From the Uneven Parallel Bars to the Bar
Anne Schiavone of Holman Schiavone on employment law, working with kids and the study habits she developed as a competitive gymnast
Published in 2015 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
By Ross Pfund on October 6, 2015
Q: You’ve spent your entire legal career in Kansas City. Did you grow up in the area?
A: I didn’t. My dad was in the Coast Guard, so we would move every two to four years or so. He was a Coast Guard lawyer and with the Maritime Administration and Veterans Administration. He never brought his work home with him, so I really didn’t know what it was like to be a lawyer—it wasn’t like I was raised in a generational family of lawyers.
Q: But what did your dad think when you told him you were going to do this?
A: He was all for it. My parents have always been supportive of whatever I have done. I was a gymnast my whole life and in high school we used to train—I kid you not—seven hours a day, and I competed at the national level. I ended up going to Rutgers on a personal gymnastic scholarship, and did Division I gymnastics.
Q: What were your events?
A: In high school you had to do all four events: the floor, the balance beam, the uneven parallel bars and the vault. In college, you have a deep team of really good kids and you start specializing. My specialty was the uneven parallel bars.
Q: Seems like the most dangerous one to pick.
A: It was so fun, though. Looking back now, I laugh because I have aches and pains I don’t think I ever could imagine, from years of beating myself up. I tell you what, that sport taught me drive, discipline, how to multitask. It’s a very individual sport. You’ve got to be tough-minded and you have to have a certain level of confidence to do it.
Q: Anything else you’ve brought from the parallel bars to the lawyer’s bar?
A: Perseverance. When you have a tough day, you go home and you know you’re going back the next day. I remember being a junior in high school, [starting my homework] at 9 o’clock at night because I had been at the gym for seven hours, taping my study guides to the shower glass door so that I could study while I was washing my hair.
Q: As a lawyer, you started out doing defense work.
A: I was at a mid-sized firm for a year or so, and then I was at a large defense firm for three to four years. I did commercial litigation—some products liability defense work and asbestos litigation defense. When I went to the big firm a year later, I did commercial liability. That could be anything from a kid getting injured on playground equipment at McDonalds to a breach-of-contract dispute.
Q: Do you remember your first case?
A: I don’t know if it was my first trial, but I was a young associate at the big firm and tried a case in an associate circuit court by myself. It was a housing and trespass case. Somebody had lived in the house and trashed the house and it was a dispute over the damage. After the trial the client sent me a dozen roses; the most bizarre thing. That stuck in my mind.
Q: After those four or five years, you made a big switch.
A: It was a time when employment law was still relatively new. There had just been recent rulings allowing the Missouri Human Rights Act cases to go to a jury trial. I’ve always liked working for the underdog, for lack of a better word. I thought it would be a good opportunity. People were still getting into it, and I found that there weren’t very many young female litigators doing employment law.
Q: Were there some clients specifically looking for a lawyer like you?
A: Even recently, we’ll have somebody who specifically will put on an inquiry, “I would like to talk to a female lawyer.” For example, if it’s a sexual harassment thing or something more graphic or maybe a pregnancy discrimination claim. I work with males, females, kids, so we have a really good mix of clientele.
Q: Who are your most memorable clients?
A: The ones closest to my heart are the kids who have been sexually harassed or assaulted in school. Our firm solidified the law in that area of the Missouri Human Rights Act to cover claims brought by kids who are students at a public school. In the past few years, that’s a relatively new area of the Missouri Human Rights Act—those claims have been allowed to proceed against school districts.
Working with those kids is pretty awesome. Of course, they don’t know what money they’ve gotten because it’s put away for them for their benefit later. Even though my contact with those kids isn’t necessarily ongoing, knowing that I made a difference for them is huge.
Q: How does the change to the Human Rights Act affect these cases?
