Interview | How Wayne Law Prepared Attorney Emily Thomas for a Career in Birth Trauma Law

Wayne Law alumnus credits Moot Court and Mock Trial for her success as a birth trauma trial attorney

Q: What interested you in disability rights, and in the law in general?

My biggest motivator for becoming an attorney was my mom becoming disabled when I was in high school. She was exposed to black mold in her workplace and was unable to work, and she had to go through Social Security Disability. I was very intrigued by that process, with disability benefits, and with the workers’ compensation process. With either of these, you typically don’t get to receive your full pay. With worker’s compensation, you only get about 70% of what you were making, which obviously if you have kids or a mortgage, or other responsibilities, you may not be able to make ends meet. So I helped my mother file for disability, and she got denied, so she had to go to an expert doctor who examined her and wrote a report. This was my first foray into helping those with disabilities — helping people like my mom.

Emily Thomas, JD | Wayne Law Alum, Class of ’12

When I started law school I found out you could represent people before the Social Security Administration without being an attorney. So when there were on-campus interviews for summer law associate positions, I interviewed for a firm and they expressed that they did Social Security Disability work and wanted to hire on someone to take those cases. I thought Hey, I’m perfect! This is what I want to do! Here’s an opportunity to do it; I’ll jump at it. I had a lot of really good cases there where I learned how to request medical record records, and then I would assimilate the records, explain what happened, and then show how my clients’ medical conditions met the Social Security Disability criteria.

I remember one of the first things they told me about one of my clients was he had terrible spinal and nerve issues and he couldn’t even butter bread anymore–that really resonated with me; these very basic simple things that people take for granted. It’s the telling of that story, the story your medical record might not reflect. You are a better advocate when you understand someone and then apply that understanding to the evidence you have in the record.

In my last two years of law school, there was an ad on the Career Services job board for a clerk position at a large medical malpractice firm in Detroit. When I was there I clerked for a wonderful attorney who was a nurse before he was an attorney, and I learned a lot about the medicine in this position. At first I filed things, then they started letting me write motions, and then they started letting me write research papers. I co-authored papers for the American Association for Justice (AAJ) and for publication and presentations. One of the birth injury cases I worked writing motions on got a $12 million verdict.

I worked in medical malpractice all the way through taking the Bar. After passing the bar I wanted to work in this field as an attorney. After I passed the Bar, it just so happened that the person who was working on all the birth cases at my firm left; and I was then put in the role of working on the birth injury cases before they were filed. Eventually I moved on to my current practice at Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers, where I am blessed with the opportunity to investigate and litigate birth cases.

Q: What drew you to birth injury law specifically, after working with various other disability-related topics?

I really enjoy practicing birth injury law–the mothers I represent and work with are often my age. They’re young women. And I feel very comfortable talking to them about our shared experiences. I do my best to be a good listener and understand where they’re coming from. I love building relationships with my clients. I have a good tolerance for the challenging emotional aspects of my job too. I have had a lot of people, including my clients, say to me, you know, your job must be so emotionally taxing…why do you do this?

My response is always that I think these cases are something that needs to be done, and these cases contain truths that needs to be spoken. The stories these cases tell demonstrate big problems with healthcare in this country. More often than not, I have found that women were not informed by their caregivers about what rights they have, what’s happening to them during labor and delivery, and what’s happening to their bodies. These are people’s lives. This actually happened to someone who put her trust in her caregivers — and if it was my family or your family in the same situation, what would we do?

This is why someone needs to tell these stories. If someone’s not going to pursue justice, these things are going to keep happening. I think there also needs to be increased awareness about the role medical malpractice lawsuits play in our civil justice system. Medical malpractice lawsuits are one of the few checks on harm we have on hospitals, doctors, and other caregivers. There’s no requirement that the accurate numbers of deaths and injuries that occur at hospitals and clinics are made public, so how do you check wrongdoing if you don’t pursue cases? I always tell the families I work with if someone made a mistake, then whatever care and support your child or loved one now needs, you should have access to that. You didn’t choose this path. The civil justice system recognizes this and it’s there to make you whole in the best way it can.

