The path of the female attorney is not always easy nor is it the same for every woman in the legal industry. When trying to find a place in a profession such as the law, which is still for the most part considered a “boys’ club,” many lawyers believe that they must adhere to antiquated ideas of how a lawyer “should” act. However, our latest profiled attorney in the Women in the Law Series, New York and New Jersey attorney Debbie Gough, decided to turn her back on such preconceived notions and chose instead to embrace what makes her different. For Ms. Gough, mantras of truthfulness, passion and empathy have guided her to become a zealous, top-notch litigator as well as a more discerning human being.
Truthfulness, passion, and empathy are words that most plaintiffs hope their attorneys embody, but sadly are seldom used to describe lawyers. But these tenets have guided attorney Debbie Gough to stay focused and inspired to help her clients. This desire to fight to expose unjust wrongdoing is what makes her ideally suited to the often challenging and heart-wrenching arena of nursing home abuse, medical malpractice and personal injury law.
As the managing partner of her own firm, The Gough Law Firm, she has devoted countless hours to improving the lives of others and has channeled her fervor for justice into her own cases. Ms. Gough has served as the past chair of the American Association for Justice Nursing Home Litigation Group, and is a member of the New Jersey Association for Justice and the New York State Trial Lawyer’s Association.
At the onset of her legal career, Ms. Gough admits that she was unsure about the area of specialty she was interested in. The daughter of a federal prosecutor who battled organized crime, she did know that equality, fairness and integrity were not a given in the legal system. Like many of the women we have profiled, Debbie found her niche over the course of being a young lawyer, by being exposed to a variety of law practices. While working in insurance defense, she discovered her inexorable calling to become a trial lawyer. As a female litigator, she entered an even narrower category by owning her own firm. And while pop culture and television legal dramas portray courtroom warriors as older, white-haired males, Ms. Gough, striking and petite, continually works to eradicate those stereotypes by demonstrating that women, too, can command a formidable presence in the courtroom.
As talented as she is, Debbie admits that she still has moments of hesitation, as all attorneys do. However, she depends on her extensive skill and background in the battlefield of countless litigations to combat it. “Of course I still deal with moments of nervous stress when entering a courtroom. No matter how many times I’m in the position of lead attorney, in the back of my mind, when I first see that elder statesman at the opposing counsel table, I have a flash of concern that he may know more than me. But then I realize that the only thing preventing a female attorney from being a better attorney is herself and that my adversary is suffering from the same trepidations.” Debbie encourages female attorneys to embrace the uniqueness of their minority and use that to their advantage as a way dispel any preordained thinking a jury might have about how an attorney must act. “As a woman in this setting, you are already different and people may pay attention initially because you are different, so use that attention to your advantage—take it and harness it to tell an authentic story. If you already have all eyes on you, take it as an unexpected opportunity to tell your client’s truth and bond with the jury.”
Being an honest, sincere and colorful storyteller, as well as connecting to the jury are key elements of Debbie’s strategies for success in the courtroom. By utilizing memorable and emotional details of her cases in constructing theories of liability and damages, she keeps the jury both interested and invested in the most successful resolution possible by the end of the case.
Debbie recalls that when she first started out in her own practice, she took a grand leap of faith by leaving her law firm desk for three long weeks to take part in the arduous and intensive Gerry Spence Trial Lawyer’s College. The decision turned out to be one of the best she’s ever made, says Debbie, because in those three weeks she discovered how to be the best spokesperson for her clients' stories and deliver that message directly and graphically to the jury. The Trial Lawyer’s College curriculum is based on psychodrama—putting words and a story into action—which helps its graduates better understand their clients and makes them more capable of telling their stories to achieve justice. Participants in the program are encouraged to become a new kind of lawyer, one who is unafraid to present themselves as a “real” person first, with the heart to fight for justice using their own voice. Debbie describes the methods that she was taught while attending the Trial Lawyer’s College as therapeutic and says they have allowed her to step into the shoes of her clients, which in turn has made her a better advocate.
Her mantras of truthfulness, passion and empathy were put to the test almost immediately after leaving the Trial Lawyer’s College when she was on trial just weeks later. In court, Debbie encouraged her client to reenact the deathbed scene of his aunt in his testimony, a decision that brought skepticism from the opposing counsel and the judge. But it paid off—by making an emotional connection with the jury and appealing to their sympathies, Ms. Gough and her client were able to gain the jury’s trust and ultimately won the case.
The essence of Debbie’s advice to both the current and the new generation of female attorneys is to embrace what makes you different and don’t be embarrassed to stand out or to try new things. “I enjoy being a woman in the legal field; I’m not trying to blend in—that won’t get me anywhere. Once you learn to harness the attention that sometimes comes from being a woman in a man’s field, that’s when you become the one in charge of the narrative and the one that people are paying attention to.” Debbie encourages women to continue to push through barriers and to continue to put themselves out there. “If you keep pushing your way through the crowd, the sooner you’ll be expected, seen and welcomed.”
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