of work, she is a Founding Board Member of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation. It is hard to believe she could do so much without being determined.

Be Hopeful.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.” Expectation and desire are at the heart of the story behind Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment to the United States Supreme Court. In 1996, Justice Jackson graduated from Harvard Law School. From federal clerkships to private practice, she worked tirelessly before being appointed as a District Court Judge for the District of Columbia. She then became a Judge on the D.C. Court of Appeals in 2021. As if she hadn’t accomplished plenty in her 25 years of practice, she then became the first African American woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court in 2022. On the day her nomination to the Court was confirmed, she said:

"I am here standing on the shoulders of generations of Americans who never had anything close to this kind of opportunity. This nomination is significant to a lot of people, and I hope that it will bring confidence, it will help inspire people to understand that our courts are like them, that our judges are like them. Doing the work, being part of our government: I think it's very important."

Her hopefulness is admirable, because if an institution as old as the Supreme Court can change, the future for women in the profession is bright.

“Over the years, I have seen more diverse female attorneys work towards and obtain positions as judges and in house corporate counsel. As women and diverse attorneys gain roles as decision makers, I am hopeful that the practice of law will continue to diversify and provide opportunities for women and diverse attorneys to continue in the legal profession” says DRI member Melissa Lin. Melissa is a partner at Righi Fitch Law Group and has earned the AV Preeminent Rating. Her practice includes insurance coverage and the representation of individuals, businesses, contractors, and municipalities in tort and contract litigation, primarily in the areas of general liability, personal injury, employment, construction defect, and product liability litigation. A partner at Right Fitch Law Group’s Arizona office, Melissa is also very active in DRI.

Be Empowered.

If you’ve ever seen the shows The Good Wife and The Good Fight, you know there are few female lawyers with as much power and poise a Diane Lockhart. A senior partner at her law firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner, Diane is a champion of women's causes who speaks fluent French. She never hesitates to tell people when she disagrees with them, and over seven seasons on The Good Wife, she is constantly torn between her duties mentoring younger lawyers, her commitment to her clients, and her often neglected love life. In the first episode of the show’s spinoff, The Good Fight, Diane loses all of her money in a Ponzi scheme and is forced out of her firm. First Diane plans on retiring and moving to South France. Just as she is about to make a down payment on a house in France, all her money is lost in a Ponzi scheme. In order to avoid complete bankruptcy, she realizes she must stay in the states and continue working. When she returns to her firm, however, they refuse to let her back in, and no other firm will hire her because of her close association with the family who engineered the Ponzi scheme. So, Diane falls on her sword, goes to a friend and joins a firm full of lawyers who look nothing like her. That’s right – in a predominantly African American Chicago law firm, Diane is the minority. This doesn’t stop her, though. She embraces her differences and realizes that what really matters is being on the right side of history and representing clients who have positive influence in the community. She ultimately shakes all the shame of losing her millions and buys in as a named partner at her new firm. Diane’s story, while fictional, is the definition of empowerment. Even when the chips were down, she continued to fight and succeed.

Vanessa Offutt’s story of empowerment is even more inspiring. As a member of the DRI Young Lawyers Steering Committee, Vanessa has served as the Chair of both the Women in the Law and the Diversity and Inclusion subcommittees. Vanessa practices primarily in the area of product liability, focusing on pharmaceuticals and medical devices as well as environmental and toxic tort litigation. She represents clients facing challenging litigation in state and federal court, including complex consolidated dockets and multidistrict litigation. A military veteran-turned-lawyer, Vanessa continues to rise as a star in DLA Piper’s Miami office. Vanessa says “As an attorney, I have been empowered by the ability to help others in my community. Specifically, I have been able to help women, through the law, find their voice in family law matters. I have also been able to help black and brown youth understand their rights with authority, and the limitless options for their future.”

This March, remember all the phenomenal women in your life and those who have shaped it by contributions made to society in the past. Here’s to another year of strength and representation for women in the legal profession!

Shalyn McKittShalyn Smith McKitt is an Associate in Vedder Price’s Los Angeles office and a member of the firm’s Health Care group. Ms. McKitt’s practice is focused on health care transactions and regulatory matters surrounding mergers and acquisitions, corporate restructurings and joint ventures for health care providers, insurers, providers and institutions. She is a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee's Women of Color Subcommittee.

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