Kay Wolf: It's the People
The Orlando employment defense attorney spends her spare time bringing educational opportunities to kids in Cambodia
Published in 2014 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on June 10, 2014
Updated on February 19, 2020
Q: What is the most difficult part of being an employment defense attorney?
A: The hardest thing … is when a company is on hard times—and, of course, there’s been a lot of this in the last few years—and they have to lay off good employees. The issue of firing somebody that has not done their job, that’s pretty easy for me. [But]I went through a [client’s] layoff here locally, for example, with Lockheed Martin, back in the early ’90s. They went from 17,000 employees to about 3,500. They were laying off outstanding performers. It was a horrible time.
Q: What’s the most common advice that you give to employers?
A: To treat their employees with respect so that they don’t need me in terms of a litigator.
Q: Do you feel that there is still a place for unions?
A: I do. As a management labor lawyer, I probably look at them as something that’s not going to go away, but I even think that they are necessary in some places. It’s a disparity in power, and I think workers need [a voice], even if they have a benevolent employer. A benevolent, powerful person is not the same thing as having a seat at the table. If you are an employer with a union and you have a good working relationship with your union, the results of that can be positive for everybody. I think that people need a voice, and I think unions provide that to, especially, blue-collar workers. I don’t really see the need for unions in a situation where somebody has enough bargaining power.
Q: Do you ever find yourself sympathizing with employees?
A: Oh, yes. In fact, one of the hats that I wear in my practice is I’m a mediator. I mediate probably 35 percent to 40 percent of my time. If I’m representing an employer, and they goofed, I try to get them to make it right, fix the problem. On the other hand, if I’ve got an employee that I think is taking advantage of the system, it really irks me when … it’s obvious that somebody is lying. That’s regardless of who it is, what side it is. When somebody is not doing their job and is trying to take advantage of a deep pocket, that angers me, too.
Q: Which cases stand out in your mind?
A: A couple of cases have taken up most of my career. One of them was a class action age-discrimination lawsuit that I defended for Lockheed Martin back in the early ‘90s when they had all those layoffs. And then another Lockheed Martin case. It was a trade-secret case.
Those were the hardest, most grueling, most challenging. But the one that was the most fun was when I represented a local African-American church. I did it pro bono. They had fired their pastor, and he refused to leave. I had to go to court and get an injunction to get this guy out of the pulpit. He locked his trustees out. He’s got the money from the offering plate on Sunday morning that’s going in his safe. He didn’t take the money. They [trustees] couldn’t access it. I’m trying to get evidence as to all of the things that had gone on beforehand to show the court that it was a just termination; then all the things that had gone on after in terms of bad deeds, so that the court would be willing to interfere, because it’s a religious organization.
Q: Right. Tricky.
A: I worked with the deacons and the trustees. They would be in my office for hours and hours and hours, weekends and weekdays. It was just crazy. We would go to hearings, and the preacher would have his supporters on one end of the hall, and I would be here with 200 people from this church, and they’d be praying before we all went into the courtroom. I have gone back to the church several times to worship, and they are always so great.
Q: What made this case so special?
A: The people. I mean, that’s what it always is. One of the reasons that I love employment law for employers, as opposed to for plaintiffs, it’s not even so much what side I think is right or wrong. It’s the fact that when you’re an employment lawyer, you build relationships with your clients. I know the general counsels or I know the HR vice president of a company, [people] you develop the relationships with, that you want to protect. If they’re doing the wrong thing, you want to be able to have a relationship that you can say, “This is wrong. We need to fix this.” It’s never … well, sometimes it’s about the issue, but generally, it’s not the issue. It’s the people.
Q: Was law your original destination?
A: I say that I’m a member of the “in-case” generation. My father told me I had to go to college in case something happened to my husband. [Laughs] It just never dawned on me to be anything but a teacher or a secretary. I got to college and I thought, “I could be a social worker.” I got married when I was in college, and [after graduation], we went to Louisville. I got a job as a social worker. When kids came through the juvenile court system, I was the one that got that case, investigated it, made a recommendation to the court.
The judges would listen to me as long as the parents had not hired a lawyer. If the parents had hired a lawyer, the judge almost inevitably took the lawyer’s recommendation. I said, “All right, that’s it. I’m going to law school. If that’s what it takes for people to listen to me, I’m going to go to law school.”
Q: As an undergrad, you went to some protests.
A: By the time I got to college we were [actively protesting] the Vietnam War. I remember hiding behind a reporter one time—he had a cameraman—because my father told me if he ever saw my picture on TV, he was going to yank me out of school. This was kind of funny, because I was also a serious student. I remember going to an all-night sit-in and taking my alarm clock so I would not miss my 8 o’clock class.
Q: Did you go immediately into your current practice area?
A: Early on, I decided that I wanted to do labor and employment law. I was working for the City of Louisville, and they had an opening. It was a bigger job. My job with the union employees was to be a part of the [city’s] bargaining team; my job with the non-union employees was advising the personnel department on terminations, policies. I just fell in love with it.
Q: Tell me about growing up in a Panhandle town.
