Deborah Chang knows that women are excellent trial lawyers. They’re masterful storytellers. They have a lens through which they see the world that accentuates the textures and intricacies that even a highly-skilled man might overlook. Chang believes that women know a love story when they see one and pick up on nuances that might otherwise be lost amongst the facts and figures, numbers and data.

Chang knows too that female litigators have been cast to the side, underutilized and immobilized by a heavily male dominated industry – a culture that is long overdue for a course correction. She also recognizes that, “it's one thing to talk about it, it's another thing to do something about it.” This is a big part of why she created Athea Trial Lawyers, a groundbreaking collective of top-of-their-field female litigators – Chang inherently knew that this was the way to move forward while also giving back.

“When you start with a law school class that is over 50 percent women, and then when you have a poll from the California bar showing you that less than 20 percent of practicing lawyers are women, you start getting a little concerned,” Chang explains. Which is precisely why she is all about evolving the narrative, supporting women in law and “reaching back to pull women up.”

Chang, who started out on the defense side, is one of the most successful trial lawyers of her time, having broken culture-shifting ground in cases like the first class action for prisoners with AIDS that shored up their rights and protections. She was also the first person to bring a case based on the Violence Against Women Act. She has long been an advocate for women and is a regular on the teaching circuit, discussing topics from gender-motivated violence to the empowerment of women in the workplace. 

Chang left a firm she loved and went out on a limb to carve a path that would cement her own contributions to the field and, more importantly, blaze a trail for the women that will follow her. Some might see this as a risky move, but for Chang – a member of the Lawdragon 500 Leading Lawyers in America – it was unequivocally the correct course.

Lawdragon: You’ve had a busy couple of years – Chang Klein and Athea Trial Lawyers were both born in the pandemic.

Deborah Chang: Honestly, if you would've told me, “You're going to start your own firm during the pandemic,” I would've laughed in your face. I am fortunate that my essential team came with me so we didn’t miss a beat. And building Athea, watching it all come together, has been such a dream. Each of the Athea women also have their own firms. We have some cases that are either of such importance or sheer volume that it necessitates being a full Athea case, and then there are others that may start out in our individual firms with help from each other.

LD: Alongside you at Athea is Randi McGinn, Zoe Littlepage, Lisa Blue, Charla Aldous and Bibi Fell, correct?

DC: That’s right. I can't tell you what a great resource it is to have the six of us. We can do things quickly and efficiently, talk to each other about problems or issues, rely on each other’s superpowers, get feedback, input and creativity from the country’s top trial lawyers, and co-fund or co-try cases. 

LD: That's great. Will you tell us about the inspiration for Athea?

Women at some of the most prestigious firms in America were unhappy. The way they were being treated was just intolerable.

DC: I was happily practicing at Panish, Shea Boyle & Ravipudi. I was lucky because I was able to work on great cases, and I had great trial experiences. I was part of the Michael Jackson wrongful death team. I was part of the team that won over $160M in Las Vegas for a man who had a brain injury after being attacked by security guards at a nightclub. I had a great practice. But then I started hearing from other women who did not have that experience. Women at some of the most prestigious firms in America were unhappy, and the way they were being treated by their male counterparts in their own firms, in depositions and at trials was just intolerable. They weren't given their due, they weren't allowed to do their own trials, their male counterparts were getting all the good cases, and they were leaving the law in droves. They didn't even want to start their own practices; they were just turned off.

When you start with a law school class that is over 50 percent women, and then when you have a poll from the California bar showing you that less than 20 percent of practicing lawyers are women, you start getting a little concerned.

One day in a seminar, I was asked, “What's the biggest issue facing plaintiffs’ trial lawyers right now?” So I asked all the women in the room who have tried at least one case, to please stand. Then I said five cases, 10 cases, 20 cases. You could see the difference in the room. So I said, "There's your answer – we are not using women in trials, and that is the biggest problem that we have to face." People started writing about it and encouraging women to leave their firms and start their own firms. I started thinking, it's one thing to talk about it, it's another thing to do something about it.

LD: What’s the vision for Athea?

