By Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)
Twelve of the nation’s largest law firms are centrally located in the city of Los Angeles and according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 556,790 lawyers in California – not including those who are self-employed. As a lawyer, making a name for yourself in this city may not be the easiest of tasks, but if you’re incredibly dedicated to your work, your clients, and your profession – such as the women heralded by the Los Angeles Times as the city’s Women Leaders in the Law – chances are, you’ll make a name for yourself.
The supplement to the Times featured a number of Los Angeles’ top female lawyers, including a revered firm’s first female attorney and a lawyer who was behind a landmark civil rights case. Let’s get to know Amy Fisch Solomon and Deborah Chang, two lawyers who took a different path to making history.
Amy Fisch Solomon, Girardi Keese
If it weren’t for a severe injury, Amy Solomon’s life might have turned out much differently. In third grade she made a deal with her mother: her mom would continue to pay for ballet lessons if Solomon promised to work hard in school and always have something to fall back on. The deal continued well after high school when Solomon began dancing professionally, but after sustaining an injury, she was forced to reevaluate her life. “I enrolled in college and was Pre-Med my first year. I decided that it was too much science and not enough ‘people stuff,’ so I focused on preparing to go to law school,” Solomon said.
Only a former dancer, still in love with the art, could equate her performances on the stage with her performance in front of a jury. “From the beginning I always knew I wanted to be a trial lawyer because of the similarity of performing as a dancer,” Solomon said. “It was the same idea: connecting with an audience to tell them a story that will move them. When I discovered that I could tell stories for people who had no voice – ‘the little guy’ – I was immediately drawn to that area.”
At fifty-years-old, Solomon has spent nearly half of her life at Girardi Keese. While attending Loyola Law School and looking for summer law clerk positions, she stumbled upon an ad for the firm in the career placement office and the rest, as they say, is history – or perhaps in this case, history making.
Solomon was named the firm’s first female attorney back in 1989, leading the way for the five young female attorneys that now call Girardi Keese their home. Since then, Solomon has become President of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles and a member of the American Board of Trial Advocates and recently, she received two major awards illustrating her great devotion to the legal community. Her alma mater presented her with the Distinguished Alumna Award and she was the recipient of the Ted Horn Memorial Award, which the Consumer Attorney’s Association of Los Angeles gives to “an individual who offers the selfless gift of one’s talents to their community of fellow trial lawyers.”
As an advocate for the little guy, Solomon is all about fighting for the rights of people who have difficulty fighting for themselves. Specializing in areas of professional liability, toxic torts, products liability, and insurance bad faith, she’s had many opportunities to do so with great success.
As much as she loves her work; however, it doesn’t compare to her passion for mentoring. She began her life as a ballet dancer and ended up as a successful trial lawyer, the moral of the story being you never know where life will take you- an essential lesson she tries to pass on to those she mentors.
“I take mentoring very seriously and believe it is an invaluable opportunity for me to be able to give back to others. I mentor young lawyers, law students, high school students, inner-city youths, and anyone else who will listen,” Solomon said. “It is incredibly rewarding for me to show young people a path they may not have found themselves and to give them the support and encouragement to travel down that path and see where it takes them.”
Deborah Chang, Panish, Shea & Boyle
It should come as no surprise that Panish, Shea & Boyle is routinely named one of Southern California’s best law firms. After all, it has some of the best and the brightest working for them. Case in point: Deborah Chang, a trail attorney who has been at the forefront of the products liability arena for more than twenty years – a notoriously male-dominated area of law.
“When I first began practicing law, there were far less women – especially in products liability cases. I often found myself to be the only woman in a room at a deposition, meeting, hearing, or inspection,” Chang said. “I distinctly remember being asked by groups of male attorneys to go to the local strip clubs after depositions; I was asked to go hunting with the guys on more than one occasion; and often, I was mistaken as a court reporter or secretary. I used being a woman to my advantage. Many times my male counterparts thought I would have no understanding of the science or engineering involved in the product and would be genuinely surprised when it turned out that I knew as much, if not more, than them.”
Much of Chang’s success in the products liability arena comes from her relentless pursuit of the facts and her insistence on leaving no stone unturned. But these kinds of cases can begin to take a toll.
“Our cases are often very emotional and involve unimaginable personal tragedies,” Chang said. “In order to stay grounded, we have to force ourselves to remember that we cannot do our job by getting too emotionally invested or involved that we end up missing the perspective our clients desperately need. Having a sense of humor is essential and being able to see the bright side in every situation helps.”
Oftentimes the “bright side” emerges at the end of a case when Chang has accomplished the seemingly impossible, like when she brought the first civil rights class action on behalf of prisoners with AIDS in a maximum security prison. The landmark settlement resulted in the formulation of model policies and procedures relating to the housing, programming, and medical treatment of prisoners with AIDS currently used in prisons throughout the country. In 1996, Chang also brought the first lawsuit in the country based on the newly enacted Violence Against Women Act of 1994. As part of the lawsuit, she successfully argued for the upholding of the constitutionality of the statute and after reaching a settlement in the case, she lectured extensively on gender-motivated violence. The United States Supreme Court eventually ruled that the civil remedy portion of the statute was unconstitutional.
It’s easy to love what you do when you’re good at it and have experienced a great deal of success as a result, but it seems likely that Chang, a fearless attorney, would continue the fight for other’s rights because of her belief in the profession and all that it’s capable of.
“I love my job because it gives me the ability to help our clients and to make pivotal changes in their lives at a point when they need help the most,” Chang said. “Often, our clients come to us after the worst tragedy of their lives; their lives have been shattered and they feel overwhelmed. To make a difference in their lives is a privilege.”