JURIST Deputy Features Editor Jaimee Francis talked with Kelly Olivier and Allyson West, the co-founders of Themis: Trial by Women, the first women-founded, women-run trial attorney group in the United States that will exclusively take on cases from women from all communities, including BIPOC, trans, and gender non-conforming individuals, as well as from allies who are advocating for and on behalf of women. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Could you two please could tell me a little bit about yourselves?
Allyson: My name is Allyson West. I am originally from southern Indiana, and I moved to Chicago almost 11 years ago. Kelly and I have worked together on and off over the last decade. We worked together at our first law firm out of law school and various different places throughout the years. I have been in the litigation sector my entire career.
Kelly: I’m Kelly, and I grew up in California. I came out to Chicago for law school in 2009. I thought it would just be for three years, but many years later, I’ve never left. I started my first job with Allyson, and we’ve continued to work with each other off and on over the years. I’ve also been mostly doing trial work. Once we reunited again at our current firm, this idea to band together finally came together. It came after over more than a decade of us having so many conversations with each other about what it means to be a female lawyer, and a female trial attorney specifically. We’ve also talked about how we started off –– both in law school and at the beginning of our careers –– with lots of women. We even had women mentors at our first firm. But the number of women has dwindled over the decade. And that inspired us to start this new specialized trial group within our current law firm.
Would you please share some of the conversations that you all had about what it felt like to be women in the legal profession?
Allyson: Kelly and I have been lucky in the sense that, like Kelly was saying, we had female mentor trial attorneys at our first law firm. That was both unique and amazing, and we learned a lot from them. But as time has gone on –– the older we’ve gotten and the further in our careers that we’ve gotten –– the fewer women we see that are still staying in the courtroom and litigating or trying cases. So that sparked this conversation that ultimately led to Themis being founded. And we’d like to see more women in the courtroom. We feel like, thankfully, we have come a long way as far as women in in the law, but we feel like women litigators have kind of fallen off –– or maybe there’s never really has been a big presence. So we want to create a safe space for women in the courtroom: we want to give women clients the chance to come to female lawyers and have female representation in the courtroom.
Kelly: When we we first came up with this idea, Allyson had the great fortune of being on a case with this fabulous female attorney who was in early 70s. When that attorney went to law school, there were almost no women in class with her, so she had a completely different experience than we did. But it was very validating when we met with her. We told her that while we recognize that there have been great steps forward made by female litigators the past several decades, we’re ten years out of from school and we’re wondering: where did most of these female litigators go? We’re still seeing a lot of men everywhere. And when we’re oftentimes the only women in the courtroom or on a deposition, we get confused for the court reporter still. And that’s been not just shocking, but more exhausting for Allyson and I. And this female attorney reflected on this and actually agreed with us. It’s like a new old boys club still exists in the legal field today. And for her to say that to us made us feel better: like we’re not just complaining and we’re not crazy here. We actually have a good idea here.
Have you ever reached out to some of the women that left to ask them what made them leave?
Kelly: We actually know a lot of them. Some of the most bright, intelligent, fierce advocates I know are some girlfriends. I think deciding to have a family is a big reason some of these advocates left.
Allyson: I agree with you that. I think a lot of a lot of women focused more on their family, which is of course extremely important. Kelly and I both have families as well.
What advice would you give to women lawyers that are wanting to balance both work and family?
Allyson: Work hard, don’t get discouraged, and lean on a friend. Kelly’s been the best ally in this whole thing: we bounce ideas off each other, not only about our professional life but also our personal life. Also, for me, knowing that while work is extremely important, family is always going to be number one. And when you have a friend and ally that’s going to push you in both areas, it’s pretty awesome.
Kelly: I would also have realistic expectations: your life will most likely not feel balanced. And I also want to build off of what Allyson said about having an ally: we’ve both been fortunate to have, of course, each other and also male bosses who really valued family. I think that being around other people who also can acknowledge that at the end of the day your legal career is a job and you are so much more than just that is so important when making a career decision. I think burnout is so huge in the legal field, in part because you have certain firms that don’t recognize how important it is for people to take time away from a job. At the end of the day, we have an important job but it is still a job.