Q: How did Wayne Law’s Mock Trial and Trial Advocacy programs spark your interest doing Plaintiff work and representing those who can’t advocate for themselves?

Mock Trial and Moot Court were my favorite things about law school, hands down. I was always working part time handling Social Security Disability cases. My fiancé was in the Moot Court program before me, and he brought me in to be his witness one semester. I loved doing it so much, I thought ‘I’m doing this next semester, this is great!’ This inspired me to take Trial Advocacy with Linda Turek. Linda Turek is a nurse who became a great medical malpractice attorney. She would talk in class about the rules of evidence, and in real cases how you use them. I was already working in a med-mal office when I took her class. She was very methodical, very detail-oriented, and she wanted everything laid out. If you’re going to cite a rule of evidence, you better know the number and what page it’s on, and how to explain it to the judge. The class was really good — one of the most practical classes in law school that I had. After that, I took as many Trial Advocacy type classes as I could — because that was what I liked most in school.

Once I graduated, I knew for a fact I was going to litigate. I wanted a job where I could go to court and interact with people and tell their stories. In Trial Advocacy class, every year, you would learn a case, you would prep it for trial, and you would have people lay your witnesses and everything, and you would go compete against a similar class at UofM Law School. What I loved most about this experience was–it wasn’t that you had just an attorney grading you on your skills, instead, you had an actual jury of police academy students that rendered a verdict and gave you feedback on what you said. In that trial, I ended up being the defense attorney, and we won. It was a great experience hearing from my first ever jurors what they found effective and ineffective.

In law school, Mock Trial, Trial Advocacy, and Moot Court all taught me to be able to speak with confidence, clearly and succinctly, and to have a basis for everything I say in Court. In all those programs, I received great feedback from my peers and from guest judges and practicing attorneys on both sides of the courtroom; both plaintiff and defense would judge you to give feedback. I’ve gone back to serve as a judge myself for the Mock Trial team because I found the program so worthwhile. I think Mock Trial especially is the most practical thing you can do in law school if you want to be a litigator, and not enough people do it.

Q: How do you feel that Wayne Law prepared you for a career in the legal field?

The actual practice of law is different than law school. Wayne Law always had a great career services office; I got all my jobs there, so I got real world legal experience through that office. So for me, taking advantage of all that real world experience in conjunction with the critical thinking skills I learned at Wayne Law made a huge difference. Wayne Law also encouraged me to get involved with the Bar Associations and build important connections. I was really involved with local Bar associations. I was the student committee chair for the Oakland County Bar Association (OCBA). Bar Associations are made up of practicing attorneys in every field you can imagine, so it’s a type of environment where you can network with other attorneys and find out what they are doing in the real world.

Wayne Law also helped me get a really solid grasp of real-world attorney work through networking events like their speed mentoring program, which was like speed dating, but instead talking with attorneys for five minutes. I met other med-mal attorneys through that program. The event organizers would put you with people in your area of interest. They provided many good ways to interact with attorneys that were practicing in the areas you might be interested in. In addition, every year Career Services would have Tigers’ games where they would invite a bunch of attorneys in different practice areas, and you could go talk and network in a casual environment to make connections. I had many opportunities to practice talking with and learning from licensed attorneys well before I took the Bar exam.

Q: Tell us about your current position at Reiter & Walsh.

I was fortunate to come to Reiter & Walsh, P.C. because I wanted to litigate birth injury cases, and that is the sole focus of the firm. We handle a small, focused caseload representing children and families in birth injury cases. We have a very close relationship with our clients–we really get to know these families over the course over many years of their cases.

It takes tremendous financial and human resources to take care of loved ones with special needs and disabilities. Every day, we assist families in getting closer to the aid they need, and ensuring their loved ones will be cared for their entire lives. This work is extremely challenging, but it is also rewarding beyond compare.

I have committed my career to helping clients with special needs and disabilities. My experiences in birth injury cases have shown me that there really are so many great people in the world. Everyday I meet dedicated and passionate people that are going the extra mile to help their children, even with little to no resources–and it is such a privilege to be able to meet and work with these people every day.

