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Friday, December 11, 2015

Women in the Law by Jerri Blair

Ever notice people who share interests seem to gravitate toward one another? My next guest is Jerri Blair, an attorney who turned to writing fiction. Her high profile cases have prompted her guest appearances on 20/20, Larry King, Good Morning America, and other shows. One case was even the basis for a movie. I know you'll find her perspective on strong women and the law interesting.

Q. Your first book, Justice for the Black Knight, won the 2015 Beverly Hills Book Award for Best Legal Thriller as well as receiving critical praise from Kirkus and others. You also received great success in your professional life by being counsel on several high profile cases. Your hard work earned you an appointment to the Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Commission. Did being on that commission alter how you viewed the experiences of women in the law? Did it alter your perception of what a strong woman is?

A: When I first began practicing law, there were only a handful of women lawyers in the county where my firm was located. My first year, I was the only woman in attendance at the barbeques and fish fries, which were the only real meetings of the local bar, one woman in the midst of sixty or seventy male lawyers. I never felt anything but fully accepted as a top notch lawyer and friend by that group of men. Perhaps it was because I had grown up surrounded by athletes, coaches, and referees that it went so well for me. I think the acceptance was largely due to the fact that I was always myself. Whatever the cause, it gave me a view of women in the law that was ignorant of the impact gender was having on many women attorneys.

I am so grateful to have had the appointment to the Gender Bias Commission because it opened my eyes to the need for change in many areas of the judicial system. It wasn’t just the women who were lawyers that we reviewed, but the impact of gender on the judicial system at large. I talked to litigants, prisoners, judges, and lawyers from all walks of the law. We looked at the statutes and how they impacted differently based on gender. I believe the efforts of the commission helped to effectuate some very good change. However, it did not change my perception of what a strong woman is. Just like in every other walk of life, to be a strong person, woman or man, you must take your experiences, whether good or bad, and use them to make yourself a better person.

Q: Being a lawyer is not for the timid. Do you think you drew upon a reserve of strength to be effective in your profession that was different from other professions?

A: To be a good trial lawyer, you have to learn to think like a lawyer. You have to dissect the existing law and the facts of your case and weave an argument or a story that will win the day. I was a scientist before I went to law school. I believe the analytic skills I learned in the lab added greatly to my ability to do those things. I’ve always had a strong intuition, something frequently attributed to women, and I know that helped me immensely picking juries and more than that, just finding that little something-something that would take my case over the top. Only the strong survive in the courtroom. I’m sure that any profession requires strength of some type, but I know you have to have it in the courtroom. So it might be a little different than that required in other professions.

Q: A quick search of legal thrillers on Amazon shows six books in the top forty were written by women.
            -Any thoughts on why?

A: I believe meaningful change takes time. It’s sometimes a bad thing for change to occur too rapidly. It makes the effect of the change less than it should be. For instance, in the legal arena, women were almost nonexistent a fairly short time ago, and obviously things had to change. Women needed the chance to move up the ladder in firms and as judges. However, we wouldn’t want a person to be chosen as a judge just because she’s a woman if she doesn’t have the skills necessary to make her a good judge. It would actually be bad for women in general if that happened. It’s the same with literature. Historically, there have been fewer women accepted as great writers. The feeling is obviously different today, but the change to equal numbers of women given star roles in the literary world will take time. With legal thrillers, the difference is not surprising because the number of women in the legal profession has changed so radically in such a short time. It will take time for more women attorneys to make their way from the courtroom to the pages of the legal thriller novel.

            -Do you think readers have an unconscious bias toward books written by men?
A: I certainly wouldn’t say they don’t have a bias built on past experiences. By that I mean that there were fewer books written by women in the past, and certainly fewer that actually had the backing to make them widely read. Once those connections are made in the brain, it’s hard to change them for much of the world. It’s really the same phenomena of change. It will take time.

