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Williams ‘reads’ her way to president of Trial Lawyers Association

Photo Courtesy/ Barbara Williams Personal Injury Law
Barbara Williams has practiced personal injury law for 25 years, winning her biggest verdict in the Winchester Circuit Court in 2010. The court awarded her client $3 million in a medical malpractice suit, although the amount was reduced to $1.9 million.

When Barbara Williams graduated with a degree in animal science from Virginia Tech in 1979 she never imagined entering the legal profession, much less being elected the 2013-2014 president of the Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.

As an aspiring veterinarian, Williams worked at a Loudoun County thoroughbred farm. Williams' boss, an attorney, suggested she become a lawyer.

"I started working on injury cases and I really enjoyed the medical aspect of it," Williams said.

From 1985 to 1988, Williams read the law, studying under the attorney until passing the bar exam in February 1988.

Before 1900, many lawyers, like Abraham Lincoln, "read" or taught themselves the law. Today, seven states, including Virginia, admit students to the bar exam who have "read the law" instead of going to law school.

Williams said learning law on her own gives her an advantage in the courtroom.

"It helps my clients because I wasn't trained in the same way as many students in law school," Williams said. "My job is to relate to a jury and in that sense I'm a little more down to earth."

From 1988 to 2006, Williams partnered with Leesburg personal injury attorney Peter Burnett. In 2006 she started her own personal injury practice.

"It is nice to run your own shop," Williams said. "It was always a dream of mine to own a business."

Throughout her career, Williams joined multiple bar associations, eventually serving as president of the Virginia Women Attorneys Association and VTLA vice president.

Williams said her involvement in bar associations prepared her for her current post.

"Most of my work as a litigator is done in my office, so involvement in bar associations helps me get out and meet people across the state," Williams said. "Serving on boards helped me get comfortable for the larger role as president of the VTLA."

The VTLA was formed in 1959 to educate lawyers and provide bipartisan lobbying for attorneys in the General Assembly.

The VTLA offers seminars for lawyers, who must take 12 continuing legal education credits a year. This fall, the VTLA will offer seminars around the state in family law, ethics, criminal law and advocacy.

"The lecturers are usually members, or lawyers with expertise in the field, depending on topic," Williams said. "We don't have law professors very often because it's less academic and more practical."

During the 2013 General Assembly, the VTLA worked with the Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the Medical Society of Virginia on a series of tort reform bills.

"It was a win-win for everybody because we did sit down at the table with the Chamber of Commerce and larger tort reform groups," Williams said.

Williams said there are still many issues facing Virginia attorneys.

"I think caps on non-economic damages, eroding someone's right for a trial by jury through mandatory arbitration or limits on damages are the most egregious," Williams said.

Mandatory arbitration is when a neutral party determines a civil case, rather than a trial before a judge and jury.

Williams said she hopes to establish a women's caucus in the VTLA.

"This will help women be heard on their issues, give them a support system and establish a path to leadership," Williams said.

Throughout her 25 years as an attorney, Williams has worked on many brain injury cases. She served on the Brain Injury Service Board of Trustees for 10 years.

Williams said she wants the VTLA to advocate for a statewide bicycle helmet law in next year's legislative session.

She said her support for a helmet law stems from a case she worked on about a 19-year-old Leesburg student who hit his head on a curb while skateboarding at Radford University.

After radiologists missed a skull fracture, the student died of extensive bleeding of his brain.

"The grief of the family was very intense and of course is still raw today," Williams said. "It is an honor for me to be able to share that grief with the family and because of this case, I would like to see a statewide law requiring helmets."

Outside her roles as a personal injury attorney and VTLA president, Williams has volunteered for the Loudoun County Bar Association's Leadership in the Law Summer Camp. The camp is open to local high school seniors interested in the law.

Williams said she was impressed by the students.

"They either want to be lawyers or go into some form of public service," Williams said. "They work really hard and do a great job."

Williams said while she made her name out of practicing law, she still has an interest in animals. Williams raises six sheep at her home outside of Purcellville.

"Having the sheep keeps me grounded, when I get up in the morning to feed them or check on them when I come home at night," she said.

2013 General Assembly Tort Reform round up

•House Bill 1780
Allows admission of written statements to support summary judgments, as well as motions for summary judgments to dismiss punitive damages except in DUI cases.

•House Bill 1618
Codifies that a plaintiff can only file a suit where the defendant conducts or has conducted most of their business.

•House Bill 1709
If a party to a suit drops out of a civil trial without a seven day notice, they must pay for the other party's fees and travel costs for expert witnesses.

•House Bill 2004
Trespassers cannot sue property owners for negligence, except in circumstances where common law, statutory law or judicial exceptions before July 1, 2013, apply.


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