Life, law go hand in hand at NL firm

From left, Eileen Duggan, Jeanette Dostie, Erin O'Leary, Hinda Kimmel and Carolyn Kelly.
From left, Eileen Duggan, Jeanette Dostie, Erin O'Leary, Hinda Kimmel and Carolyn Kelly. Peter M. Weber photo

Grace recently sat down with the five female attorneys practicing at Suisman Shapiro PC of New London to get their thoughts on maintaining life and work balance and gender differences in the field. The women represent diverse fields of interest and experience, and range from a law school pioneer to an associate admitted to the bar last November. But they all agreed on one thing: legal problems are life problems.

Carolyn Kelly, who holds 40 years of experience in worker's compensation and occupational illness law, was one of five women in her law school class at the University of Oregon (1970). Kelly encountered an institutional reticence to her enrollment when a dean questioned whether her spot would be better given to a no-pregnancy-risk male. Clearly, she was undeterred.

At the other end of the spectrum is Erin O'Leary, a 2010 UConn School of Law grad who specializes in personal injury. (And is often mistaken for a paralegal, which she finds funny.) Her student experience ranged from representing low-income clients to clerking for the Inmates' Legal Assistance Program in Hartford.

Eileen C. Duggan, attorney for the town of Groton, oversees the firm's Labor, Employment, Municipal and Education Law Department, while Hinda Kimmel, a former special education teacher, counsels clients in student rights and discriminatory practices, as well as municipal and private employers on matters of employee misconduct and discrimination allegations.

Jeanette Dostie's special niche in estate planning work includes a focus on tax savings and helping parents of children with disabilities plan and provide for their long-term care.

The following are excerpts from our discussion:

To what degree has the downturn in the economy affected your work?

Jeanette Dostie: Well I see it with beneficiaries. There's more fighting over assets, unfortunately. People are less willing to work things out when there's a desperation about money. I urge a common sense approach, because the longer people drag out the fight, the less they end up with.

Carolyn Kelly: In terms of industry, it's changing. There's less and less manufacturing so the risks to workers are different.

Eileen Duggan: In dealing with management and unions, it's very different now. The negotiations are more strained, employee interactions are more strained, because the money isn't there.

Carolyn Kelly: And you add the high cost of health care —

Hinda Kimmel: — In the private sector you see furloughs becoming very commonplace. So many businesses are using furloughs to contain costs.

How have technological advances changed what you do?

Erin O'Leary: I grew up in the computer age so I've had a different experience than some of the attorneys I've worked with. ... you do see it being used in really cool ways at trial. For instance with medical records, which can be really complex and contain a lot of information, we can use it to highlight the portions relevant for the jury. So there's sort of a bells and whistles effect, but it takes this complicated thing and makes it much more understandable — and meaningful — to lay people.

Eileen Duggan: I'd like to add that in terms of accessibility, it's great for our clients. They can reach us by fax, email, text, in the car — of course it also means you're working whenever you can be.

Jeanette Dostie: Like in your pajamas, at 10 o'clock at night. (laughter)

Which raises the question whether this field is more difficult for women practitioners...

Carolyn Kelly: When our family was young, I would work until 5 or 6, then after dinner, I would drive back to the office at 9 and work for another three hours. It was the greatest time to work, it was so quiet! There was nobody around!

Eileen Duggan: It's true. Or home, you're working after your child goes to bed.

Hinda Kimmel: There can be scheduling issues...

Carolyn Kelly: Definitely. If you go to court, you don't have the luxury of flexibility. It's tough for anybody, but for a woman who has primary responsibility for the household —

Eileen Duggan: It does really depend what your home situation is, I think; your relationship with your partner and how you divide responsibility. It's individualistic.

In your daily interactions, are you seeing more women in the field?

Jeanette Dostie: Even 15 years ago, my law school class was half women, half men.

Carolyn Kelly: I think the number of women in law school is equal to the number in entry-level jobs. But if they can't deal with the demands of a big firm, they opt for other types of practices —

Hinda Kimmel: — Or if they need a family friendly environment —

Carolyn Kelly: — And as economic times put pressure on everyone, law firms can't be as family-friendly.

Eileen Duggan: Just dealing with my own experience here, the thing that has surprised me at times, in handling labor-side, grievances, negotiations — aside from a handful of union reps, I'm usually sitting across from a table full of men. It seems to be the nature of labor work. But as the parent of a 12-year-old who needs to be places in the middle of the day, I find there is a comfort level with our clients; since we have the same clients over time, they know us a little better ... and things are more flexible.

Do you see differences with how men and women are perceived today, or treated in this line of work?

Erin O'Leary: One thing I've seen, in talking with experienced litigators, is that a man can use a certain approach [in court], and people will say he is aggressively defending his client. But almost those exact same tactics are unacceptable [from a female attorney]. So you have to walk that line, because if people start disapproving of your approach, if that's the attitude among the judge and jury —

Eileen Duggan: (nodding) — Or people question if you can be or are going to be aggressive enough. Women at times may be looked upon more as peacemakers, which might not fit a particular situation.

What drew you to the practice of law?

Erin O'Leary: I really wanted to do litigation. I have a competitive streak and I really enjoyed the simulated experiences in law school. The primary reason I took this position was because I knew I'd be expected to get my feet wet early.

Jeanette Dostie: I didn't know, actually, that this is where I would wind up. I took one class in school and I loved the planning aspect.

