20 Questions with Dawn Siler-Nixon
1. Fifty years ago, there were no African American women lawyers celebrated by legal honorary societies in North America. Without a doubt, times have changed for the better. Women and minorities are now counted among the best trial and appellate lawyers in the bar. Notwithstanding such growth in recognition, what hurdles do you still see that are yet to be cleared by women and minorities in the profession?
Studies still show that men far outnumber women in the highest management levels in law firms and non-minority women outnumber minority women at these levels. We continue to talk about work-life balance issues as one of the primary hurdles for women in progressing to the highest levels of firm management, even though many law firms have made great strides in that direction by incorporating alternative work schedules that still give lawyers credit for their contributions and give them opportunities for advancement. Additionally, I think both women and minorities continue to need mentoring by successful women and minority lawyers, not only in the early stages of practice. Obviously, new attorneys need mentors to help them simply "learn the ropes," but more experienced attorneys also need guidance on the more subtle aspects of the practice such as developing and maintaining client relationships, managing cases, directing the work of less experienced attorneys and opportunities to do the "good" work like trials and complex cases.
2. At the LCA's first Diversity Summit in 2009, you had the crowd riveted when speaking on cultural and generational differences and their effect given the predispositions that prevail in both law and society. As defenders of individual rights, should our profession seek to preserve traditional courtroom and professional decorum or seek to broaden acceptance of such differences?
I think we can do both. Decorum, regardless of whether it's in the courtroom or in the law office, is primarily about respect - for the judge, the opposing counsel, and for the judicial process. Accepting and working with cultural and generational differences is also a matter of respect. I think sometimes we get too caught up in the appearance aspect - should women be permitted to wear pants in the courtroom or is culturally specific clothing appropriate, when the much bigger and more important issue is understanding and appreciating our cultural and generational differences so that we can learn from each other and become better lawyers.
3. What type of law does your firm practice?
Ford & Harrison focuses its practice on the representation of employers in labor and employment law disputes. We've built a national practice that includes labor law, employment law, business immigration, employee benefits, executive compensation, and, of course, litigation. We work with clients to devise strategies to lessen the risks associated with employee claims and union organizing and to ensure compliance with federal and state labor and employment laws and regulations.
4. My observation over the years has been that employment law is riddled with constant change, either through new federal and state laws or perhaps executive or labor department orders. Naturally, you individually keep abreast of such frequent changes, but do you feel it is important that you keep your clients informed of all the changes in your practice?
Absolutely. One thing we emphasize and that I feel our firm does best is to keep our clients educated on changes in labor and employment law. We use a variety of resources to keep our clients informed. When legislation is proposed or enacted or an important court case in labor and employment law is decided, we send out legal alerts that let our clients know exactly what that law means and how it can affect their workplace. We also provide newsletters that summarize recent labor and employment law developments and explain the bottom line for employers. Each year, our firm produces our SourceBook which is a comprehensive reference manual containing numerous sections on different labor and employment law topics. And with technology being such an incredible tool these days, we also keep our clients informed with regular complimentary webinars on labor and employment law developments.
5. At the LCA’s Miami Conference several years ago, we asked one of our Fellows to speak on the evolving problem of associate retention. As we all know, the retention of high quality associates can be a challenge in the law firm environment. How does your firm manage associate development and retention?
We recognized several years ago that the retention of associates was not only an issue important to the future of our firm, but also to the service of our clients. So we developed a unique training program for our first year associates known as the Year One Associate Development Program. The values guiding the program are excellence, initiative, teamwork and inclusion. It's really a unique 15-month regimen, which all first year associates participate in, and emphasizes on-the-job training through mentoring, hands-on work assignments and direct observation of client matters. We modeled it after medical school’s resident approach. The main component of the program is the elimination of billable hour requirements for all participants. Instead, their performance is tracked and measured through participation in clinical hours. This way our new lawyers are immediately engaged in the labor and employment law practice by participating in collective bargaining sessions, depositions, trials and hearings, labor or other arbitration cases, EEOC on-site investigations and strategy meetings. So we ensure that our clients are not billed for the time a new associate spends “learning the ropes,” and at the same time allow our new associates to focus on learning, rather than trying to reach a billable hour quota.
6. What impact do you think the discovery process has had on the number of cases being tried?
I think the continued increase in the complexity and expense of disputes arising from the discovery process likely has contributed to the decline in the number of cases going to trial. Despite efforts made by the Civil Justice Reform Act, which ordered federal district court judges to adopt case management plans aimed at reducing the expense and time of civil litigation, discovery is still an expensive and time-consuming process. The cost of discovery has continued to increase with the advent of new technologies that make it feasible to discover more types and greater quantities of electronically stored information. Even though the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require the parties to agree to the scope of the discovery of electronic documents early in the litigation, sometimes disputes over these issues still arise. So, I think that the cost and time entailed in the discovery process have made it more likely that cases will be settled rather than go to trial. Of course, other factors such as alternative dispute resolution methods have also decreased the number of cases being tried.
7. What was your evolution toward litigation, and did it begin before, during or after law school? That is, did you want to be Perry Mason growing up, or did you want to become a trial lawyer after getting out of law school and reading contracts all day long for the first six months of your career?
During law school I wanted to be a corporate lawyer handling high level contracts. During my summer clerkship at a full service law firm, I had the opportunity to work in various areas of the law, including transactional law. I hated it. I decided right then that I wanted to be a litigator and nothing else would do. I was able to spend a few weeks of my summer in the litigation department to get a little sample of what life would be like as a litigator. It lit a fire inside me that has been fanned over the years.
