Lawyer Limelight: Angela Mason

One day in 1992, Angela Mason’s mother found an ad for a legal assistant job in the newspaper. Mason, who had recently gotten her master’s degree in English and was teaching American Literature at Auburn University, was at a pivotal moment in her life: deciding whether to get her PhD in English or go to law school. A friend suggested that she try working in a law firm to see if she’d find a legal career compelling. So, when Mason’s mother came across the ad for the job at Cherry, Givens, Peters, Lockett & Diaz, she cut it out of the paper and mailed it to her daughter.

That clipping would change Mason’s life.

Her experience as a legal assistant at Cherry Givens inspired Mason to go to law school. Later, that firm would become The Cochran Firm – a firm that Mason rejoined upon graduating. 25 years later, she is the managing partner of the firm’s Dothan, Ala. office and serves on the board of directors for the firm. With 42 locations throughout the U.S., The Cochran Firm’s attorneys have recovered more than $35B for victims of personal injury, vehicular accidents and medical malpractice.

Mason focuses on pursuing justice for victims of personal injury and corporate negligence on a large scale: She is known for her involvement in major mass torts and class actions. In what was the highest consumer verdict in the U.S. in 2007, Mason helped lead efforts against chemical company DuPont over alleged pollution from its zinc-smelting facility. The verdict came to $390M and included efforts for cleanup and prevention – real-world impacts that Mason considers vital to improving her clients’ lives. She has also been involved in the litigations against medical device company DePuy, oral contraceptive brands Yasmin and Yaz and is currently active in the 3M earplugs litigation. In such large litigations, Mason finds the key is focusing on the individual struggle of her clients and fighting for them on a deeply personal level.

Mason is a member of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Plaintiff Consumer Lawyers.

LD: After law school, did you intend to return to what is now The Cochran Firm?

AM: Yes. I had other options, but my heart was here.

LD: What told you that?

AM: I liked the people, first of all. I liked my former boss well enough that he would eventually become my law partner. In fact, three of my former bosses became my law partners.

But I was really motivated by the focus on helping make real changes in the lives of people who needed help. I wanted to go to law school because that's what we were doing at the firm, and I wanted to be able to do more of that. When I decided to come back, I fit right back in doing the kind of work that I wanted to do.

LD: You’ve mentioned that young attorneys – especially women – need to prove themselves indispensable to advance their careers. How did you do that early on?

AM: Within my first year at the firm, I started helping on an appellate decision in a wrongful death case. I wasn’t assigned to the case, but I offered to help. The next thing you know, I was working all night and helping with the preparation for the Supreme Court case. I would offer to help, and it would build on itself until I had a role in whatever case it was. I tried to know more about the case than everybody else, and that helped, too.

LD: It’s that hard work and complete dedication.

AM: Yes. Know the facts; know the discovery; know the case.

LD: You started out in single-event matters – how did you start building up work in mass torts and other larger litigations?

AM: I think my first real involvement was with the multi-district litigation against the manufacturer of the oral contraceptive Yaz. A firm we had worked with on another case was trial counsel for the bellwether cases. So, they brought us in to work with them on that, and that’s really how I got started in the mass tort arena.

LD: What did you learn from that first involvement?

AM: At the bellwether stage of an MDL, you're back working with an individual client. Before the bellwethers, it's general discovery, general causation and so on. You're not so much working for one single plaintiff, even though you have single plaintiffs involved in the litigation. But once we got involved with a bellwether section, it was almost like a single-event case. It shifted from reviewing documents to working with the individual plaintiff who had been injured and needed help.

LD: Is that still what you enjoy most about those litigations?

AM: Absolutely.

Right now, we are working on a number of cases in the 3M earplug litigation. Once I started working with one of our clients, it became a lot more personal. It becomes more urgent when you have a specific client that you get to know and you don't want to let him down. He hired you to work for him and you want to do your best.

Know the facts; know the discovery; know the case.

LD: What other cases have been formative in your career, or stand out to you personally?

AM: One case I had early on was a car wreck in Atlanta. The car stalled and our client was in the backseat. The passengers in the front got out of the car, but our client did not – then a truck rammed into him on I-85, killing him. That was a case I worked from the very beginning, from preserving the car to preparing for trial before we ended up settling the case.

Even now, I continue to hear from his widow. I can feel good knowing I know I made a positive change for her and her children and secured those kids' future when dad wasn't going to be there anymore to help do that.

Then, there was a local case where a truck rammed into my client, who was turning onto the road on a tractor. We thought that he was going to die. But he didn’t – he recovered. It was truly a miracle.

