Photo by Josh Ritchie.
Kelly Hyman consistently expects the unexpected. Whether that unanticipated turn comes when presented with surprising evidence in a case, or when switching from a 20-year acting career to becoming a highly regarded lawyer, she knows the importance of being ready for anything.
That bravery allowed her to open her solo firm, The Hyman Law Firm, P.A., specializing in class actions and mass tort cases. Her firm is based in West Palm Beach, Fla., where she also served as President of the Palm Beach Federal Bar Association from 2017 to 2018, along with a position as the Chair of the Membership Committee for the Colorado Federal Bar Association.
Hyman’s “ready for anything” mentality stems from her deeply rooted background in theatrical improvisation. She teaches improvisation to lawyers across the country, and believes firmly in the power of mental awareness, agility and empathy to further a lawyer’s career. That compassion is what brought her into the field and is what has seen her through massive wins for clients who have suffered injustice, fighting for voters’ rights and beyond.
Lawdragon: You’ve had such an interesting career path. You spent a couple of decades in a successful acting career, so what motivated your transition into becoming a lawyer?
Kelly Hyman: I'm actually a third-generation lawyer. When I tell people I'm third-generation lawyer, they always say to me, "Oh, where did your grandfather go to law school?" And I smile and I say, "Actually, my grandmother went to St. John's in New York."
LD: Oh, wow. That’s amazing. Do you have any kids? And if so, are any of them interested in the law?
KH: I have two stepchildren, and they're both lawyers. My husband went to law school. We're a whole family of lawyers. My dog, Benny, would probably love to be a lawyer if he could.
My grandmother was a true pioneer, and I always knew that I had a passion for law. When I was a senior in high school, we had a civil class and our teacher told us that we had to do a trial skit, so we had to have certain roles. Everyone turned to me and said, "Oh, you should be the lawyer." And I said, "Why?" And they said, "You like to argue." And then they all laughed, in a good way.
I always knew that I had a passion for helping people. Being a lawyer, and especially being a plaintiffs' class action and mass tort attorney, enables me to make a difference in people's lives and really help them.
LD: That's great. And did you work for other firms before you opened your own?
KH: I was at a firm in West Palm Beach for seven years, working on their mass tort cases and on the tobacco litigation in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court decertified a class action, so each case had to be individually tried. I worked in the tobacco litigation unit representing people that have been harmed by tobacco.
LD: I also thought it was fascinating that you teach mindfulness and improvisation to attorneys. Tell me about how that started, and what effect does that have on lawyers’ practice or their work-life balance?
KH: Well, my background as an actress involved a lot of years training in improv with some of the best acting coaches. I think that as a lawyer, and especially if you’re a trial lawyer, you have to be ready for the unexpected. Improv teaches you to be in the moment, to really listen to what someone is saying and to be mindful of what they say.
Trials are basically theater. You're putting on a play when you're presenting your evidence. You have acts one, two and three. It's really similar. So, it's important for attorneys to be quick on their feet and to be in the moment, because you never know what's going to happen.
Even if they're not trial lawyers, all kinds of lawyers have to be prepared for the unexpected in a deposition setting. If defense counsel does something that you didn't expect, you have to really listen to what they say to figure out how to handle things, so I think it's key as any type of attorney to be quick on your feet. And that goes back to mindfulness: You have to be in the moment and really be cognitive of your thoughts. Improv and mindfulness work hand in hand.
LD: It's got to be a lot of fun. Do you do individual classes, or do you have a group?
KH: I’ve been invited to teach for trial lawyer organizations, like Kentucky Trial Lawyers, and I spoke about mindfulness for the American Association for Justice.
LD: Did you always know you wanted to be a plaintiffs’ lawyer?
KH: I think I tried every practice of law possible. When I graduated from law school, I was fortunate to clerk for a judge in Miami in a bankruptcy court. And after my clerkship was up, the judge that I worked for said to me, "Do you want to be a bankruptcy attorney?" And I said, "Actually, no." And he says, "What do you enjoy?" And I said, "Well, I enjoy litigation." And so, he said, "Well, I think you should clerk for a federal judge."
I was fortunate enough to clerk for federal Judge Brian Sandoval right after that. He left the federal bench, became the governor of Nevada twice and now is the president of the University of Nevada.
I tried other types of law, like entertainment law and family law, but when working with Judge Sandoval and a couple other firms later, I realized I really enjoyed working on class actions. Then, with my prior firm in West Palm Beach, Florida, the opportunity came to work in their mass torts department. While at my prior firm, I also got to work on a class action MDL case and realized that I really enjoyed being a plaintiff's attorney.