            -Do women authors of legal thrillers have to be ‘that much better’ than men in order to be considered good?

A: Maybe, at least for a few more years. I don’t think gender really enters into the question of whether an author is great or even good. There will always be great men and women authors, or at least I hope so as a reader, as well as good, mediocre, and bad men and women authors. At this point, the good, mediocre and bad women authors probably have a lower chance of making it than the good, mediocre and bad men authors. The great women authors perhaps have an advantage because they’re women.

Q: Is there a similarity between being a woman in a profession considered to be male dominated and being an indie published author in the traditionally published world?
A: There are similarities because both involve a bias based on ignorance. There are many indie books that could be classics if issued from a traditional publishing house. No matter how good an indie book may be, it is not eligible for many of the literary prizes it might qualify for if issued by a traditional publishing house. There appears to be a “glass ceiling” that prevents an indie book from the same consideration by critics and those with the power to make it widely perceived as a truly great book. However, the tides of change may eventually catch up with this difference and dissolve the differences.

Q: In writing about strong women, are we unconsciously saying weak men?

A: I don’t think so. Men have always been perceived as the stronger sex, partially because physical strength played such a huge part in the survival game historically, partially because men have historically been the wielders of power in the political, business, and other public arenas. Women were perceived as the weaker sex, but over time, the term “strong women” became a sort of recognition that women had a different kind of strength, an emotional strength that was equal to or more powerful than physical strength. It was the power that came from standing tall through the greatest adversity. The same quality can be found in both genders.  


Ms. Blair practiced for almost thirty years in state and federal trial and appellate courts. She was involved in many high profile cases involving different areas of the law from murder/death penalty to high stakes commercial and family law cases. She was very active in seeking to improve the legal system’s treatment of children’s relationships with those who make up their family and in redefining the concept of family to include those outside of the traditional biological parent/child relationship. Her best known cases involved Gregory K, a child the media dubbed as a boy divorcing his parents, and T.W., a case involving a teenager seeking an abortion without obtaining parental consent. Both cases involved serious constitutional issues as well as compelling life-changing factual situations.

Ms. Blair has appeared on many television and radio news shows including 20/20, Dateline, A Turning Point, Larry King Live, Good Morning America, The Today Show, Discovery, PBS News, and many others. She has also been a guest as an expert on numerous television and radio talk shows. One of Ms. Blair’s cases was voted Court TV’s all-time most popular trial for many years and was one of the first cases ever to be telecast live on CNN. The case was also the subject of two television movies, one of which, “A Place to Be,” featured Rhea Perlman as Ms. Blair. Ms. Blair’s cases and her experiences as a trial attorney have been the subject of numerous published articles including articles in NewsWeek, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, newspapers all over the world, and in numerous books and treatises.

Justice for the Black Knight, an explosive legal thriller, is a story of relationships wrapped in a dark mystery from the distant past that holds the key to the salvation of a man on trial for his life. As a child, Freddie Edwards created an alter-ego, the Black Knight, who vowed to fight injustice in all forms. Freddie attempted to live up to ideal all of his life, but he finds himself accused of the brutal murder of a well-respected elderly man, represented by an incompetent lawyer, and facing death in the electric chair. His sister Ruby and their childhood friend Annabelle are reunited at his trial where they begin an exploration into the past to find evidence that will prove Freddie to be a hero instead of a villain, his only chance to escape execution. Their journey brings to light the impact race may have on the system designed to provide justice, and a hopeful portrait of life free of the disease of racism.


FRIDAY FEATURES is a steady presence on Out of the Fog where I explore the concept of "strong women." Who are they? What makes them strong? How do we see them in writing and/or in business? If you're an author, what is their place in the world of thrillers of mysteries? If you're in business, how is the working environment impacted by the presence of a "strong woman" and how are they seen as leaders and team members? If you're an emerging strong woman, tell us about your journey. Have other questions you find compelling? Ask away and I'll post the answers here. 

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