DC: We're trying to shift the narrative and motivate women to believe that they do have an important place at trial and in the legal profession. We started Slide Girl to develop key visuals for trial, and Virtual Courtroom. I do a lot of slides for women and when it comes time to pay me back because they got a good settlement, I say, "Just keep it and pass it on." We do a lot of work for women who are on their own, scared to death. We make sure that they realize they're not alone. They call Zoe Littlepage all the time, and she guides them through depositions and trials. She offers to do depositions for them. Or they ask Randy McGinn for some insight that only she can give because she is such an amazing storyteller. 

During the pandemic we had more time to meet, and we would learn skills together, like how to do slides or use Keynote. Because I never ran a law firm before, I would ask them stupid questions, like, "Do you take a salary," or "How much did you spend on a case?" Athea is a great think tank – a brainstorm center. It's the most creative, powerful women you'll ever meet working on cases together.

LD: Let’s go back a bit. How did you first decide that you wanted to be a lawyer?

DC: I come from a family of doctors. My mother was a pediatrician, my father was a radiologist and I just somehow knew I never wanted to be a doctor. My skills seemed to be more in a set of reading and writing and persuasiveness and speaking. To me it was logical and it almost felt rebellious because my older brother and sister were impossible to follow. Neither one of them knew what it was like to get anything but an A. It wasn't until I went to law school that I found myself. Then I started working for a lawyer who did everything – criminal, civil. I appreciated working with people at their very worst moment. I loved seeing them through to the end and providing something good and positive at the end of our journey together. 

I'd never seen a closing like that. People were flying in just to see it. It was completely packed and it was a large courtroom. It was like The Beatles!

Through all my years in law school, I always had a job working in the real world as well, which really prepared me. When I finished law school, I went to Connecticut and clerked for the chief judge of the appellate court. When I started my career on the defense side, I went to the largest law firm in Connecticut, now called Day Pitney – it was very intense. We were the largest and considered the best. And then I just progressed from there, becoming a partner at another firm, traveling the country as national counsel for a number of manufacturers and insurance companies.

But even while on the defense side, I also took on cases on behalf of plaintiffs in huge causes. And even in my defense cases, I always got caught up in the plaintiffs’ stories and once, Ervin Gonzales, a very accomplished trial attorney in Miami, said to me, “You really belong on the plaintiff’s side.” Right after that, we lost the case in Miami and I was so devastated, and it was all over the news. I was in the grocery store and someone said, "Didn't I see you on TV?" And then Brian Panish in California, who was my friend and read about the case there, called me and said, "Stop thinking about that trial. You need to get out of Miami and come help me and Boyle in our trial." They had just left their law firm and started Panish Shea & Boyle and this was their first trial. And I thought, what a good idea!

LD: A necessary change of scenery.

DC: Exactly. It was a case against the city of San Francisco and it was an amazing experience. Brian's closing was incredible. I'd never seen a closing like that. People were flying up from L.A. to San Francisco just to see it, and they were turning people away from the doors. It was completely packed and it was a large courtroom. It was like The Beatles! I'd never seen anything like that. We won $27M and that was his first case for his firm. Pretty great.

For a while, I was going back and forth from Florida but then I took the California Bar and I went to work for Brian. It was a big deal because I had really established myself on the defense side by then. So I just kissed it all away and started brand new in California.

LD: So starting over isn’t something that scares you?

DC: Well, it was something that I passionately believed in. When I was a first-year associate at the defense firm, I was teaching a moot court class at the University of Connecticut Law School. The professor who ran that program, Mike Sheldon, who is now a judge, pulled me in and said, "With great power in being at the largest firm in Connecticut comes great responsibility. You need to give back. I want you to do a pro bono case." He wanted me to do a 1983 action to let one of his former clients, who had AIDS, leave prison. This was back in the ‘80s when people didn't know a lot about AIDS. I went to the prison and they started screaming, "AIDS, AIDS," because he had a red dot on his file. They all came in biohazard suits and it scared me to death. Inside, the uneducated, scared baby lawyer was like, "Do you have any other biohazard suits?"

LD: Wow. But you went in to see him?