Carolyn Kelly: It picked me, really. And I never took family law but I started out there because women would come in and they were more comfortable with talking to a woman. ...of course there was this one client I represented in a divorce who told me, "I knew it would take a woman to outsmart my wife!" (laughter) But I was happy to make the switch [to worker's compensation].

Hinda Kimmel: Much like Jeanette, I didn't know. I was a special education teacher. When I graduated from college, there were limited career opportunities for women. At that time, laws that protected children with special education needs had just been passed and it was an exciting field. I then stayed home with my children and when the youngest started kindergarten, I decided to go back to law school. I thought that I would use my experience in special education to represent parents with special needs children. But then I took an employment law class and it seemed cutting edge, academically. And I love the interaction with clients.

Actually, that leads to a question I was going to ask: What do you all love about what you do?

Eileen Duggan: Definitely the interaction. And with institutional clients, like I have, the relationship continues. It's not a one-time thing.

Jeanette Dostie: With estates, especially with what I do helping people with children with special needs, there's just this huge sense of relief of having a plan. And in probate, the relief is having someone to walk them through the maze, at a time in life when something awful is happening. People need help. They're shellshocked.

Erin O'Leary: Being on the younger side, it's surreal to me that people twice my age are asking me what to do. It feels really good that I know the answers, and I know it now, and can tell them.

Hinda Kimmel: It's intellectually challenging. Nobody is doing something routine. Every day is different.

Were there certain people who helped you along or served as mentors?

Jeanette Dostie: Larry Greenberg (a fellow attorney at Suisman Shapiro PC) came over after I'd been here a little while and said, "I have noticed that you are essentially unsupervised." (laughs) He really did go on to teach me a lot. Andrew Brand, (one of the senior attorneys at Suisman Shapiro) also told me, "You're going to feel like you don't know what you're doing for, like, 8 years."

Eileen Duggan: He told you that? My mentor gave me the 5-year rule! (laughter)

Erin O'Leary: Everyone at the firm has been really willing to answer my questions, but Matt Auger has sort of been my self-appointed mentor, for which I'm very grateful. Being new, you need to be able to ask questions.

What qualities does someone need to succeed in this line of work?

Hinda Kimmel: Determination.

Eileen Duggan: The ability to get along with people —

Carolyn Kelly: — who are outrageous and unreasonable — (laughter)

Eileen Duggan: Well, you definitely need a thick skin.

Carolyn Kelly: People do come to us in the crisis of their lives...

For more information, visit www.suismanshapiro.com

Personally speaking...

CAROLYN P. KELLY
Book I recommend: “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese — enjoyed the portrayal of life in Ethiopia and the state of medical arts for the time period.
When I am not working, I'm most likely: Doing my other job(s) at home.
Best thing I learned from my mom: Be optimistic and enjoy life. It makes those around you do the same.
Favorite place to rest/recharge/find serenity: Scuba diving in Bonaire, off the coast of Venezuela.
Best thing about living in southeastern Connecticut: Access to beaches, proximity to Boston, New York , but with a lot to do locally. It's a place that others want to visit, especially in the summer.
Dogs or cats?: Recent acquisition; a rescue dog named Jack, billed as part Bichon Frise, but more likely has a lot of Jack Russell terrier in him. I am struggling to become the alpha dog!

HINDA K. KIMMEL
Personal philosophy: Each day I am grateful.
Last read book: “The Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell
When I am not working, I'm most likely: Entertaining, cooking, reading or biking
Since becoming a mother, I: realize how much children enrich your life and make you a better person.
Favorite place to rest/recharge/find serenity: The beach.
Best thing about living in southeastern Connecticut: After living in southeastern Connecticut for more than thirty years, I have an established life here and am part of a wonderful community.

EILEEN C. DUGGAN
Last read book: “Thereby Hangs a Tail” by Spencer Quinn. Entertaining story about private investigator Bernie Little and his dog, Chet, who solve crimes together.
When I am not working, I'm most likely: Spending time with my daughter; or watching TV; reading; doing crosswords.
Best thing I learned from my mom: Patience
Best thing about living in southeastern Connecticut: The seasons – couldn't live someplace without a real winter, spring, summer and fall.
Dogs or cats?: I had to let my best pal and buddy, Murphy, a cocker spaniel, go on Mother's Day. She was a fantastic friend and companion, who spent her initial years with me right here at work – everyone here knew Murphy!

ERIN C. O'LEARY
Book I recommend: “Le Petit Prince” (“The Little Prince”) by Antoine de St. Exupery. It's simple but incredibly powerful, and it's an eloquent commentary on the dangers of losing that childlike appreciation for what's really important in life.
When I am not working, I'm most likely: working out or taking care of my horse
Best thing I learned from my mom: “Take your manners out of your pocket.” — my mom.
Favorite place to rest/recharge/find serenity: On horseback
Best thing about living in southeastern Connecticut: The water! I recently moved here from West Hartford and while it's a big change, I'm really enjoying exploring the scenery with my dog. I think his favorite so far is Bluff Point.
Dogs or cats?: Oh, that one's super easy: Dogs! I have a big dog named Ted Williams. Obviously, we're both Sox fans.

JEANETTE DOSTIE
Last read book: I'm reading “The Snowball,” the biography of Warren Buffet that came out a few years ago.
When I am not working, I'm most likely: to be cutting my grass…again.
Best thing I learned from my mom: When I order pizza over the phone, I always spell my last name “Dosti” so maybe I'll get a better pizza.
Favorite place to rest/recharge/find serenity: The Connecticut College Arboretum, with my dog.
Best thing about living in southeastern Connecticut: The beautiful views of the water.
Dogs or cats?: WOOF!

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