Lisa Blue, Randi McGinn, Deborah Chang, Zoe Littlepage, Bibi Fell and Charla Aldous.
Firm of Legendary Women Lawyers Transforms Obstacles Into Opportunity
Standing in front of the judge’s dais, Randi McGinn asked her clients – the widower and family of Essie Nakajjigo – to leave the spellbound courtroom before the next part of her opening statement in the wrongful death lawsuit: her description of the Ugandan activist’s decapitation.
Nakajjigo was a prominent human rights activist, named Uganda’s Ambassador for Women and Girls. She had opened a community and health center in Uganda when she was just 17 years old, and hosted a popular reality TV show in Uganda focused on educating and empowering women. She had moved to the U.S. at the age of 24 to continue her education and expand her human rights activism.
The extraordinary young woman was visiting Arches National Park in Utah in April 2020 with her new husband, when an unsecured gate arm swung towards them, impaled the car and decapitated her in front of his eyes. In opening arguments, McGinn and her partners at Athea Trial Lawyers laid out their case against the government, asking for significant damages to account for the future earning potential of this “warrior for good.”
Behind the scenes, the women of Athea had been working for two years, preparing for this moment. The case had come via recommendation to Deborah Chang, who, only weeks earlier, had parted from a large law firm and opened the groundbreaking Athea Trial Lawyers, an all-female litigation shop made up of some of the top plaintiff trial lawyers in the nation.
When Nakajjigo’s family approached Chang, she knew this was exactly the type of case that Athea had been formed to take on.
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
Athea Trial Lawyers is something of an anomaly in the legal industry. The firm is made up of six women, all successful trial lawyers at the top of their games. Each of them founded – and still run – their own firms, some with trusted partners, others in solo practice.
Then, in the early days of the pandemic, Deborah Chang had an idea: What if we banded together? Chang – who is known for her record-breaking personal injury verdicts, along with her wizardry when it comes to storytelling and the visual aspects of a trial – approached each of the women. She explained that the new firm would be a chance to share successes and burdens, so they could focus on the types of cases that interest them and the causes they care about. It would create a power hub where they could advocate fiercely for their clients while showing that women belong in the courtroom, and thus motivate new generations of women lawyers throughout the country.
Chang knew exactly who she wanted for this mission. Randi McGinn, the trailblazing New Mexico attorney who takes on police departments, 24-hour convenience stores, back-dealing doctors and hazardous roadways. The jury selection savant Lisa Blue, a psychologist and trial lawyer who, with her late husband, Fred Baron, had formed one of the largest environmental law firm in the country. Medical mass torts and human rights attorney Zoe Littlepage, praised for her skills at framing a case and eviscerating witnesses in cross-examination. Dallas-based Charla Aldous, known for her astounding trial verdicts and whose ease in front of a jury makes it clear that’s where she belongs. And Bibi Fell, affectionately called the “baby lawyer” of the group, a tech whiz who has amassed an incredible track record of wins in wrongful death and traumatic brain injury cases in her nearly two decades of practice.
The plan was to create a power hub where they could advocate fiercely for their clients while showing that women belong in the courtroom.
The attorneys were all familiar with each other by the time Chang approached them, either personally or by reputation. They are all regulars on the speaking circuit, and Littlepage, Aldous and McGinn are in the Inner Circle of Advocates – an elite, invitation-only group of the top 100 trial lawyers in the nation. McGinn, in fact, served as the first female President of this traditionally male-dominated group.
None of the women needed to give it a second thought: They each gave Chang a resounding yes. Not only would they be able to combine resources and tackle cases that frame important issues, particularly those impacting women; they would also be able to lean on each other, easing the often-lonely life of a top female litigator.
A FOUNDATION OF COMPASSION
It was the call that every parent dreads: Her daughter had cancer. Bibi Fell’s girl was just 4 years old, bright and vivacious, and now everything about her future was uncertain.
“What they don’t tell you is that when a child gets sick, the whole family gets sick,” says Fell, who was a sole practitioner at Fell Law before joining Athea. After her youngest girl was diagnosed, the family "moved to Cincinnati with my older kids and of course they had their own struggles as they tried to process a very dire situation."
Then, against the backdrop of a global pandemic, Fell’s husband told her he was transgender and the couple began divorce proceedings.
“It was completely overwhelming,” says Fell, who was juggling several cases and firm administration while taking depositions from hospital rooms. “I was ready to leave the law.”
