Kay Gunderson Reeves serves as of counsel to Waters Kraus & Paul. For more than 20 years, she has represented victims of asbestos exposure and those injured by dangerous drugs or other toxic substances. She graduated with high honors from the University of California at Berkeley before receiving a Master’s in Public Administration from Troy State University, and later her Juris Doctor degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Kay is a member of the Bar of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here’s what Kay had to say during our Women’s History Month Women In Law Roundtable Q&A.
Waters Kraus & Paul: According to the American Bar Association, there are approximately 1.4 million licensed attorneys in the United States. While there may be obvious overlap in experiences and reasons for choosing to become a lawyer, no two people are the same. What, or who is it that inspired you to pursue a career in law?
Kay Gunderson Reeves: I didn’t really have any role models, as there are no lawyers in my family—though there was Perry Mason, not to date myself. I had started off wanting to be a journalist because I was interested in making change in the world but found I was too shy for that profession. In my case, the catalyst for me deciding to go to law school was pure fortuity. After ending my brief foray into journalism, I had worked as a legislative aide in the Texas State Senate for several years. A friend there—almost a mentor—who was a top aide to Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby advised me to go to law school “if I didn’t want to be stuck fetching the iced tea for the rest of my career.”
For obvious reasons, I had noticed that the legislators placed heavy reliance on the lawyers when drafting and amending legislation. I wanted to be taken equally as seriously because there were areas of law in which I really wanted to see and bring about change, like environmental law. So, I went to law school. After I finished, I returned to the Senate for a while, where I still fetched iced tea, which I actually didn’t mind. But a law degree allowed me to contribute at an entirely different level and eventually enter private practice as a plaintiff’s lawyer.
WKP: Continued determination and a tough work ethic are part of a universal code shared among successful attorneys. In fact, a career as a lawyer has been a hallmark of prestige for generations now. But what exactly enabled your career to flourish? How would you personally encourage young women thinking about becoming attorneys, but are scared of the challenges that lie ahead?
KGR: Frankly, I haven’t found young women to be particularly “scared” of things. My own daughter is in law school now, so I can speak from a bit of experience here. First, young women should think about what they want to achieve with a law degree and what it takes to get through law school and pass the bar.
Is it financial security? Social change? If a woman doesn’t really like school or reading, the degree path will be a bit tortured, and there may be another way to achieve whatever it is they’d like to achieve. In other words, they need to know what they’re getting into and be up for it. Finding a law school that won’t result in a person being saddled with crushing debt is also important. While there are limits to the sacrifices I’d make in terms of a law school’s reputation to avoid debt, I certainly don’t think that an Ivy League degree is a necessity. If you don’t have to earn “X” amount of money to pay off your debts, you end up with a lot more freedom in terms of job choice. During law school and once licensed, I would try and make time to network (more than I have myself) and find someone at your firm to mentor you. Networking is important.
Even in law school, you get used to talking about legal problems, honing arguments, and issues of that nature. And I believe a mentor is important—someone having your back is a KEY to success, especially while building your skills and confidence. If the person wants to go into litigation, watching good trial lawyers and asking them questions or even supporting their trial work as a 2nd, 3rd, 4th chair is so valuable when it comes to building yourself up. Insinuate yourself into projects you’d like to work on! Don’t wait for an invitation. Finally, you make your own luck by bringing as much excellence and integrity as you can to everything you do. People in charge notice that, and doors can open when they do. That’s true of every profession.
WKP: Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many routine legal proceedings like working from the office and court attendance have been suspended or amended. How have these changes impacted your own career? As a professional, what are the biggest challenges faced when working from home?
KGR: I am actually a “pro” at working remotely, as I started doing it long before COVID and have now been at it for 20 years. The biggest challenge is, I think, remaining connected with colleagues in a way that maintains collegiality and idea-sharing. “Out of sight, out of mind” can be a benefit if you are on a deadline writing a brief—it is excellent to have uninterrupted time—but you want to have times when you can bounce ideas off of people, hear about new issues at your firm or place of employment. So, it’s tough when you’re working remote all of the time. But it helps to make an extra effort to talk to people on the telephone a bit more when you’re going to be isolated for a stretch of time, to maintain connection, let people know you’re available for projects, and get input on any tricky legal issues you might be grappling with.
To read more interviews with our attorneys, check out our Waters Kraus & Paul Virtual Roundtable Q&A: Women In Law.