When we got good results, I went to the drugstore where his wife worked to tell her, and she came out from behind the counter to hug me. At that point, I thought, "That's what I want ­– to make a difference in people's lives." It wasn't even the most valuable case in terms of settlement money, but I knew that I had taken a burden off these people and improved their lives.

LD: Tell me a bit about the DuPont case. You were able to not only achieve a significant dollar amount, but the case resulted in improving the soil and water quality. Tell me more about those real-world results.

AM: Firstly, there was cleanup. We put a soil remediation program in place, which involved replacing all the soil that the scientists felt had been contaminated. It was really a fresh new start for people who wanted to stay there in their homes.

Similarly, they cleaned out the interior of people’s homes. Before the litigation, you could find layers and layers of contamination of toxic materials in the dust of peoples’ attics that collected over the years. There was also a fund that allowed families to go stay in temporary housing while their old house was being taken care of.

Second, the result provided for medical screenings, which is a big deal in West Virginia. People who don't necessarily go to the doctor were able to take advantage of annual screening for the different cancers that might develop as a result of exposure to these chemicals.

A lot of times litigation is just money. But this time we were able to get actual remediation, repairs and medical screenings.

At that point, I thought, 'That's what I want ­– to make a difference in people's lives.'

LD: What kinds of cases are keeping you busy right now?

AM: The case that’s taking up most of our time right now is the opioid litigation in Nevada, which is separate from the MDL. We are working with two other firms representing the state of Nevada in their claims for abatement and remediation related to the opioid crisis, and that has a trial date this summer.

Then, across offices we’re working on the MDL involving the chemical hair relaxers. We're getting cases in daily that we're screening right now to see if they qualify.

LD: Tell me a bit about that litigation.

AM: Last year, the National Institute of Health issued the findings from a study showing that African American women who had used chemical hair straighteners had a higher incidence of uterine cancer. There had been some studies before that, and our firm had been looking at it before that study came out. But when the 2022 study was released, that opened the gates.

The case has tremendous social implications because of the way Black women have basically been forced by social pressures to use hair relaxers since the age of five or six – sometimes sooner than that. And now, it turns out that they've been using this cancer-causing product that’s a threat on their lives.

LD: That’s awful.

So, you use the network of The Cochran Firm’s nationwide offices for that litigation. Outside of that network, what else do you enjoy about the firm?

AM: I have some really great friends here. For instance, Karen Evans, one of the main attorneys in the D.C. office, is a great friend and mentor.

It's changing, but in our particular field, it's not unusual that there aren't a whole lot of women. So, this network of people across regional offices was another way for me to get to know other women in the field. Once we get together, we realize that we all have the same concerns and ideas on how to address them.

LD: Tell me about the development of women’s presence in the law throughout your career. How have you seen women lawyers find more of a place in the industry over the years?

AM: The prevalence of women in this particular field has increased. I think for a while, women tended to migrate towards the defense firms. But that definitely has changed over time to the point that it's not unusual to have more women resumes than male resumes coming in.

LD: What do you think initiated that switch with more women getting into plaintiffs’ law?

AM: It may be that as one woman gets in, she becomes more welcoming to the others. You're making inroads in so that more people can be included. And it’s just more normalized. When I started, it wasn't unusual for people to think I was the court reporter.

LD: Wow. So, going forward, what else can be done to help make the profession even more equitable and accessible for women?

AM: A lot of it is work-life balance and trying to make room for that. Another part is, at least in my experience, that women still tend to get pigeonholed into support positions, like writing and organizing. I don't know that I have answers yet, but it is a common concern that we all have. Even just even being aware of that problem can allow you to try to redirect some of it.

For instance, one of my associates is a woman, and she's an excellent writer and very organized, but I'm very conscious of the fact that I don't want her to get pigeonholed simply as doing that. She’s a trial lawyer, too.

LD: That awareness is so important. Then, looking at the plaintiffs’ bar more broadly, what trends are you seeing in your practice area right now?

AM: In the mass tort arena, at least, defendants have become more and more unwilling to engage in a global settlement prior to trials. Firms can no longer have thousands of cases and assume that they're going to be settled. You really have to have the support structure in place in order to not just work up the cases, but to be able to try them.

LD: What do you find most fulfilling about your practice – and has that changed over time?

AM: It all comes back to being able to improve someone's life, whether that is on an individual basis or on a mass tort level. That has never changed.

What has changed some is the scope. I started out helping one injured person, and that's very fulfilling to me.

Now, I do that on a larger scale. You have to be more patient in mass torts, because it’s not always easy to see how this broad effort by dozens of firms is going to trickle down to provide real relief to one person, but eventually it does. And you get to know those people just as well. They’re a part of our lives for years, so it’s always a little bittersweet when you say, "Okay. Here's the check. Call us if you need us."