What kept her holding on was the partnership at Athea. “A lot of women in law have this idea that we’re competing against men, who don’t have to worry about family as much, and so we always have to show up in a position of strength,” says Fell. “Being part of Athea meant I had people to turn to and say: I need help.”
It’s all too easy for women to drop out of the profession when their families really need them. But Athea had formed just in time for Fell. Her new partners stepped up, not only by taking over her case work, including handling a time-sensitive trial, but through much-needed emotional support.
“They said to me, ‘You can do this, all right? Take care of your daughter. Let us help with the cases. But don’t give up on practicing law,’” recalls Fell.
Her more seasoned partners understood the importance of resilience, often gained the hard way through ruptures in their own lives that they too often had to face alone.
Blue’s husband and longtime legal partner passed away when they were in their 50s. While he was dying, she realized she wanted to have his children. So, they froze his sperm and, via a surrogate, she became a mother in her 50s. Now in her 70s, Blue is raising three teenagers by herself. She remarried, but her second husband passed away as well.
They said to me, ‘You can do this, all right? Take care of your daughter. Let us help with the cases. But don’t give up on practicing law.'
Littlepage felt a different type of loss when she left her hometown and family in Barbados to go to boarding school at 12 years old in England, experiencing loneliness and isolation in her formative years. When she graduated at the top of her class in law school, she still couldn’t get a job interview so she opened her own firm.
Chang, who is first generation Korean-American, had to make difficult choices in her career starting on the defense side, and her marriage ended in a divorce. Despite her sacrifices, she often had to watch from the sidelines as her male counterparts bonded with male clients over steak dinners and at strip clubs.
McGinn discovered that gender bias at a very young age, when she wrote a letter to J. Edgar Hoover when she was 7 years old. Hoover was the longtime director of the FBI, and the young McGinn inquired about becoming an agent. “He wrote back and said, ‘We don’t let girls be FBI agents, but if you’d like to study your typing you could come be a secretary,’” she recalls.
Aldous’s dad was a Pentecostal preacher; she grew up in a fundamentalist environment where women were expected to be wives and mothers, nothing more. But she knew she was built for something different.
“The first time I stood in front of a jury,” says Aldous, “I knew it was where I belonged.” Entering the legal profession in the ‘80s, Aldous often found herself the only woman in the room, arguing in front of male judges, seeking out male mentors because that was often the only option.
Life can beat you down, but these women all learned how to alchemize their hardships into opportunity. They opened their own firms and as their success grew, they became active in the speaking circuit, encouraging other women to have well-rounded lives in order to find longevity in the profession.
Littlepage spent 12 years as lead counsel representing a class of women who contracted breast cancer from hormone replacement therapy. She says the case taught her why they’re called cancer survivors. “There's something about going through something terrible and coming out the other side that made the women more introspective, deeper, more thoughtful,” she says. “They were just incredible women to represent.”
The same could be said for the advocates of Athea Trial Lawyers. They learned how to transmute their pain into strength and compassion. It made them better advocates – and turned each of them into leaders in the community.
“There’s something special about women that have gone through the fires like you have,” says Littlepage. “You can trust their advice, and you trust they'll keep your secrets. You can be vulnerable with them, and they'll never use it against you. It’s very refreshing.”
Fell was able to shift her responsibilities, focusing on her family without abandoning the profession. Now, her daughter is coming up on two years of being cancer-free. And Fell is back in the courtroom.
Ares and Athena (alternate spelling, Athea) are the Greek god and goddess of war, respectively. But their characters were distinguished in a clear split of the masculine and feminine: While Ares represented pure bloodlust, Athena held the virtuous aspects of war, such as justice, military strategy, and protecting the vulnerable from tyrannical rule. She was also the goddess of wisdom.
The archetypical feminine aspects of compassion, collaboration and family balance are all baked into the unstoppable force of Athea Trial Lawyers.
Zealous advocacy will always be a central tenant of good lawyering. But as more women flourish in the profession, one can see it start to reflect Athena: a little less war, a little more justice. And careers in the field can be less competitive. The archetypical feminine aspects of compassion, collaboration and family balance are all baked into the unstoppable force of Athea Trial Lawyers. These principles are also infusing the larger industry as more and more women enter the profession – and find a way to last in it.
“The rumor is that women can’t work together, that they cat-fight and are mean,” says McGinn. “In my experience, it’s the exact reverse. We are more collaborative. We are less demanding about being the center of attention, more willing to share the limelight and share ideas.