Many of the children we serve are wheelchair bound, unable to talk, and unable to eat by mouth because of a brain injury. These children are very special and very much in tune with the world. They smile, they recognize their family, and they have their own way of interacting with people. These children inspire me every day by showing me it is possible to push through limitations and gain ground. When I hear, after a successful resolution of a case, that new therapies allow them to roll over for the first time, or take their first steps, or communicate through an alternative communication technology, these are things to be celebrated. With newfound help, support, and quality medical care, their lives and the lives of their families are changed for the better through the work we do.

Emily Grace Thomas is a birth injury attorney with Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers, a law firm that focuses solely on birth injury cases.

Bonus: 6 Questions with Emily G. Thomas

Q: What sort of kid were you?

Very curious and very creative. I loved music, I loved art, reading, read lots of books. And I loved people. I remember very early on, in kindergarten and elementary school when I discovered that if I waved to someone and they waved back to me, I thought it was just the greatest thing ever! You’re smiling, now they’re smiling, everyone’s happy! I loved spreading that joy and, you know, sharing emotion with people.

Q: What advice can you offer beginning law students who are considering careers are medmal attorneys?

I actually tell everyone: work in what you want to do. Find a way to work in the field you’re interested in; even if you intern, or work for free–if it’s in a field you have an interest in, and you think it’s actually what you want to do long term, find a way to actually do it and seek people who do it and learn from them. That’s going to be the best basis for figuring out, “yeah, that’s what I want to do the rest of my life” — or likewise, if it’s not what you thought it was, so you should think of something else. I think that’s the best piece of advice — actually work in what you’re going to do. Don’t just be in the classroom reading books and getting great grades. I think there’s a practical, real world component of the people you’re going to interact with, and the things you’ll be asked to do, and by trying it, you’re going to learn if it’s for you.

Q: What’s something people don’t know about you but really should?

I do have to have some alone time to think about things–I can’t be on all the time. I have to have some ability to reflect and to do things spontaneously, because if I have every minute scheduled, I go crazy. I don’t like it. I have to be spontaneous about some things in life.

Q: What are some of your favorite books, TV shows, movies, foods, or other pastimes?

Books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter (I’m a Gryffindor).

Movies: It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Those are Frank Capra movies. The American principles in those, the inclusion and value for our communities–those are my favorite movies. They’re really old, but they’re my favorite.

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I did watch TV, I used to watch West Wing pretty religiously. I do watch House of Cards. I really like Twin Peaks and Stranger Things. Oh! The Twilight ZoneThe Twilight Zone is my favorite of all time. That got me through the Bar exam. I would take a Twilight Zone break every day. They were only twenty minutes long, and they’re so…I mean, you think your life is weird taking the Bar, and it puts it into perspective, like, “My life is not that weird!” Yes, so The Twilight Zone is my favorite.

Food: eggs.

Q: What was your very first job?

I worked as a mail processor. I was feeding envelopes into machines. I worked the night shift — and it was actually a really great life lesson of how hard people work.

Q: If you could have dinner with three people, living or dead, who would they be?

Albert Einstein, Mohatma Gandhi, and Winston Churchill.

Q: If you were barred from working for a week or so, what would you be doing instead?

Reading, yoga, and meditation. I would read philosophies, mysteries. I like Nietzsche and philosophy. Things that make you think about life and its purpose.

Q: If not law, what other field of work would you like to be in?

Definitely music! I wanted to be a cellist before I wanted to be any attorney.  I also wouldn’t mind marketing or directing, advertising–something creative. It would probably be a creative pursuit. A test I took in sixth grade told me I should be in art or marketing, something creative, or arts.

Q: Why did you specifically choose Wayne Law?

It was the most affordable law school in Michigan that I got into. Plus, I could live at home with my parents. It was cost effective and it had a great reputation. I knew that it was very well respected by many attorneys and judges. So I knew my prospects were good…meeting people, getting connected, finding a job that hired Wayne Law graduates. It was an excellent school.

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