DC: Yes – Joe Mack was his name, I will never forget him. He told me, "I don't care about my 1983 action." He said, "I want to bring an action on behalf of prisoners with HIV/AIDS. I'm not going to live long enough to get out of here, but I can help everyone else." He proceeded to tell me that when you're a pretrial detainee or a sentenced inmate with AIDS, you are sent to ward nine and you don't have access to the laundry, or to jobs which get you out earlier, or the library, or anything. You are stuck in this leper colony with no treatment because, he said, the doctors were practically veterinarians, they didn't know what to do.

I was sobbing hysterically in the bathroom and then this woman came up to me and she said, 'I can help you. Let's write legislation to fix this issue.'

It was just the most horrifying, scary thing. I was crying on my way back. I went to the head of my trial department, and he said, "Absolutely not. You don't have enough time." It bothered me so I went to talk to Alan Taylor, who had clerked for the U.S. Supreme Court. He took it to the executive committee and they overruled the trial head and we took it on pro bono, and thus was born the first class action on behalf of prisoners with HIV/AIDS.

LD: That’s incredible.

DC: The staff at the prison got so used to seeing me that they would talk to me about everything. Once we had a prisoner who was 19 years old and was a pre-trial detainee who had taken a car radio – he was dying and all he wanted was to go home and hug his children. I filed for a temporary restraining order in our case in federal court requesting the removal of his chains because they were hurting his bony ankles and wrists. To die while chained like an animal without being able to hug your family goodbye when he weighed less than 100 pounds and was too ill to be a flight risk was something I could not even fathom. But I lost, and I remember sobbing hysterically in the bathroom and then this woman came up to me and she said, "I can help you. Let's write legislation to fix this issue." It happened to be Eileen McGann, a lobbyist who was married to Dick Morris, who was a political consultant for Clinton. So, with her help, I wrote a draft of a statute that eventually became law in Connecticut. They had hearings on it, and the entire prison staff came to testify on its behalf to allow prisoners to go home to die with dignity. He was the first prisoner allowed to go home.

By caring so much about the prisoners and the staff, something amazing happened. I gained the trust of the staff, the guards, the nurses, the medics and even the doctors who worked there. They knew I was really trying to help. And they gave deposition testimony that was so moving and compelling, and all of this led to a landmark settlement in our class action case that changed the way prisoners with HIV/AIDS were housed and programmed, and vastly improved medical care. I didn't realize how monumental it was back then, but it became the model for prisoners throughout the country. It was cited with approval by the Bush administration and adopted as policy.

LD: What an impact, right out of the gate.

DC: That was my first year as a real attorney. I came to the office one day and the phone kept ringing, like, "CNN is downstairs asking for you." It was all over the country. So while I was still doing defense, I was already bringing causes.

LD: In a recent Athea case, the family of a renowned Ugandan women’s rights activist, Essie Nakajjigo, was awarded $10.5M for her gruesome and wrongful death – the largest verdict from a federal judge in Utah history. Why was it important, in this case, to have women representing her in the courtroom?

DC: I believe that women trial lawyers are innate storytellers. We are incredibly detail oriented. We leave no stone unturned. For example, and I don't want to be insulting to men at all, but a man may not see this case, at first blush, as an incredible love story. We told the love story between Essie and her husband. I think our hearts beat differently and our minds think differently. We bring an entirely different type of perspective to cases. Women have a different way of doing things. We could see things more from Essie's point of view – why things were important to her, why she dedicated her life to these causes. It’s important to understand where women come from and the slights they have had to overcome. We were able to represent Essie in a way that only women can.

LD: It really was a perfect case for your firm.

DC: I think the case kind of epitomized why we put Athea together, and that is not only to promote and encourage women, but to give us the opportunity to work with other wonderful women for a common cause. And to do it for someone like Essie, who stood up for the rights and gender equality for all women and girls throughout the world, meant everything to us.

I have this tendency to always gravitate towards these causes, elevating cases into causes. That's kind of our thing. I believe in the tremendous impact that even the simplest case can have on people and places because I've seen it. A case that no one initially wants and everyone says no to – that case can change the world.