It’s been a busy year for Lisa Gilford. She serves as co-chair, along with Bernard Taylor, of Alston & Bird’s Products Liability Group; she’s co-managing one of the largest class action cases in American history; and she just finished a term as the president of the National Association of Women Lawyers. Tom Wingard, partner-in-charge of the firm’s Los Angeles and Ventura County offices, caught up with Lisa recently to find out how she manages it all.
Lisa, 2011 was quite a year for you. Let’s talk about it and start close to home. You were recently named co-chair of Alston & Bird’s Products Liability practice. Tell us about the group.
I’d love to. I share leadership responsibilities with Bernard Taylor in Atlanta. We have a terrific team of partners and associates who can handle high-stakes products liability litigation across a variety of industries. What sets our group apart is the depth and breadth of our experience. Our industry-specific expertise is really strong. We’ve represented clients across manufacturing industries, from pharmaceutical, chemical and agricultural products to automotive manufacturers, as well as consumer product work, like food and nutritional products.
Our senior team is amazing. Bernard Taylor and Jud Graves are members of the American College of Trial Lawyers. Both are widely considered top trial dogs at the pinnacle of their careers, and they have just the kind of talent that clients seek out for high-profile, high-stakes products liability litigation.
Partner Jane Thorpe is known by her peers as the Daubert queen. Jane has done a phenomenal job for a number of clients, particularly in the pharmaceuticals industry—by mastering the science behind the case and using specific scientific expertise. She can cross-examine plaintiff’s experts into oblivion, so a lot of her cases are dismissed early on the scientific evidence. Jane is recognized by a number of legal publications as the go-to person for a strong science team.
Our junior partners provide great depth, with significant trial and first-chair experience. Colin Kelly, Lawrie Demorest, Scott Elder, Stephanie Jones, Peter Masaitis and Debra Sydnor, for example, are all still relatively early in their careers, but are constantly in and out of trial. Bench strength really sets our team apart.
You’re currently co-managing one of the largest class action cases in American history. How do you staff such a large case?
Interesting situation. The case you mention is complex and multilayered, consisting of about 200 class actions currently pending in federal court in multidistrict litigation and in Los Angeles. Overlaid on that are a number of state court cases asserting similar claims, both class actions and individual products liability cases. In addition to that are several multifaceted government investigations. On top of that, it’s a high-profile press environment. Our firm is well-equipped to handle complex litigation due to both tangible and intangible things.
One tangible thing that really helps is our geographic diversity. Handling a case of this scope—coast-to-coast, in all 50 states, worldwide allegations—you need offices in many different places. For this case, we’ve engaged a team from nine of the firm’s ten offices.
You also need expertise across a variety of disciplines. Our team has class action practitioners, products liability lawyers and IP attorneys to handle proprietary client information, our Washington office to help with the media attention and a remarkable e-discovery team in Atlanta that guides the client through the very detailed, difficult e-discovery obligations at a low cost, which is particularly helpful in a case of this size.
But it’s our intangibles that make us particularly well-suited to this case. First, we understand the importance for our clients of having both a business strategy and a legal strategy.
Second, any case of this complexity and size really needs a firm that has the ability to collaborate with other firms that have been engaged by the client. What’s special about Alston & Bird is our ability to communicate effectively with those other firms, share product and work collaboratively and congenially, so we can mount a solid, cohesive defense across a variety of lines. Technology helps a lot. Our Practice Innovation Department has developed technology that does a fabulous job of keeping all of the firms representing this client connected and sharing essential information. It’s amazing. Bottom line—we just work well with others.
Speaking of working well with others, you recently finished a year as president of the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL). And you’re the mother of two beautiful kids and married to a lawyer. How do you manage it all?
Well, only with a lot of help and support, like any busy lawyer, male or female! NAWL is the oldest women’s bar organization in the country and has been at the forefront of women’s rights since 1899. Before women even had the right to vote in this country, we were lawyers and we were organizing to rectify some of the inequities for women. So it was a great honor to lead that organization, and was both challenging and rewarding. Alston & Bird was incredibly supportive. In fact, those kinds of public service opportunities are supported here, which the women at NAWL recognized and appreciated. It really sets us apart as a firm because we are not just about the billable hour. We are also encouraged—both partners and associates—to be engaged in important issues in our community and to be of service to others.
What were you most involved with at NAWL?
One focus for NAWL is the leadership gap for women. Women and men come out of law school in equal numbers, and have been for the last 30 years. But women hold just 15 percent of the positions at the upper echelons of leadership, whether in private firms, government, academia or general counsel positions. NAWL works to understand why more women aren’t at the helm and to address that gap, tracking data and developing proactive solutions.
NAWL also functions as a support network for a lot of women. We’re proud of the fact that it’s an organization about women helping women to see what’s possible and reach their potential. My personal experience of leading both a practice group and NAWL—while being a mom and wife—bears out the notion that you can’t do it alone, that you have to have a support network.
NAWL also provides leadership opportunities for women outside of their particular structures. For me, the experience of organizing a board and thousands of members to work toward our goals definitely helped prepare me for my position as a practice group leader at Alston & Bird, and added to my skill set and my ability to lead a team. Those are the experiences women should be getting, whether inside of their organizations or outside. Having more leadership opportunities is the difference that will allow us to narrow the leadership gap for women lawyers.
Lisa, you’re tremendously successful at an early age. What advice do you have for younger women working up through the ranks?
Develop that support network I talked about, including strong role models. I had two children back-to-back, so it was an extremely busy time. I wouldn’t have been able to balance everything had I not first of all had a remarkably understanding and supportive spouse—who is also an Alston & Bird attorney—and phenomenal mentors. Seek out those people and build that network, because you can’t do it alone, you need people who have your back. Find your career advocates, people you can go to for professional advice, mothering advice or just to listen when you’re having a bad day. It helps to have women who are going through the same thing. With a support network to help you achieve your personal goals, you’ll be fine!
Great advice, Lisa. We really appreciate your time.