Many Americans are hopeful, as we begin the new year, for a fresh start for our country and perhaps time to mend broken bridges and band together. A glance at the most-read stories from the New York Times in 2017 reflected a tumultuous year. One of the biggest news stories to break was the seemingly unending stream of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct allegations concerning powerful men across all walks of public life, from politics to entertainment. As accusations continued to hit the newsstands a safe place was suddenly created for women, and in some cases men, to come forward and speak out about what they had experienced. The resounding message to come forth is that women should be able to speak up and not apologize for having an opinion. 2017 began with women hitting the streets worldwide to protest for equal rights and came full circle at year-end with women banding together to support one another, lending a voice for those who were afraid to speak out.Women supporting and mentoring other women was the highlight of the first installment of this series as we spoke with attorney and documentary filmmaker, Sharon Rowen, about the struggles she has faced as a woman in the legal profession. However, one woman’s story and voice isn’t always enough to make a difference—it is through a collection of voices speaking as one that we command attention. In this installment of Women in the Law, we explore the experiences of a formidable voice for justice, Texas attorney, Ellen Presby. Ms. Presby has been practicing law for almost thirty-four years and has her own unique experiences and opinions on what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field. Ellen practices in the arena of mass tort litigation, an area of law controlled largely by men with just 16.5% of lead attorney roles in multidistrict litigations gained by female attorneys.
Yet Ellen Presby has defied the statistics and become a prominent presence in the world of mass torts. She boasts credits to her name such as co-lead counsel in the consolidated Pradaxa litigation in Connecticut and co-negotiator of the amendment to the FenPhen settlement, which lead to $1.25 billion in additional contributions to the national settlement trust. In addition, she served on the plaintiff steering committee for the Risperdal Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding in California, as well at the steering committee in the Granuflo multidistrict litigation and the hormone replacement therapy litigation.
Ellen Presby has wanted to be an attorney since she was in the third grade. Her decision to become an attorney had nothing to do with glamorized fictional TV female attorneys prancing around the courtroom in towering heels with bouncy blowouts. Rather, her desire to become an attorney came from her father. Mr. Presby impressed on his daughter that it was important to stand up for her beliefs and to be an outspoken voice for those who don’t have one. It seems Ellen Presby was training to be a courtroom litigant since the age of nine when her father would quiz her in the Socratic method. It was this early training that helped shape the attorney and woman that Ms. Presby is today and to engender in her the mantra of “we are here, we aren’t going to change or leave, so you might as well get used to it.” That spirit of blithe unconcern for what makes female attorneys stand out from their male counterparts contributes to what makes Ms. Presby such an amazing attorney—she embraces what some women struggle to hide in their professional career. “We are here, we aren’t going to change or leave” should be a battle cry for any female attorney, or any woman, who has been made to feel uncomfortable in a professional setting because of her gender.
This attitude of being unapologetic about what separates men and women really defines Ellen’s style as an attorney. When asked what she believes is one of the advantages of being a female lawyer, Ms. Presby reported that she believes that as a woman in the legal field she is more free to be who is she is and does not have to hide, for example, her emotional responses to things. “I have more of an ability to just be who I am; I believe that women have more latitude than men to be emotional in this line of work.” Ellen’s candid answer may surprise some people. In general, it has been considered a faux pas for women to show too much emotion in the work place. For years, women strove to avoid the label of “emotional” at work in order to be seen as equals to the men they worked with. There are countless articles dedicated to helping women show passion at work without seeming emotional. In a 2015 article from the Harvard Business Review, women were encouraged to tailor their emotional responses when speaking to male colleagues in order to avoid being misinterpreted..
All this advice, and frankly old-fashioned thinking, is sending women backward instead of forward toward equality. For Ellen, emotion is something that is at the core of her being and is what has propelled her to the top tier of her profession. Rather than apologize and try to hide something that is a key element in her personality, Ellen relates how she has used it to her advantage. However, this sort of confidence isn’t something that is developed overnight—it has been cultivated through challenging experiences. Ellen recalls a time early in her career as a trial attorney when she got caught up in her emotions while speaking to the jury during her opening argument. While relaying the injustices her client had suffered, her voice cracked. In response to this display of the depth of her dedication to her client, opposing counsel submitted a motion to keep Ellen from “crying” during closing arguments. This may sound like something out of a scripted legal television show but sadly it’s a true story. Instead of taking this moment as proof that she needed to curb her emotional responses to make the men around her more comfortable, Ms. Presby instead chose to focus on the way her emotion affected the jury. As a plaintiffs’ attorney, when speaking in front of a jury it is often to an attorney’s benefit to be seen as passionate, and even a bit emotional. Often it helps to humanize an attorney and drive home the serious nature of the injustice that has occurred.
Ellen’s mantra of “we are here, we aren’t going to change or leave, so you might as well get used to it” really boils down to women focusing on doing their job and doing the best they can to represent their clients, instead of focusing on minimizing the differences between themselves and their male colleagues. If someone has a problem with your presence, use that to your advantage. Ellen recalls a time early in her career when she was opposing a male attorney twenty years her senior. During a moment in chambers with the judge and opposing counsel, the older male attorney turned to the judge and stated that he felt Ellen should not be the one to handle the case at trial and he would not object to anything she said during the proceedings. The opposing counsel kept his word and didn’t object to a single thing she said. Rather than let this encounter fluster her or cloud her focus, Ellen used it to her full advantage and won the case. Let this be a moment of triumph for every woman who has ever been made to feel small by a male colleague simply because of her gender. This is Ms. Presby’s parting advice to the new crop of female attorneys: “Study, work hard, and don’t apologize for what makes you you.”