Before embarking on a midlife career switch eight years ago, Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker litigator Valeri Williams spent 20 years as a television news reporter. Along the way, she became a familiar face in the Dallas area, which, she learned, can create complications in the courtroom. “When I’ve done jury trials, occasionally we’ve had to knock out a juror,” says the 51-year-old Williams, who joined Wilson Elser as of counsel in the firm’s business litigation and employment and labor practices in Dallas last month from Dallas firm Figari & Davenport.
Williams first considered becoming an attorney after graduating from college in 1983. Instead, she parlayed a $4.75-an-hour job at a small Texas TV station covering the Temple-Waco market into a two-decade run as a reporter during which she won two Edward R. Murrow awards and a local Emmy Award. One of the biggest stories Williams covered while she was with WFAA-TV in Dallas was the federal raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco in 1993. She gained some firsthand experience with the legal system as a result of her coverage when a rival reporter sued her and the station for allegedly defaming him by implying in its reporting that he had tipped off members of David Koresh’s cult about the impending raid. The Texas Supreme Court eventually dismissed the suit in a ruling that the U.S. Supreme Court let stand.
Williams says she grew disenchanted with journalism over time, and in 2004, with her late husband’s encouragement, she entered law school. Upon earning her law degree, she joined 24-lawyer Figari & Davenport as an associate, establishing a litigation practice focused on employment and labor issues, as well as insurance defense and commercial matters. The move to Wilson Elser — which has some 30 attorneys in Dallas and nearly 800 lawyers across the United States — offers her the chance to expand her practice, which also includes providing media consulting services to some clients.
The Am Law Daily, a Texas Lawyer affiliate,talked with Williams about making the transition from one career to another and what the future holds for her at Wilson Elser.
The Am Law Daily: Tell me about your journalism career, when it started and how you entered that field.
Valeri Williams, Wilson, Elser, Moskowitz, Edelman & Dicker: I knew when I was 15 that I wanted to be a journalist. I spent 20 years as an investigative reporter. I worked all over Texas, primarily in Dallas, and I also worked for the network, ABC News. I got to do a lot of exciting things. I’ve been to the North Pole. I’ve covered an exploding volcano. Over the course of time, the journalism field changed. I’ve always believed in developing a story, and it got to the point where there was very little room to develop investigative reports. So, in 2003, I had a real tough decision to make. My contract was going to be up, and I could renew, or I could go somewhere else. But, it didn’t look like things were going to be any different anyplace else. So, that Christmas there were two gifts for me under the tree, and one of them was an LSAT book. My husband — he was a great guy — he said, “You need to do this.” So, I took the LSAT and went to law school.
The Am Law Daily: What was it like going back to school, and then balancing that time commitment with the rest of your life?
Williams: It was like spinning plates. Law school was humbling to me, because it had been more than 20 years since I had taken an exam. There’s a big difference between the way institutions test now and when I was in school. This was really apparent to me when I took the LSAT. The LSAT was scary to me because it didn’t feel right, and it made me worried about law school. But I ended up graduating cum laude. I think it took me more effort than it probably took a younger student, to be honest with you.
The Am Law Daily: How does your schedule now compare to what it was like when you were a journalist?
Williams: It’s structured in the sense that I’m not leaving town on the fly and not knowing exactly when I’m coming back. I no longer travel with a suitcase in my trunk. People frequently ask me, “What’s the difference between being a reporter and practicing law?” Really, the two fields overlap tremendously, because they require the same type of skill sets. As a reporter and as a lawyer, I take facts and I put them together in a cogent story, and then I tell those facts. The difference is as a reporter I was paid to be unbiased. Now I’m an advocate.
The Am Law Daily: Do you see yourself on a partnership track?
Williams: Yeah. The law profession, fortunately, is probably more stable than the journalism profession, but it’s not much more stable. Because I was married and I liked stability, I didn’t jump around as much as most reporters do. The average reporter with a newspaper or a television outfit spends about two years, and then it’s on to the next employer. [For] lawyers, that’s not a good way to run a practice, because you build a base of clients and what you look for when you’re growing your practice is a place where you like the people you work with. And Wilson Elser and the Dallas office [have] been great.
The Am Law Daily: Do you ever get recognized by clients or colleagues from your time on television?
Williams: When I’ve done jury trials, occasionally we’ve had to knock out a juror. One time I did this jury trial — and you never know the reaction you’re going to get from jurors — they’re going down the list, there’s probably 60 jurors in the room. [The jurors were asked], “Do you recognize this woman?” A lot of people said, “Yes.” So, finally they say, “Well, she used to be on WFAA.” And they get to this one gal and she says: “I don’t recognize her from WFAA, but she was in my sorority in college!”
The Am Law Daily: Is there anything you miss about journalism?
Williams: When I was a journalist, there was nothing like coming out and being able to do a story that really, really mattered — that had tremendous impact — and being the first person to tell that story. In a court of law, generally, you don’t get that opportunity. You get to tell the story, but it’s after it happened. There’s a part of me that still misses being the first.
The Am Law Daily: The “scoop”?
Williams: Exactly, the scoop. As a lawyer, you should probably not be scooping. In fact, you’re more cleaning up.