Q&A with Celia J. Collins
The partner at Johnstone, Adams, Bailey, Gordon & Harris on the changes in employment law over the years, getting more women involved in Alabama politics and making time for triathlons
Published in 2011 Alabama Super Lawyers magazine
on April 25, 2011
Updated on May 26, 2016
Q: What inspired you to pursue law?
A: Unlike my children, I actually knew what I wanted to do when I went to college. [Laughs] I was involved in the Alabama Youth Legislature in high school and just the whole process of drafting legislation was interesting to me. Then, when I was a freshman in college, the Watergate hearings were going on—it was all on TV. I remember—it was in the summer when I was home from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College—just being mesmerized with it. I was captivated particularly by the cross-exams of some of the southern senators, notably Howard Baker and Chair Sam Ervin. And that pretty much cemented the law school thing in my future.
Howell Heflin was also an influence on my decision. He served as Alabama’s chief justice during my late high school and college years, and I had the opportunity during that time to hear him speak on a couple of occasions. I do recall being so impressed by his style later on when he was questioning court nominees on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Q: How did you end up choosing your practice area?
A: My dad was a manufacturing plant manager and a lot of the time he was involved with unionized plants. When we were in Opelika, which is where I grew up, his labor lawyer from Atlanta would sometimes come to our house for dinner so they could talk privately about what was going on with the union. I would be sitting there at the dinner table as a 16-year-old and just was fascinated. I think because I’d grown up in that environment with personnel and human resources—it was a topic of father’s business conversations, at least—I had an interest in that.
On top of that, my grandfather was actually a union steward at Ford Motor, so I had both sides of it.
Q: What’s your favorite part about practicing in employment law?
A: It’s always interesting. It’s human nature. You never know what people will do, never know what’s going on with people’s minds in the workplace. The whole harassment area tends to be fascinating. On top of that, it’s such an evolving area of law. Since I’ve been practicing, the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] came out, the Family [and Medical] Leave Act, Title VII [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964], harassment cases all of a sudden became jury trials when they had not been when I first started practicing. Everything coming down from Washington now has employment law implications, so it’s challenging.
Q: Do you have a most memorable case?
A: In the employment law area—I don’t know that it’s memorable for any reason other than the facts were particularly interesting—I had the opportunity to defend a condom manufacturer in a harassment case, where its supervisor was accused of exposing himself on the production line. And I am not making that up. [Laughs]
We ended up getting a summary judgment. So we did win.
Q: So no trial.
A: No, we got a summary judgment from the judge before trial. That would have been something to try. [Laughs]
Q: Do you go to trial often?
A: Not really that much. [In] my area in employment law, a lot of the cases settle. There’s a lot of summary judgments entered because the 11th Circuit law, where we practice, is very pro-employer. [So] not as much as I’d like; I love going to trial.
Q: What do you see as the most challenging part of your job?
A: Keeping up with the law as it evolves, keeping up with the changes in the way you practice, such as technology. The new thing now in court is PowerPoint and TrialDirector. When you’ve been practicing for decades without it, learning to do it that way and learning to do it well that way is a challenge.
Q: What’s the most rewarding part about being a lawyer?
A: I love the intellectual challenge. I love the fact that I do something different almost every day. I enjoy my clients. My clients are in a number of different industries, and that’s fun to be around types of people whose companies do different types of work. I like the flexibility; as a mother, that’s been great. Unless I’m in trial or depositions, I can leave at 4 o’clock to go to children’s sports and leave to go to a program at school. I think that’s one of the best things about practicing law for any parent—mother or father.
Q: What do you do in your free time?
A: I’m big on exercise. Our office is next-door to the YMCA and I’m over there most days unless I have a scheduling conflict. I’m a triathlete. I used to be an avid triathlete. I’ve slowed down to one or two a year, but I still do that, which requires training. And I took up tennis last year.
Q: When did you start participating in triathlons?
A: I guess it was about 14 years ago, after my children started getting a little bit older and I had a little bit more free time—for a while there, there was none. I was literally watching the Hawaii Ironman on TV one afternoon and I was thinking, “I could do that.” … I’ve not done an Ironman, but there were shorter versions available. They were interviewing all these people that weren’t particularly athletic or even particularly fit for their whole lives. They were talking about how they got into it and I was like, “I could do that,” and then I started doing it. It was fun. [But] if you did them the whole triathlon season, you had to train about nine months a year—swim, bike, run two or three times a week each for nine months. [It] just kind of got old and I got a little burned out, so now I just do one or two a year. I can just train for about two months, do them and then move onto tennis or whatever.
Q: In the early ‘90s, you were the president of an organization called HOPE (Help Open Politics to Everyone) Chest. Tell me a bit about how and why you got involved.
A: I was on the board of the local YWCA, and, in connection with the national YWCA, we presented a workshop called Institute for Public Leadership, which was designed to encourage women to get involved in politics either as a candidate or as a financial supporter, as a campaign manager, whatever aspect. The national Y sent national trainers down to do the program. The program was very successful. I can’t remember the number we had, but it was far more than we anticipated participating in the event. Out of that evolved some discussion from some of the participants that we needed to do something in the Mobile area to get women involved. There was a woman named Ann Bedsole who was a state senator—she may have been one of our first [women] state senators—who is still a leader among women politicians in this area. She was heavily involved with helping us to get it going and she knew the campaign finance laws and helped us with all of that.
Q: Were those efforts successful in getting more women into the political circle?
A: Yes, I think in a lot of respects. We had started HOPE Chest down here and in the same time frame, Birmingham started something called [the] Alabama Solution. It was the same mission; both were patterned after EMILY’s List, which was a national women’s PAC [political action committee] that had been around for some time. … We decided to merge the two because we felt like it made more sense to just have one for the whole state.
There was an article in our paper the other day that said unfortunately Alabama is still 47th or 48th in women in the state legislature, so we haven’t made a lot of progress there. But if you look at our judiciary and our statewide offices, we’ve had a woman lieutenant governor, treasurer, on and on and on. I think the progress is amazing, and I think the HOPE Chest and Alabama Solution helped with that because not only did it encourage women to get involved, but it provided a network—a good ol’ girls network, if you will—that women could rely on to start up their campaigns and then go from there. The network has remained that we created through the organizations. … If I have a friend running for a statewide office, I know who to call to this day in Birmingham to help her. Or him, for that matter. [Editor’s note: The Alabama Solution does not appear on the current registry of political action committees with Alabama’s secretary of state.]
Q: What advice do you have for young lawyers today?
A: They need to remember that there’s a lot you can do with a law degree. If you get in a firm or a type of practice that you’re not happy in, you should try to explore other options quickly rather than waiting. I’ve known too many people, my whole career, really, [who] got into the practice of law or private practice or even government jobs and that’s not where they want to be and they were miserable. I love what I do so it kind of saddens me [that] one of my colleagues is just miserable in that life. There are a lot of options available when you have a law degree for different career paths you can follow. For instance, government employment, public service, consulting, teaching.
Q: What do you know now that you didn’t when you graduated from law school?
A: Like anybody that comes out of school, I thought that the law is the law and I’m going to win every case if the law’s on my side. And it doesn’t always work that way, particularly when you have juries that aren’t lawyers, that aren’t applying the law strictly. I think I’ve realized when I go to trial, I know my case, I know all the facts, I know them backwards and forwards, and I’m sure I’m going to win, but when you get to court, you can’t get all that evidence admitted, for one reason or another, so the juries never know the whole story. I try to think in terms of what have they heard, and leave out what they weren’t allowed to hear, when I’m doing my closing argument. That’s the only way I can win.