Support Women in Mass Torts

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This commentary is for my fellow attorneys who practice plaintiffs’ side mass tort law. Most of you are men, and therein lies the rub and the subject of this post. We are being outsmarted and outflanked by our defense counterparts when it comes to appointing women to leadership positions in multi-district litigation (MDL).

You know it and I know it. A case in point. At a status conference in New York last week involving dozens of lawsuits against a manufacturer of an intrauterine contraceptive device, a large group of 35 plaintiff law firms submitted the names of several male attorneys to serve as the MDL’s leadership committee. The federal judge overseeing the MDL, Judge Cathy Seibel, strongly encouraged the firms to add some women attorneys to the leadership ranks. Given the nature of the litigation, she said, “I think that’s important.”

The judge’s admonition came after some plaintiffs’ lawyers had expressed opposition to the all-male executive committee, according to a news story. Specifically, one woman plaintiff lawyer had argued in a letter to the judge that female plaintiffs would benefit from representation by some female attorneys. She pointed out that women lawyers could better relate to the plaintiffs’ injuries and better communicate the women’s suffering to judges and juries. She noted that the manufacturer had already made the strategically savvy move of appointing a woman as the company’s lead lawyer in the litigation.

As head of the Janet, Janet & Suggs Mass Tort Division, I’m proud to report that we employ seven women in our department. In April, Kim Dougherty, who manages our Boston office, was appointed to the MDL Steering Committee in meningitis/steroid litigation against New England Compounding Center. Kim was the only woman to be appointed to the seven person Steering Committee. She recently gave a presentation to lawyers at a conference related to what firms could do to support and advance women in mass torts. Some of the points she made I summarize below.

  • Examine your beliefs. Do they play a part in the absence of women in your mass tort practice?
  • Be an active ally. Bring women to case development meetings. Teach women case generation. Introduce them to your contacts to help them create relationships.
  • Mentor. Help women understand unwritten rules, power structures and alliances.
  • Engage. Read briefs, role-play presentations, make suggestions. Ask their opinions and genuinely weigh their input.
  • Assign high-profile cases to experienced women.

Given the chance, women attorneys bring insight, passion and credibility to the leadership of mass tort litigation in a way that men cannot. Studies have revealed that mixed gender trial teams are more successful than all-male teams. We plaintiffs’ firms need to do a better job of equipping and advancing our women attorneys into all leadership positions. Putting them at the head of the pack in litigation involving women’s health and harm makes sense not only for the good of our firms, but also for the good of our clients.

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