Allyson: Something else important I learned over the last 10 years is to ask. If you have a hard stop from five to eight because you’re going to be with your kids, but you can be back online after eight, you should communicate that. And, like Kelly said, we’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve worked for people that value that. And if a female attorney is at a firm where they don’t value that time, then maybe that’s not somewhere they want to be.
How do you two see the lack of women attorneys play out on the client side?
Allyson: Our mission is to represent women in any capacity, including members of the LGBTQIA community, individuals that are advocating on behalf of a woman, a wrongful death suit brough on behalf of a woman, or any ally of women.
Kelly: Before starting Themis, Allyson and I had been having a lot of conversations about how we felt exhausted of not seeing enough women around. And we have such a close relationship with each other, so we thought it’d be so great to build new relationships with more women. We thought it was especially great so we can better understand what other women are going through and be more empathetic. I litigated a trial last summer with a male partner. It focused on a really tragic situation: a woman had really poor medical care during her pregnancy and ended up losing the baby. Allyson and I talked a lot about how tragic it is that women of color statistically get subpar prenatal care in this country as well as general healthcare. So during the trial, one of the jurors looked a little bit frustrated. After trial, my male counterpart asked her about her look of frustration, but she did not feel comfortable responding to him. But she pulled me aside, and she told me the reason she was upset was that she was frustrated about being mansplained to when my male partner examined a male expert witness about the female body. And that was moment when I realized how valuable it would be to have a woman talking about a woman’s body or a uniquely female experience.
In addition to trying to encourage more women trial attorneys, do you two see any other areas of improvements in the legal field?
Allyson: I feel like there’s lots of areas that can be improved upon. I think having more empathy and understanding for each other is really important. I know you’re advocating for your client, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still be civil to the other side. I feel like we sometimes enter these realms where things are very high pressure, and people can tend to lose their cool. And I don’t really think that there’s a reason for that. I’d like to see more in the legal field.
Do you have an example of an attorney showing poor decorum?
Kelly: I don’t even know where to start! I recently had a really long Zoom deposition where we had agreed to eighteens hours in total over the course of three days. For the second day, I had figured out my childcare situation for myself and I didn’t have any conflicts. But at around 5pm, one of the attorneys on the case, who happened to be an older white male, had a conflict. So I told the plaintiff’s attorneys, that we have a conflict and want to wrap up the deposition on the third day. I knew they would be pissed, right? And I get it: your client is there. So they take their cameras off the Zoom call, but they didn’t mute themselves. And this particular attorney knew that I’m a mom, because we have a mutual colleague. And he gets off the call and starts saying how this is BS. I just kind of laughed it off. But then he said, “What does she have to get home to her [expletive] baby?” And I immediately said, “Excuse me, you’re not muted?” And then of course they were very apologetic. But it was just so frustrating that when I said defense counsels have a conflict, his first thought was: “Oh, it has to be her. I know she has a kid. She’s the problem because she has a child.” I’ve never heard a male attorneys get talked to you that way. You know, it’s wild.
Allyson: I think unfortunately that’s what happens when you’re putting yourself out there. And that’s what Kelly and I continue to do, and we don’t want to get bullied out of the room.
Do you two think that decorum can be taught at law school?
Allyson: Yeah, absolutely. In law school, through trial advocacy, you learn how to address the court and your co-counsel. But I think some more real-world examples would help so that people aren’t so hateful to each other in tense situations like that.
Kelly: Yeah, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like when you’re actually out there. Practically speaking, I’m sure some of the professors or their colleagues are practicing lawyers and have some transcripts that show bad decorum. I think I would have benefited from reading through some of those transcripts to see what it looks like when you’re being screamed at or mistreated and how to handle yourself in those situations. I think that to the extent that those real-life examples can be added in law school and to the extent that schools can facilitate more open conversations about those uglier, darker sides of the law would be helpful.