Women’s rights and equality continue to take a central role in the media as many continue to come forward and share their stories. However, the majority of the narrative surrounding such empowering movements as #MeToo and #TimesUp has been made up of negative stories of male chauvinism and times when women felt powerless. While such stories are necessary to make change and bring a sense of awareness to an ongoing problem it is just as important to bring forth empowering stories of female victories to renew in ourselves a sense of how truly far women have come and how strong our voices can be.
Here, we hone in on this sense of accomplishment for women in all areas of their lives, especially in the male-dominated area of the law. In the last installment of the Women in the Law series, we delved into the experiences of Texas attorney Ellen Presby and discussed the importance of finding your own unique voice in the crowd. This month we will be showcasing the achievements of California attorney, Laura Gianni, and will explore how Ms. Gianni not only found her own voice but also became a voice for those who are unable to advocate for themselves.
Ms. Gianni earned her degree in the mid 1990’s from Golden Gate University School of Law and got her first taste of law in a liberal-minded setting with professors who served as examples of strong female attorneys. When asked what made her want to become an attorney, she responded that she had wanted to be an attorney for as long as she could remember. Laura says that she felt drawn to the law because she has always felt compelled to speak up for people who weren’t being treated fairly and who couldn’t speak up and advocate for themselves. Unlike most people who lose their childhood sense of justice when they become an adult, Laura says that the initial driving force behind her love of the law stemmed from being a voice for others and only grew stronger over time. At face value, some envision the legal world to revolve around lucrative verdicts and big name clients, but Laura says that her most rewarding cases are those where she has been truly able to make a difference in someone’s life. "I have been very humbled by those clients who I have been able to represent who needed help and assistance."
We asked Laura to expound upon one of her most memorable cases. It bears noting that Ms. Gianni is an extremely accomplished attorney who has been involved with a number of complex pharmaceutical product liability litigations, including multi-district mass tort litigations, and was appointed to the Plaintiff’s Steering Committee in the Denture Cream Litigation (MDL No.: 2051). Yet despite the vast number of high profile cases she has worked on, Laura decided to talk about a case where she represented a family in a birth injury case with a profoundly disabled child whose injuries were caused solely by the negligence of the health care provider and were completely avoidable had the provider followed the standard of care.
The young parents that Laura was represented were by no means wealthy—they lived in a modest two-bedroom apartment in a marginal area and had struggled to find appropriate care for their disabled child, who was intubated and required oxygen and a feeding tube. Early in the mediation, Laura says that it became clear that in typical defense posturing the authority was insufficient to resolve the case that day. Instead of reacting with anger and frustration at the outcome of the mediation, she recalled the couple responded with grace and dignity. It soon became apparent that money was not what motivated Ms. Gianni or her clients in this case, but rather an effort to right a wrong. The plaintiffs told her they had come to the mediation that day with nothing and were happy to leave with nothing; all they wanted was to help prevent another family from having to go through the suffering that their child was enduring.
It is this ability to emotionally empathize with the struggles of her clients that makes Ms. Gianni such a forceful advocate. When asked what she believes is one of the advantages of being a woman in a male-dominated profession like the law, she answered that it is the ability to relate to and connect with clients on an emotional level. Being able to draw out testimony on a more personal level can have a significant impact on a case, particularly in proving non-economic damages. When asked what she thinks is one of the major disadvantages of being a woman in the legal profession Laura responded, “In addition to being interrupted, dismissed and unnecessarily criticized by male attorneys and judges, even those who would like to believe they don’t treat women this way, there is an unconscious bias that is rampant in this profession.”
To drive home her point of the unconscious bias towards women in this profession, Laura recounted a time when a mediator called her “nasty,” which came across as a personal insult. However, far from using this story as a way to show how hard it is to be a woman in the legal profession, Laura used the story to illustrate that gender bias comes into play many times because you’re exceeding the expectations of a closed-minded individual and they in turn feel threatened. Laura went on to explain, “I believe it was the mediator’s intent to get me to stop speaking. I had not made any reference to anyone personally, but was simply discussing the evidence in the case. I was shocked. At first I felt demeaned in front of my clients, but I ultimately came around to see that the mediator was threatened by my knowledge of the case. He could not respond to my presentation of the evidence because, as became clear during the mediation, he wasn’t that smart. He didn’t understand the case.” When asked how she has dealt with incidences like the closed-minded mediator, Laura responded with a quote from Michelle Obama, “When they go low, you go high.”
The main goal of this series is not to point out just the injustices that women face in the legal field or to highlight the differences between men and women, but to foster a common sense of unity and accomplishment through the experiences of the strong female attorneys with whom we’ve spoken. It is crucial for the continued advancement of women in the legal profession that women support each other, especially in a field mainly comprised of men. Ms. Gianni stressed that sentiment in her closing remarks stating, “I feel like it is incumbent on those who have already climbed the ladder to reach down and help others find their way.”
A special thank you to:
Laura Gianni | Gianni ♦ Petoyan
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