Layal's profile kicks off our new Thine Profiles series, which examines the careers and perspectives of lawyers today.
When Layal Kaba made the decision to go to law school, she was an international affairs major thinking about what she might do next. From the moment she stepped onto the University of Georgia campus, she’d been drawn to the liberal arts—energized by opportunities to explore how theory plays out in actual lives and societies. But Layal wasn’t quite sure how she’d end up using her JD. At first, she thought that perhaps she’d be interested in environmental law, or maybe even work as a patent lawyer.
But, in her first year of law school, Layal fell in love with criminal law, and eventually found her calling as a litigator.
Jumping into the “deep end”
While studying at Emory Law School, Layal interned with a criminal defense office in the metro-Atlanta area, accepting a full-time position with the same firm after graduating. There, Layal was handling roughly 40-50 open cases at a time. In the first few years of her career as a criminal defense lawyer, many of her cases were often gang-related, mostly involving drug-related offenses, aggravated assault, robbery, burglary, and, at times, murder. Though this could be intimidating for other relatively new lawyers, it wasn’t for Layal. “One thing that was really appealing to me about the type of work I did was how you just ‘jump into the deep end’ pretty early on.”
Because her office had a contract with the county, if there were more than two co-defendants in a case, sometimes one of them could be assigned to her office to avoid conflict. That meant that, even in her first months as a lawyer, she was often filling a public defender role.
Her decision to do this type of work was also very much driven by her strong belief in everyone’s right to a fair trial, and to justice.
“Another thing that drew me to criminal law was the idea that I’d be contributing to something much larger than myself. I’d be upholding an essential pillar of our constitution: the right to representation. So, the thought of serving my community—and even more abstractly, my country—as a defense lawyer really appealed to me.”
Working as a public defender
After a few years, Layal decided to accept a position as a public defender for the Atlanta Judicial Circuit. Though many of the cases looked similar, the support and camaraderie that came with working in an office with at least 100 other attorneys—as well as a large team of paralegals, legal assistants, social workers and even investigators — made a huge difference. “I could literally just walk down the hallway and get ten different opinions or pieces of feedback on a case. And I am still close with colleagues from that office. That camaraderie made the biggest difference; there was just so much support and actual friendship,” she shared.
Of course, Layal still found some aspects of being a public defender regularly challenging, at times tough to accept. There were more times then she could count when the more she got to know a client, the more she saw firsthand all of the ways the justice system and other institutions fail so many of us.
To this point in her career, very few of her clients would have been able to afford their own representation. So, even though she knew that the justice system can't work without the work she did, she still often wished there was more she could do. “Especially when you’re dealing with felony cases, and the realities of some of the clients that I was typically serving, it feels like some people were just never given a fair chance at life,” she explained.
“The punishments in place, especially in Georgia, can be very disproportionate and harsh. It is very frustrating that even though you can help someone within an individual case, systematically and institutionally, it really seems like there’s only so much you can do. Over time, that got pretty disheartening.”
Layal was also very frank about the risk of burnout that people often talk about with respect to her work, as well as the challenge of striking proper balance of passion and boundaries. “As a public defender, burnout can easily happen. I recognized that I was beginning to experience emotional fatigue myself. There’s a lot you have to do to protect yourself psychologically.”
Transitioning to civil litigation
Layal credited her own support network, both in and outside of the office, for helping her get through the more difficult aspects of her work for over five years. Still after hitting her fifth year of practice, Layal thought it was time to start thinking about what was next for her career.
“I thought, “Alright. Am I going to make this my niche for the rest of my career? Should I try another area of law?” I didn’t know if I could handle working in criminal law indefinitely, but I knew I wanted to stay in litigation for now.
So, Layal decided she would try to pivot from criminal law to civil litigation. At first, Layal tried out a larger, Atlanta-based law firm, but quickly realized that while she enjoyed the work and her colleagues, the lifestyle that came with the billable hour wasn’t a best fit for her at that point in her career. “I was very grateful to have that experience and exposure, and it ended up preparing me for my next role. But, coming from a background where there was no billable hour and I had more control over my own cases, I guess you could say I experienced a little bit of culture shock in that transition.”
Today, Layal is an attorney for Lynn Leonard and Associates, the exclusive claims litigation counsel (CLC) for State Farm for the Atlanta area, where she has been largely handling insurance defense work for over a year now. From a practice perspective, having litigation experience helped her make a smooth transition into the work as well.
“The skills that I picked up as a criminal lawyer are very transferable to civil litigation, and I think I got in the courtroom a lot faster and a lot more frequently starting where I did. It gave me confidence and a sort of head start for the work I do now. And, of course, I still appear in court, and do depositions and mediations, so that litigation aspect is still there now. However, it is not often as high stakes or intense as criminal law, of course.”
Here, she also enjoys the autonomy and sense of community that has come with her work environment.
“I feel like I’m very much a part of the company, and that both the company and the firm do a great job of making sure their attorneys feel trusted,” she explained. “If you’ve been practicing a while, you have a lot of discretion with your own cases, but there is still a structure in place with a team lead and supervision. So, everyone is very open to collaboration and help. And, you’re really able to structure your day, so there also is a great work-life balance, generally speaking.”
A few more insights for other lawyers and law students
At the same time, Layal pointed out that many other lawyers enjoy long-term careers in either of her previous public defender’s office or large firm work environments. She encourages law students and fellow lawyers interested in moving in either direction to start by building relationships and getting exposure to those types of work and work cultures as soon as possible. And this doesn’t always have to be through a formal process. While it may feel intimidating to make connections, she has a bit of advice for getting around that.
“In many cases, your first work experiences are obviously going to depend on you ending up connecting with someone. Many times people feel that, for whatever reason, they can’t reach out to partners or someone in a more senior role. So, I would say start with connecting with senior associates doing the type of work you’re interested in. Definitely take advantage of those opportunities to connect at firm or bar association events, or a recruiting happy hour, or a CLE event.”
She also warns others against the misperception that if you’re more introverted, or even shy, that you can’t be a good litigator, or even enjoy showing up in court. “I would consider myself generally an introvert,” says Layal. “I definitely get my energy from time alone. And while I wouldn’t call myself “shy,” I don’t exactly enjoy the spotlight in everyday situations. But for whatever reason, whenever I'm in court, it feels different. It's almost mentally like I’m performing and I'm easily able to be all of those things I need to be for my client: assertive, confident, well-spoken. I don't know if it's because I'm there on behalf of another person, instead of speaking on behalf of myself. So, I think it is important for more introverted or shy people to not automatically dismiss litigation, or assume they have to do more transactional or contract work. It could be a good fit, and I wouldn’t have known how much I loved it until I gave it a try.”
Interested in learning more about Layal's career journey or her work?
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