Cate Edwards: Playing to Her Strengths

Mar 21, 2021

Cate Edwards on Women in the Legal Profession

March is Women’s History Month! In celebration and recognition of the fantastic female attorneys at Edwards Kirby, our blog writer sat down with each of them to learn about their experiences as women in the legal profession and their advice for younger female attorneys entering the profession.

In our second installment, we interviewed Cate Edwards, a partner at Edwards Kirby who specializes in civil rights violations, sexual harassment and assault, and negligence by corporations. Recently she has been lauded as a Triangle Business Journal “Women in Business” winner and one of Best Lawyers 2021 “Ones to Watch” for Labor and Employment Law, Mass Tort Litigation and Class Actions, and Personal Injury Litigation. Additionally, for the second year in a row, Super Lawyers named her a 2021 “Rising Star” for Personal Injury, Civil Rights, Class Action and Mass Torts, and Employment and Labor law.

What does it mean to you to be a woman in the legal profession?

I am incredibly lucky. I get to serve people who genuinely need legal assistance, to do work that I love and that challenges me, and to be valued by my clients and colleagues. I know this privilege was hard fought. I am grateful to all the women who came before me, because women lawyers no longer have to “act like men” to be excellent. Women can be compassionate and persistent, creative and collaborative, clever and tireless. I try to bring those attributes to my work each day and encourage other female attorneys to approach legal work using their own unique skills.

Why is it important for women to be represented in the profession?

“If she can see it, she can be it.” It’s cliché for a reason – it’s true. Young women need to know that they can hold any role in our profession. We currently have 3 female U.S. Supreme Court justices and 3 female N.C. Supreme Court justices; we have had 2 female U.S. Attorneys General; we finally have parity in the number of women going to law school. It is also important for many clients to be represented by women – we provide powerful, empathetic advocacy for clients going through a really difficult time.

How has being a woman shaped your experience in the profession?

Women have certain skills and instincts that are extremely valuable as an attorney and cannot be taught. For example, I represent a lot of survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment. As a woman, I understand the trauma of these violative acts and innately believe survivors and their stories. I am also a mom, and I think coming home to my kids every day after work makes me a better lawyer. I always first see the world through my mom lens. Doing so, I instinctively want to protect my clients and also empathize with clients who are parents – whether they have injured children who are suffering, they have lost a child in a wrongful death case or have been personally harmed in a way that makes caring for their kids much more difficult.

Who were your female mentors or role models when you were beginning in the profession?

I have been lucky to have incredible female mentors throughout my life and my career, beginning with my mom. She was an attorney who balanced the demands of being a mother with the demands of her work in the 1980s, when it was a very different time for women lawyers. When I went to law school, I had then-professor, Elizabeth Warren, whom I admired as a fierce advocate on the tough economic issues facing regular people. I interned with Nina Totenburg at NPR, who was the natural lion among Supreme Court reporters.

After law school, I clerked for the Honorable Judge Leonie M. Brinkema, who took a devoted interest in advising her female clerks on making it in a profession long anchored by men – from talking about the very real “men’s club” she encountered as a young lawyer to doling out sharp advice about dress and demeanor. She made it clear that, regardless of gender, being well-prepared, professional, courteous, and thoughtful is what makes a good courtroom lawyer. I was also mentored early in my career by Sharon Eubanks, an excellent trial lawyer with a dedicated work ethic, who is now Chief Counsel at the National Whistleblower Center. Sharon’s assertive style and countless practical lessons were invaluable to me as a young female attorney.

What can the legal profession do to attract more women?

The world is changing, and so is the legal profession. In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has sped the evolution of legal work beyond the traditional brick walls that used to bind lawyers to an office. With more work-life integration and a long-developing, now widespread respect for female attorneys, the legal profession is an ever-better place for women to be. That said, there are still big strides to be made in terms of parity in pay, equal promotional opportunities, parental leave policies and leadership roles for women throughout the bar.

What advice do you have for young women interested in a legal career?

Only you can build your own reputation, so hold yourself to the highest standard. The practice of law can be a battle at times. When you’re fighting it, don’t lose who you are, use who you are. You do that by working hard and by knowing your own strengths and playing to them.

What do you do outside of work?

I spend as much time as I can get with my husband and two young sons. We love to be outside and do yoga together. I also get to the coast as often as possible – to me, there is nothing better than the salt air and sound of ocean waves.

If you were not a lawyer, what would you be?

I almost became an engineer, mostly because of my love for math. I worked in journalism between college and law school, but that didn’t really stick. Now, I think I’d probably want to be an entrepreneur, because I am always coming up with random business ideas!

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