“And by the way, when you do collaborative legal work, where you’re soliciting everybody’s thoughts and ideas, you end up having a much better product at the end, much stronger cases for trial,” she adds.
During Covid, Blue saw upticks in depression and anxiety in the legal industry and wanted to help. She has anxiety and dyslexia, and started practicing meditation and mindfulness after being connected to Jack Kornfield, the psychologist, author and Buddhist monk, several years ago. Blue decided to start a weekly meditation practice for attorneys during the pandemic, which now has over 500 active subscribers. Many of them are women.
“With the new laws on abortion, with gun laws not being restricted, there's so many political issues that are now touching women more than men,” says Blue. “Because the women in this country are watching their rights just get peeled away, and I think that should really energize our gender. Women are feeling like they better get into more power.”
That kind of radical caretaking being spurred into action is typical of the women in Athea Trial Lawyers. They see something wrong with the world, they see mistreatment or injustice, and they say: I’m going to fix that. Then they set out and do it.
URBAN CLIFF COLLAPSE
Julie Davis, 65, had recently defeated breast cancer. Her family was gathering on a beach in Encinitas, in San Diego County, to celebrate their matriarch’s recovery, in August of 2019. Suddenly, the cliff above them came crashing down. Davis was killed, along with her sister and niece, while her husband and the rest of the family watched helplessly. They scrambled in panic, trying to dig them out and save them, but they were gone. All three women were mothers.
Athea is bringing a case in San Diego Superior Court on behalf of the family members against California, the city of Encinitas and Seabreeze Management Company, alleging negligence and dangerous conditions.
“They built all these houses on top of these cliffs in California, and the city didn’t do anything to stabilize them,” says McGinn. “Erosion and water from the houses destabilize the cliffs further, but they keep the beaches open, even at high tide.”
Essie always championed women and girls – and she would have wanted the Athea Trial Lawyers standing up and speaking for her.
After passing several procedural hurdles, the case is now proceeding into the discovery phase. The Athea attorneys are clear that they’re not looking for a settlement. The civil trial will be a chance for their clients’ voices to be heard, and for the larger community and government to understand the risks here and take steps to avoid this type of tragedy moving forward. “Working with this amazing family to make sure this never happens to anyone again has been so rewarding,” says Fell, who has walked up and down the cliffs with her daughter on her back.
They are elevating cases into causes. The trials are not just about monetary relief for their clients. It’s also a chance to tell their stories in a public forum, and to ensure that these preventable tragedies are not repeated.
Meanwhile, Essie Nakajjigo’s husband and family were awarded $10,550,000, the largest verdict from a federal judge in Utah history. Following the verdict, Essie’s widower, Ludovic Michaud, said: “It was so important to me to have Essie’s amazing life story told, and having the Athea Trial Lawyers was like having a dream team. They brought in witnesses from Uganda, Paris, Denver, Florida and other places and brought her story to life in that courtroom. Essie always championed women and girls – and she would have wanted the Athea Trial Lawyers standing up and speaking for her. The trial and this verdict have helped me significantly in the healing process and in my journey to find peace."
AN OLIVE BRANCH OF STEEL
Athea Trial Lawyers is an anomaly in the legal industry – at least for now. These women are upending traditional notions of competitiveness in the profession, and infusing it with compassion and collaboration.
Appropriately enough, the symbol for the firm is an olive branch with six olives, one for each attorney. A version of it is forged in steel in an artist’s rendering hanging in their headquarters in El Segundo, Calif.
“The olive branch is the hardiest of plants,” says Chang. “It can grow in the desert when there is no water. During wars and famine and dry spells, it will always survive. We were born of the pandemic. Out of the pandemic, we arose.”
Each one of these titans of the plaintiffs’ bar are powerful, smart and pragmatic. United, they’ve created a force of power and change that’s greater than the sum of their parts.
“There’s something about women in power, women making decisions,” says Littlepage, “because we come at it from a different place. It’s very seldom ego-driven. Instead, it’s a more pragmatic way of achieving our goals. Women tend to not just be battering rams trying to break through, but are more willing to find the way through the mine field that works for everybody.”
“As a psychologist,” says Blue, “I can see goodness. And man, these women, they have so much goodness. It's never about the money or about the lawyer. It's always clients first. If I had one mantra for Athea, it would be ‘the client always comes first.’”
“Also,” Aldous says about being part of Athea, “it’s just an incredible amount of fun.”