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Social Justice Lawyer Shares Insights with Students

February 15, 2012

Director of the Center for Law and Ethics Joshua Davis led a conversation with social justice lawyer Kelly Dermody, partner at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP and president of the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Kelly Dermody

The Center for Law and Ethics event was co-sponsored by Pride Law Association, the USF chapter of the San Francisco Trial Lawyers Association, and the Women’s Law Association.

Dermody graduated law school with a strong interest in working for a nonprofit. When she failed to obtain a nonprofit position that she was seeking, Dermody applied for a job at Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, LLP. She heard about the firm and its values, a for-profit firm that focuses on public interest work, through networking. Eighteen years later, she leads the firm’s employment group and has worked on Title VII, wage and hour, pension, consumer cases, and other class action, plaintiff cases that seek systemic change in the law.

“We want to follow cases that have an articulable social benefit,” she said. “We want cases where it will matter if we win. It will make a difference in the lives of people. It will make a difference in the system of justice. It will change people’s sense of access if we are successful.”

To get a job similar to her own, Dermody suggested that students obtain clerkships to improve their research and writing skills, work on projects during law school that allow interaction with clients, and consider positions after graduation with the district attorney’s office or as a public defender that build hands-on, courtroom trial experience.

She also spoke on the importance of building your reputation early in your career by considering the impression you leave with people and taking ownership of projects.

“Always volunteer for opportunities where you get to lead on something—whether it’s the most glamorous thing or least glamorous thing. If you are running it you are learning how to be a lawyer. You are learning how to exercise judgment and discretion, you are delegating…reviewing, and polishing,” Dermody said.

Dermody said that the first couple of years working she had little time off and then “something clicked.” As she become more established in her career she was able to discern how long projects would take and was leading more projects, which allowed her to set project schedules. Although her position still requires her to work night and weekends during busy periods, she doesn’t feel that it is a sacrifice.

“I feel privileged to get to do what I do. It’s just an amazing ride,” she said. “The actual work of representing people that are changing the system—it’s awesome.”