A: If it’s a public school, it really increases the remedies and the chances of success for kids who experience harassment. It could be harassment based on sex, but it could also be any protected category. So a kid has a disability and is being made fun of and bullied because they are disabled, that falls under it. Or if a kid is a minority and they are being made fun of because of their skin color and called racially discriminatory comments, that would fall under it. It’s the same law; you’re just applying it to the school system. And then you have the arena of bullying based on gender, being called derogatory names and made fun of. We also see a lot of slighter kids being called names and pushed around because they’re not the stereotypical jock.
In today’s day and age, you hear about bullying all the time. You don’t want to think about what goes on, but it never ceases to amaze me the ages at which this can happen to kids. But it’s good to know that some of these cases have remedies when kids are really brutalized.
Q: What are the challenges of representing kids?
A: [You need to be] overly sensitive to making sure they are comfortable and that they have the coping skills before their deposition. By the time they get to my office and the deposition’s being taken, two or three years may have passed and they really may have healed fairly well. Then they have to talk about it again. You want to be conscious of the fact that it is difficult for them to relive [it]. So I make sure they are comfortable with me and comfortable with themselves going into the deposition.
Q: How do you raise that comfort level?
A: I have two kids myself, so if kids are similar in age to mine, I always make sure that they know about my family. I tell them a little bit about my kids and what they might have in common with my kids. “Hey, do you want to see a picture of my kids? My son likes this just like you do.” Then that will open up a conversation where they get real comfortable about talking about whatever sport it is or whatever baseball game they went to. It’s genuine, because I want the kids to feel comfortable around me. I want the family to feel comfortable around me and view me as an equal and someone who cares about helping them, as opposed to someone who sees them as just a lawsuit or claim. I think it’s pretty important, especially for kids, to see you as another adult who is a parent as opposed to a lawyer.
I had one kid who … You know how kids get nervous and they might keep their hands up by their face, fidgeting? The last thing I wanted was to say, “Now, I didn’t understand you. Can you take your hands down? Can you repeat that?” So I had my assistant go to Target and get silly-putty and stress balls so that they can play with something in the deposition to keep their hands occupied.
I think it’s just being sensitive and having two kids myself. Knowing that, God forbid, if this stuff ever happened to my kids, how would I feel as a parent. So I can relate to the parent in that aspect.
Q: What is the most challenging part of the job?
A: Balancing my caseload with the business aspect of the firm. Determining employee reviews, or what lawyers have what cases on their dockets. Keeping tabs on the status of those cases. Working with our bookkeepers, working with our CPAs. So that’s a whole monster of additions to practicing everyday law.
Q: How do you strike the right balance?
A: I’m smart enough to surround myself with people who know way more than I do. I was lucky when I first went out on my own in that I had, oh my gosh, great lawyers who had been practicing longer than me who took the time to help me and give me pointers, and didn’t act like I was bothering them.
I’m lucky to be in a firm—and to have a partner like Kirk [Holman]—where there’s a lot of trust between the lawyers, and that makes a huge difference and is why we’ve been successful. We all trust and support each other.
Q: How often are you in trial these days?
A: It varies. There will be years when there are multiple trials, and then last year I think I had one trial. The bottom line is most cases get resolved, but I also think that the reason cases get resolved is because people know our firm will go try a case.
Q: Do fewer trials mean fewer trial skills being developed?
A: No, I think a lot of the skills that it takes to be a trial lawyer are developed during the discovery process—being able to take in the information, take a good deposition, formulate a response to motions. You might need a refresher on the weird quirks of the rules of evidence. But you know what to expect. You know how to conduct a trial. It’s plugging those facts in. So I think the real work is in preparing for trial, even if 99 percent of cases settle.
Q: Do you do anything specific to prepare?
A: I’m one of those people who, if I have all my ducks in a row a week before the trial even starts, then I can just kind of focus on little tidbits. I like to have everything planned out, because then I can deal with the unforeseen.
Q: So you don’t have to tape a study guide to the shower door the night before trial.
A: Or spend the entire weekend away from my kids!
This interview was edited and condensed.
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