ALAJ Salutes...

Leila Watson

 Leila Watson thought she wanted to be a social worker until she read her first legal brief.

She was a senior at the University of Wisconsin when she worked through an internship with disabled students. As was the case in a lot of states, Wisconsin was being sued over its treatment of disabled persons, and she was privy to the documents.

 "I never went into the courtroom, I just read the documents the lawyers sent over," Watson said. "But I could see that one lawyer could do more than a battalion of social workers."

Watson then proceeded to tear up her already printed resumes, and started applying for law school. She took a year off before heading to law school at the University of Maryland.

In the meantime, she was a bartender at the Capitol Inn in Madison, Wisconsin where she learned a lot of real school lessons and met some now infamous people.

"All of the senators and house members and lobbyists hung out there because it was close to the Capitol," she said. "It was an exciting time...it was a presidential year and I got to meet Jerry Brown and Gary Hart."

She chose the University of Maryland because she always wanted to attend school in College Park. The law school, however, is in downtown Baltimore.

"I had no idea, I packed up everything I owned and loaded it in my station wagon and started looking for somewhere to live down near College Park," she said. "My friends I was staying with had to tell me where the law school was."

All of this is going on while Watson's siblings are following in the footsteps of their father, who is a research chemist living outside Pittsburgh. "Not a lawyer in the bunch" she says laughingly.

The good news is one of her father's best friends knew a very important lawyer, Justice Janie Shores.

"I was a terrible student, I graduated in the bottom 10 percent of my class and I needed a job," she said. "My father was good friends with former Governor George C. Wallace's mental health commissioner and he was good friends with Justice Shores.

"Dad called him and he called Justice Shores and she hired me," Watson said. 

She again packed up and moved to a region she had never visited, much less lived in. In fact, she had a map of the United States in her home and she had put black push pins in the states where she would not consider moving. Alabama had a black push pin square in the middle of it.

However, she immediately fell in love with Birmingham and the South, and within a month she said she knew Birmingham would be home.

"It was sheer luck that I moved to Birmingham and had the opportunity to clerk for the Alabama Supreme Court, but I had to work hard for Justice Shores because I could not disgrace my father or Dr. Stickney," she said.  

After leaving the Supreme Court, Watson went to work with a legendary Birmingham lawyer, David Cromwell Johnson. She was initially hired to help Johnson and one of his colleagues write a book titled "Defending Narcotics Cases." 

"It was in the 1980s and it was a fool's journey," she said. "It was never finished and never published because by then there was no way to defend those cases."

Watson stuck with Johnson and began helping him with his criminal defense practice. After a few years she grew tired of bailing people out of jail at midnight.

"It was the mid 80s and everyone wanted to be like the female lawyer on Hill Street Blues," Watson said. "But it just wasn't what I wanted to do…I wanted to help people, whether it be a classroom of children or a community or just one person who had been harmed."

Her first plaintiff's case was a product liability suit representing the mother of a child killed when his motorcycle helmet failed. Today, she specializes in mass tort and pharmaceutical cases and helping others.

"I practice every day with an open door policy," she said. "We have 15 lawyers here now and a lot of them are young and I am glad to be able to help them.

"I tell the receptionist to send calls to me, if someone has a question, they will get an answer," she said. "As lawyers we have the power of knowledge; we know and understand how government works and we should not keep it to ourselves."

Watson says she is a sustaining member of the Alabama Association for Justice because "this work is too hard to do by yourself."

"The trial lawyer seminars provide knowledge and resources, and every time you go you will learn something new, but most importantly what you really pick up and walk away with is the passion possessed by trial lawyers," she said. "It takes passion to do this work and if your passion is at a low it will be renewed. 

"We all have losses and sometimes they are so tragic it becomes hard to prepare for the next case," Watson said. "And people say so many nasty things about us sometimes it's hard to know if we are the good guys or the bad guys and when you go to a trial lawyers meeting on the state or national level you know you are with the good guys."

When she is not practicing law, Watson enjoys spending time with her two children, Lili, 13, and Akira, 15, and her husband Robert, who is an architect. An interesting aside, she was introduced to Robert by former Lt. Governor Lucy Baxley.

They enjoy all outdoor activities and vacation each summer on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, where her Japanese American parents have retired. Their home, Watson said, is only about three miles from where her mother grew up.

She, and her firm, are also very involved in the Komen "Race for Cure," where they sponsored an 80-person team last year. She is active in the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation, on the Board of Directors for Childcare Resources, and works with the TumTum Tree Foundation.  Watson co-chairs the Amicus Curiae Brief Committee for ALAJ, and is a member of the Alabama Pattern Jury Instructions - Civil Committee. 

Watson said nearly all her success in life can be attributed to sheer luck and hard work.   It is our sheer luck that because of her hard work she is our "Champion of Justice."