As an assistant district attorney in Carbarrus County in the 1980s, Janet Ward Black fought tooth and nail to earn the respect of her peers. “I had a disadvantage in that I was blonde, in my twenties, and worst of all I was a former Miss North Carolina,” she said. “Everybody made an assumption that I was an airhead. I had to convince them by competence that I was not.”
Every time she walked into a courtroom she faced the possibility of standing before a judge who had never heard a case argued by a female attorney. Her opposing counsel would sometimes smirk across the bench at her, assuming that because she was in a skirt she’d throw the case. Although her “knees knocked” every time she spoke before a judge for the first 10 years of her career, Black now fronts Ward Black Law, one of the biggest female-led law firms in the state.
During a recent interview with Women AdvaNCe, Black shared her thoughts on her role as a woman, a member of the community, and a business leader.
Can you tell us about your family?
My husband and I met on opposite sides of a lawsuit, and he and I have been married for 18 years. He joined my firm last year. I have two stepsons, the oldest of which has worked with my firm for more than 10 years. We also have a German Shepherd who we dote on.
What led you to practice law?
From the time I was four years old, I said I wanted to be a doctor. In college I went into a higher level chemistry class and realized I had listened to the professor talk for 50 minutes and had no idea what he said. I knew I wasn’t going to make it to medical school. My dad grew up during the Great Depression and gave me some great advice. He said, “I want you to have a job where you don’t have to ask someone for a job.” Since I wasn’t going to be a doctor, I went with lawyer. It ended up being the right thing for me because I can help a larger number of people than if I were a doctor treating one person at a time. I can influence policy that saves the lives of thousands of people.
What’s the focus of your current law practice?
Eighty percent of what we do is represent people who have been injured. Ten percent is family law and 10% is veterans disability. The vast majority of the kind of people we represent can’t afford to hire a lawyer or their own experts so they get us on a contingency fee basis. I handle all of the bad prescription drugs and medical device cases as well as the occupational chemical exposure cases. I also specialize in asbestos cases. I like having the corporation on the other side, fighting against me. I like to take care of the workers and those who need help. With the cases like those with asbestos, we can show a pattern of behavior. When we are solidly sure we can show the corporation was in the wrong, we can make it so the financial burden doesn’t rest on the innocent, but rests on the responsible party.
What was the biggest challenge you faced as you began your career?
I was afraid to speak in public so I thought I would be an office lawyer. In the mid-80s at Duke Law School they were very much into having people stand up in class and having the professor embarrass you. I didn’t take any trial advocacy classes just so I could avoid standing in front of the class.
The job I found when I graduated was working as an Assistant District Attorney. I had to swallow that fear of public speaking because I was speaking as the advocate for people who were not able to speak well for themselves. Now public speaking is one of my greatest joys. It’s funny how that works.
When is the first time you felt your impact transcended the courtroom?
There was a man who used his hands to choke his girlfriend so that she had traumatic brain damage. At that time you would only get a two-year sentence charged with misdemeanor assault with serious injury for that crime. No matter the damage, for it to be a felony you had to have a deadly weapon. I went to Raleigh and argued on behalf of a bill that would change that law. Although it didn’t pass at the time, it gave me a flavor for the broader implications of these cases. The law has since changed and now hands can sometimes count as deadly weapons.
Why do you think so few women are represented in your field?
Even though law schools in North Carolina have been more than 50% women for the last five years– if not the last ten– the demographics show that women still select against a life in litigation. Litigation is an adversarial process and we as women tend not to feel drawn to that type of lifestyle. It is very testosterone driven. It’s not all harp music and roses.
The women who go into litigation usually drop out after five to ten years, usually because of family desires. Having children and being a responsible parent do not easily mesh with a life as a litigator.
You spend a lot of time volunteering. What drives that desire?
I probably spend at least 10 hours a week volunteering. I am very invested in being a good citizen of the world, and that means giving back. I think there are some people who are miserable if they are not helping other people, and I am one of those people. If I see a car on the side of the road with the flashers on, I call 911. I can’t help myself. Last year our firm gave 10% of our gross revenue to what we saw as the best-in-breed non-profits. Financially, that should have never worked, but it did and I couldn’t be happier.
What is Ask-A-Lawyer Day, and what led you to found it?
I had seen a problem across the state, in my legal work and in my work as a volunteer leader. There are so many people who cannot afford lawyers and so few institutions that provide assistance for free. I wanted create awareness amongst lawyers about the importance of financially supporting legal services for the poor. I wanted to help lawyers understand how many poor people there are.
So as my signature project as the head of the North Carolina Bar, I founded Ask-A-Lawyer Day in 2008. During that day, attorneys from all over the state volunteer to answer the phone for a short period time and answer legal questions for free, to the best of their ability. North Carolina’s needy get access to legal advice, and these lawyers get reminded that they can help people and cases that aren’t within their specialty. Ask-A-Lawyer Day also reminds us to donate to Legal Aid of North Carolina, which consists of attorneys who help our state’s poorest residents.
Legal Aid attorneys earn only a fraction of what their peers make in private practice. We need attorneys to open their wallets and give to Legal Aid so that it can afford quality attorneys and keep them on staff.
What’s the Good Ol’ Girls Fund?
Good Ol’ Girls is another one of my efforts to get lawyers to give back to their communities. Some people say that women are cheap when it comes to donating, and this is our effort to get some very prominent women lawyers to put money where their mouths are. We raised $11,000 and sent it to Legal Aid. We all have a duty to support Legal Aid. If we all chipped in the way we should, we could represent a whole lot more people. Currently, Legal Aid has to turn down four out of five people who qualify because there aren’t enough lawyers to do the work.
What’s your advice for the next generation of women?
I don’t think anybody should believe they don‘t have the skills to make a difference. Just use what you have. You don’t have to have a lot of money. You don’t have to have influence. Those things can help, but they aren’t necessary. You can volunteer in your community– and if you can make a difference in just one person’s life, you can change the world for the better.