8. I once practiced with a fantastic, though legendarily difficult trial lawyer named Olin Zeanah. One of my partners, beginning when we were associates, kept a list of “Zeanahisms.” They were little gems of knowledge that Zeanah would occasionally impart. Did you have a trial icon or mentor in your early years of practice who shared with you the wisdom of years of practice? If so, please tell us about them.
Bill Duke was one of the legendary trial lawyers at the first firm where I worked. He was near retirement at the time, but had been a superb trial lawyer during his heyday. He knew all of the judges by name, their kids and most of their favorite past times. He was a true southern gentleman who I didn’t mind calling me “sweetie” because I knew that he meant it in the most caring and nurturing way. One of the things that I learned from him was the importance of being able to connect to people and to understand what matters to them. I think that’s an important skill in a trial lawyer. That is, understanding – as much as you can with the limited amount of information you can obtain through federal court voir dire – what’s important to the jurors helps you present your arguments more effectively.
9. We’re in what a banker friend of mine called a “bumptious” economy. How has your practice and that of your firm adjusted?
Although the state of the economy has not directly changed the substantive practice of labor and employment law, our firm has sought to forge greater partnerships with our clients in order to help them meet their budgetary goals in retaining outside counsel. As a result of the economy, increased pressure has been placed on in-house attorneys and HR professionals to get the best value for every dollar spent on outside counsel. We understand these pressures and have worked with numerous clients to develop mutually beneficial alternative fee arrangements that help them ensure budget certainty. Many of the alternative fee arrangements we have designed provide the firm an additional incentive to complete the project or piece of litigation under budget, thereby saving the client even more money.
10. What has been the biggest change in the way law is practiced between the time you first began until now?
I think the biggest change is the impact of technology. Of course, almost all of our research is conducted electronically, but the impact of technology goes beyond that. Advances in technology have allowed us to create trial teams with attorneys in different offices, partner better with our clients during the course of litigation and have even impacted how we present evidence at a trial. Technological advances have also made it easier to manage the discovery process, especially when large numbers of documents are involved. Of course, technology has also created issues we didn’t have to deal with 15 years ago, such as making sure a litigation hold letter goes to all of the right people and covers all the necessary equipment – home computers, lap tops, PDAs, etc.
11. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places and what fascinates you about them?
New Orleans– this is such a fascinating and historically rich town. There is such a diverse group of people who call New Orleans home and have returned there despite the recent massive destruction; Monterey, California – if there was another place in the United States other than the mountains of North Carolina that would be called “God’s country” it would be Monterey. This is one of the most beautiful, peaceful and relatively untouched natural areas in the country.
12. Have you ever had a case in which your opposing counsel went over the line ethically in representing their clients’ interests? How did you deal with it?
Yes, we had a situation where the opposing counsel misrepresented and/or falsified documents to support their defense. Initially I advised the opposing counsel that I knew of their conduct and urged them to withdraw the argument/evidence. When they failed to do so immediately, I informed the court and the bar association.
13. Has Trial Law’s golden age passed or have we yet to reach it? What intrigues you about prior generations of trial lawyers?
While I hope that trial law’s golden age has not passed, I do think it’s been tarnished by many things, including the lack of decorum within the court room by litigants and lawyers and the lack of respect for the judge and the legal process. Unfortunately, some lawyers treat the trial process as more a matter of gamesmanship than as the best way to obtain justice. I also think the constant barrage of media coverage of high-profile trials has led to the demise of public faith in the jury trial process. The prior generations of trial lawyers had more respect for one another, for the judge, for the law and for the legal process. Much of that has eroded over time with the evolution of such a litigious society.
14. What is the first thing that comes to mind if I ask, “If you were a judge, what would you do differently from what you deal with most frequently in your practice before presiding jurists?”
Listen and try to actually apply the law instead of simply passing the easiest judgment based on the issue at hand.
15. What is your greatest extravagance?
A convertible Jaguar.
16. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
Pictures of my two girls, Cameron (6) and Connore (3), smiling back at me.
17. If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
Rosa Parks, Irene Morgan, Sara Louise Keys, Claudette Colvin and others who refused to give up their seat to make room for a non-black person. They all had more courage that most of us need for anything that we encounter today. Rosa Parks knew what was right and she stood (or sat) in protest of the treatment that she and so many others had received. It was Rosa Parks’ action that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott, led by Martin Luther King Jr., helping to launch him to national prominence in the civil rights movement.
18. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA’s mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what in your opinion is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
Furthering diversity within the legal profession in imperative to ensure that we have a justice system that reflects the face of society to not only build that society’s faith in and connection with that system, but also to further the rule of law and create a fair justice system sustained by the legal profession that represents the society it serves. A diverse bar and bench create a better result in the rule of law that we seek to uphold.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
Loyalty. One of the biggest elements in most relationships one feels comfortable with is trust. You can apply that to financial advisors or solicitors or your spouse or your son-in-law or anybody that you come into contact with. If you can't trust someone, you can't actually ever really seriously communicate with them. Loyalty depends on trust. The impact of trust and loyalty is enormous to an individual, but specifically to a litigator, given the demands on one’s time through both work and family. It gives you a sense of calm and relieves much of the stress associated with our daily lives.
20. What is your motto?
Treat others the way that you would want them to treat you. Luke 6:31 – “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” It is a command based on the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that we would all do well to consider and implement. It would avoid all of the unprofessionalism that has plagued our profession over the past century and make for a more expeditious judicial process.