‘You Can Either Be Bitter or Be Better’

Ashley Pack’s devotion to her son informs her legal practice, and vice-versa

Published in 2023 Virginia Super Lawyers magazine

By Carole Hawkins on April 26, 2023


To be a lawyer is to advocate. But for Ashley Pack, her son’s struggle with a rare genetic disorder has brought personal insight into what that means.

Alex was born with a chromosomal abnormality identified in only a handful of people in the world. The neurological damage left him with motor difficulties; he will need 24-hour care for the rest of his life.

“If you met him, you’d only understand maybe 30% to 40% of what he’s saying. But he still has needs and wants and desires like all of us do,” Pack says. “He also expresses himself on his own terms—it’s always what he wants to talk about. So I have to use a different skill set when I listen.”

Alex was born when Pack was an associate at Dinsmore & Shohl, five years out of law school. He was a healthy infant. Then at age 3, he started having seizures—as many as 10 per week. Hospital visits and medications followed, but Alex’s condition became more severe. His hands began to tremble, his gait was unsteady and he struggled with speech.

An MRI revealed brain damage, which is likely the reason for the seizures, and intellectual and motor disabilities. Alex’s medical team also diagnosed him with a rare chromosomal abnormality, and the prognosis is unknown. Within the space of a year, Pack had to come to terms with a different future for her child than the one she’d imagined.

“When you come to a crossroads, you can either be bitter or be better,” Pack says. “I really have never felt sorry for myself. Not one time, over any of this. I just decided, ‘He’s my baby. It doesn’t matter.’”
In the years that followed, Pack focused on three goals for Alex: Keep him safe, make sure he’s loved and cared for, and help him reach his potential. Pack and her husband, Chad, explored medical treatments and therapies. They carefully selected Alex’s schools and pressed for resources to support him.

The tenacity Pack uses to help Alex also serves her well as she defends employers at Dinsmore & Shohl ’s Charleston office, where she is managing partner and a member of the board of directors. “I would say my best and highest use is being a problem-solver, cutting through red tape and information to try to get to how can we fix this problem.”

Conversely, her skills as an attorney help her to assist her son.

“I feel other parents might not have the ability to confront situations and push back. But advocacy is something that I’m used to as a litigator,” says Pack. “I’m used to pushing the envelope.”

Today Alex is 17. He weighs 80 pounds and attends public school as a special needs student.

“I call him the mayor of the high school, because he goes around shaking hands and he’s constantly smiling,” Pack said. “He’s one of the most popular kids in school.”

Because he has no logic memory, Alex is unaware of time. He knows his name, but when asked, he can’t tell you what his name is. He remembers a person he’s met or a dog he’s played with, but he only experiences the person or the dog in the moment.

“People say we should live in the moment, because it’s where we’re our happiest,” Pack says. “Alex is always in the present moment, and that’s where he stays.”

Raising Alex, Pack says, has helped her to make fewer assumptions about other people’s needs—whether she’s working with a client in a courtroom, or in her role as a community ambassador with the Thomas Health Foundation and the YWCA.

“Everybody in Alex’s world is equal. He doesn’t see disabilities or imperfections, and it doesn’t matter what people do or look like. He sees them as they are,” Pack says. “Alex has taught me to look at people differently. He has given me empathy for those who may or may not appear to have difficulties in their lives, because everyone is dealing with something.” 

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