Princeton’s Pioneer

Teacher-turned-attorney Kathryn Bayless was the first female attorney to set up shop in her West Virginia town

Published in 2015 Virginia Super Lawyers Magazine

Kathryn “Kay” Reed Bayless credits a bunch of junior high kids for her ability to win over jurors.

“Talk to the jury like they are in the eighth grade,” says Bayless. “Nothing aggravates a juror more than a lawyer talking in a manner that is over [his or her] head … or under their heads, quite frankly.”

The teacher-turned-attorney helms the Bayless Law Firm, a solo personal injury and employment law practice based in Princeton, where she grew up with five siblings. Her mother was a nurse. Her father was a truck driver.

Young Bayless taught herself to read, sitting at the kitchen table watching her mom help her two older brothers with their homework. As soon as she was old enough, she would ride her bike to the library, where she read To Kill A Mockingbird.

“I was struck by the majesty of Atticus Finch, and of law as a vehicle for change,” she says.

That bike took her to the courthouse, too, where she would sit in the gallery and watch trials all day.

“I am sure that my mother was aware of what I was doing, but she never did anything to discourage me,” Bayless recalls with a laugh.

Her parents also supported her desire to succeed. Bayless was the first in the family to go to college. She started out in pharmacy, then switched to chemistry, but retained her interest in law. By the time she decided to go to West Virginia University College of Law, she was on her own with a young son to raise.

“I would exchange home-cooked meals for babysitting, so I could go to the law library and study,” she says.

It was 1976, and there was an influx of women entering law schools across the nation. “Unlike Harvard or Yale, WVU always admitted women to law school,” Bayless says. “But it was only a handful each year until the mid-1970s, when 20 percent of the class was women.”

Bayless was the first female attorney in private practice in Princeton, although one worked in a legal aid group and several other women in town held law degrees.

“They were successful businesswomen,” she says,“but a woman practicing law was somewhat of an oddity.”

Employment law was also a rarity when Bayless was starting out. To bolster the community of attorneys who serve clients wronged on the job, she helped found the West Virginia Employment Lawyers Association.

Bayless is passionate about securing justice for people who have been harmed through no fault of their own. In the early ’90s, she brought a products liability suit against General Motors Co. on behalf of a single father who was blinded when the hood of his car came loose on one side, spun around and crashed through the windshield, severing his optic nerve.

“We took on the big boys in Detroit,” she says.

The lawyers for GM were so impressed by her grasp of physics that they asked Bayless if she would represent the company in all of its West Virginia cases.

It would have been a heck of a boost to her practice, but she turned them down. “I told them that I couldn’t sleep at night if I did that,” she says.

Bayless enjoys being picky about her cases.

“Money is not a motivating factor,” she says. “It’s the nature of the case, the nature of the harm. I ask, ‘Can I do some good that helps people beyond this particular case?’”

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