LD: That's great. Tell me about the American Spirit case you were involved in. What was the issue there?
KH: It was a false advertising claim. The allegations were that American Spirit advertised itself as being 100 percent natural and it wasn't. I was on the discovery committee for that MDL class action in New Mexico and worked on that case as well, in addition to working on the tobacco litigation. I really enjoyed it, and ever since then, I've always worked on the plaintiffs' side.
LD: What other cases are you working on these days?
KH: I'm local counsel on medical devices cases in Florida, which are mass tort cases against the manufacturer for defective drugs. Then, I’m working on class actions against banks for charging consumers excessive fees and a class action data breach. I’m also working on human trafficking cases.
LD: In other current news, I also saw that you have a new book. Tell me about that.
KH: The book is about the first 100 days of the Biden administration. I'm a lifelong Democrat – I go on conservative news frequently and give legal and the Democratic perspective.
LD: Oh, wow. You go right into the fire. How did you get into doing that?
KH: Well, it all started when I was watching Bill Maher one day. He said, "I’ll have conservatives on my show, and they'll have two people that support them to come on and try to persuade people. But Democrats do themselves a disservice because they won't go on the conservative shows and give their point of view." I thought he made a really valid point – it was a call to action for me.
I also saw a study that five percent of people that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 got their main source of news from Fox News. Being a lifelong Democrat, interning in the White House, volunteering for numerous campaigns and being a poll watcher in Florida, voters’ rights issues are very near and dear to my heart. Women's rights are extremely important to me, as well. Equal work, equal pay.
So, having said that, the book is called Build Back Better: The First 100 Days of the Biden Administration and Beyond. I'm trying to inspire people – Democrats, Republicans, and independents – not to vote against their own interests, but to look at the policies. For example, the Covid-19 relief package – a majority of Americans supported it, but not one Republican in Congress supported it. They should follow the will of their constituents, and people shouldn't vote for politicians who are against their own interests. And, if they have someone who is not voting for their interests, whether it's about Covid relief or the infrastructure bill or the For the People Act, then they should vote them out.
LD: Do you get attacked on Twitter, or on the air sometimes? Or do you find that you're able to keep civil conversations?
KH: No, I have been attacked. Along with some other really nasty things, I had someone say that I need to wear makeup. I've had people say that I’m an idiot, I’m stupid, and had someone say, "You're just another democratic talking head, and it's obvious you're being paid." And I wrote back in so many words and said, "Well, thanks. Actually, they are my talking points and I do believe them, and I'm not being paid."
But I think my experience with acting has given me really thick skin. And, definitely, sometimes it does hurt, seeing all these hateful Twitter things really early in the morning. One time I was with someone on a show, and it was really early. It must have been 5:30 in the morning, and he was literally screaming at me. I had this reaction on my face, like, really? It's 5:30 in the morning and you're screaming at me. It’s not civil. I try to be civil. Sometimes it's harder than other times, but I try not to be disrespectful to other people.
LD: Tell me about your voters’ rights advocacy. Why is that a particular issue that's important to you?
KH: Because I'm a strong advocate for democracy and I really believe in it, and I think if you do, you shouldn't try and limit people's access to the polls and take away their rights. It's a fundamental right, and I think if you truly believe in the will of the people, you let the people vote.
I remember being a poll watcher one time in Florida, even before all the new restrictions had come into place. A woman came to vote, but she was denied. She was like, "How can I not vote?" They told her that after so many years of not voting, you're basically purged from the record. And I thought, this is horrible. Why are we limiting people's access to the polls in doing that? I just don't think that's right. It's always been something really, really important to me.
LD: That’s amazing. Then, moving back to your legal work, you are the only attorney inside of the firm, right?
KH: Yes. I think having a plaintiffs' class action contingency casework is a lot of risk. There’s a lot of reward in helping people, but it's a lot different than just doing straight hourly work for clients. That's always a concern. You have to really be cognizant of the litigations that you get involved in and treat it very strategically. I want to be helpful for everyone, but because I'm one person, there's only so many projects I can take.
LD: That makes sense. Then, this might be a silly question, but is there any part of you that misses acting? Do you still do it?
KH: No, but I think that doing the work that I do, it's always there. I’m using those same skills and I find them very helpful, so I get to experience it that way. It’s always there.