A: Quincy was an enigma even then. There were billionaires there from tobacco farming, and also from original Coca-Cola stock. The story is that there was a banker in town who—I think it was in the ’20s when they went public and sold stock—convinced all his bank friends, all his customers, to buy Coca-Cola stock. [When] I was 11 years old, Quincy made the headlines [as] being the richest per capita community in the country.
It was because of that original Coca-Cola stock. The town was about 65 percent African-American. They worked the farms. We talk about income disparity now. It was unbelievable then. I was one of the middle-class whites, of which there were not that many. The schools integrated when I was a sophomore in high school, but I don’t mean completely. We had one African-American in my class in the 10th grade. I remember sitting next to her in assembly because another student refused to sit by her.
Q: Was gender ever an issue?
A: Oh, I love telling these stories. When I decided to go to law school, I went to the bank to get a loan, and they wouldn’t give me any money. They actually said this to my face: “You’re going to go to law school; you’re going to get married. You’re never going to practice law.”
There were four women in my class at law school out of about 175 [at] University of Louisville. When my class graduated, the biggest firm in town decided to hire its first woman. I interviewed for the job and was pretty much promised the job, then all of a sudden they gave it to somebody else. This is a funny story because the woman is a wonderful lawyer. She was Number 2 in our class. I was not happy—not so much that I didn’t think she deserved it, because she did have better grades—but they had basically told me they were going to hire me. I asked them, “Well, what happened?” They said, “We didn’t think that we would get anybody that qualified. I mean, you’re a woman, right?” I was so mad. I was so mad.
Those were the kinds of things. I had judges calling me “honey” from the bench. From the bench.
Q: Any other major changes in the industry over the years?
A: It has been such a sea change in the last three years. I mean, that recently. The whole law firm model is changing, and law firms are grappling with how to continue to be profitable and have some semblance of—I hate the word “balance,” but, I mean, we are made up of people, and we would like for people who work hard and do good things to be able to have lives. When the recession first hit, it took a year or so for people to realize that this wasn’t just a recession; that this was, in fact, a change in the way they were going to be doing business.
Q: Tell me about your inclusion on the “Women Worth Watching” list in the Profiles in Diversity Journal.
A: My firm [Ford & Harrison] nominated me because of various things that I have done for women and children. I was the first woman to be appointed to the executive committee of my firm, and have been very vocal for years about making opportunities available for women and minorities.
Q: Must have been a proud moment.
A: It was very cool. But I thought it was just an award, right? Then they contact me and tell me that I have to write an article. They give you four choices, and three of them sounded really boring, but the fourth one was about education in Third World countries. So I am reading at the beach one weekend, best book I’ve ever read. By Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The title is Half The Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It is about [how] it takes half of the world’s population, i.e. women, to hold up the sky. It’s from an old Chinese proverb.
It’s all about the plight of women in Third World countries. It says, basically, that there are two things that are proven to work: one is education, and the other is microfinancing. [He] talked about World Assistance for Cambodia and Bernie Krisher’s work in setting up a foundation and building schools. He says it’s easier to educate women than it is to rescue them from brothels. Krisher was the Tokyo bureau chief for Newsweek, who went to Cambodia in the ’80s. He sees the ravages of Cambodia from the reign of the Khmer Rouge, [how] they annihilated a quarter of the population, and destroyed all the schools. When he retires from Newsweek he goes back. He decides, “These people have got to get to the point where they can tackle these problems,” right? So he starts building schools.
I’m reading about how this all started. There’s a school in Seattle called the Overlake School, and [headmaster] Frank Grijalva had worked at the American School in Tokyo. That is where Bernie Krisher’s daughter went to school. Debbie Krisher-Steele comes back to the school for a reunion, and Frank meets her and hears about the work that [she and her dad are] doing. Fast-forward to early 2000s. [Grijalva] says, “You know, I think I might like for us to build a school.”
The [Overlake] kids start doing car washes and bake sales and all those things that kids do, and they raise the money to build the school. It’s only $15,000 because the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank match the money. So I’m reading for my Diversity Journal article, and I just cannot get this out of my head: $15,000. I mean, I’ve donated $15,000 for things before. You get a plaque on a wall someplace for $15,000. I thought, “We can do this.” Lash Harrison is the founder and the managing partner for our firm, and he said, “OK.”
We set up a steering committee that had representatives in various offices. Then we had various firm fundraising events. And the firm has always had a matching program. We raised $85,000. We had no idea! So we built the school, put in computers, put in solar panels, got a satellite dish to connect them to the Internet and solar panels to power it. We built a deep-water well and got water filters so that the whole village has a well. We hired a teacher to teach computer and English. When we went for the opening, we took school supplies. We got sports equipment.
Q: What was it like meeting the kids?
A: It was about a two-and-a-half-hour ride to get to the school from Phnom Penh, and that’s because the roads are dirt. We all pull up in this van and we get out, and there are 450 children lined up on both sides of the gate, all the way back to the actual school building. They are in white shirts and either navy or black shorts. And they’re all clapping. We are walking through with these kids clapping. I mean, we are crying. Oh, my God. They gave us flowers and they put these Khmer scarves around our necks. The whole village is out for this ceremony.
Our school, The FordHarrison School, is the 544th school they built.
This interview has been condensed.