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‘Conversation With…’ speaker advises students to not do work they hate

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Ann Scales’ career has come full circle.  She began her career with a Wall Street law firm defending corporations in product liability lawsuits, became known for work on pivotal feminist and civil rights cases, and is now developing a product liability law that will protect victims. 

The daughter of former Wake Forest University President Ralph Scales, she grew up on a college campus and has spent the past 30 years teaching law.  She is currently a law professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law. 

In a wide-ranging “Conversation with …” session on Oct. 5 in the Worrell Professional Center punctuated by applause and laughter, Professor Shannon Gilreath invited Scales to share stories from her career and her groundbreaking work in feminist jurisprudence.

After graduating from Harvard Law School, where she founded the Harvard Women’s Law Journal, Scales took a job with a New York product liability law firm.  There she helped defend the Ford Motor Company against liability suits over its notoriously explosive Pinto automobile. 

“I had to question myself when I began to feel sorry for the Ford Motor Company,” Scales said.  “Here I was, looking through photographs of charred bodies and telling myself, that’s not so bad.” 

Scales said she had an epiphany when she received party favors from Ford including a cigarette lighter with a Pinto on it.  “You know, it’s an incendiary device!  I had to quit.”

Scales joined an all-female law firm in Beverly Hills, which funded its race and sex discrimination cases by taking on movie star divorces.  It was a bizarre way to learn family law, she said, where the stars ran up the other side’s bills just to torture each other.  But Hollywood clients pay their lawyers bills, so that allowed them to continue their civil rights work.

When Scales was invited to teach law at Iowa she found her true calling as a professor and has never looked back.  She announced proudly that she hasn’t had a paying client since 1980. 

“I have a salary so I can be picky about what cases I participate in, so I never have to charge the client – but I am always representing clients.” 

Why teach?  “The hours are better,” she laughed, “but the teaching part of it is a sacrament to me.  I love the law and I love teaching.  I believe that education is not something that has to be endured; it’s the best time in your life.  So I try to participate in that by making it a happy, singing, dancing time – in my product liability class!” 

Scales has been involved in several groundbreaking cases on equality.  Scales noted that “for all intents and purposes, the right to abortion was lost in 1980” when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states are not obligated under Medicaid to pay for abortions for indigent women. 

In 1992, while teaching at the University of New Mexico, Scales worked on a precedent-setting case involving public funding of abortions for poor women.  The New Mexico Supreme Court was the first to uphold public spending on abortion.  But what was important about it, Scales said, is that was it was decided under New Mexico’s Equal Rights Amendment. 

It was the first time you see a court unanimously saying that reproduction has historically been used as a sword against women.  It’s since been taken up by many other states – it was a biggie.”

Scales was later involved in a Canadian case involving pornography, harm to women and free speech, which rocked the feminist movement.  The Canadian Supreme Court embraced the view that pornography was not simply a matter of free speech but of harm to women and those treated as women, and that it could be legally defined and criminally prosecuted on the basis of women’s equality.  

The case she worked on took the issue one step farther, with the court ruling that, while homosexual pornography is harmful to equality in the same ways as heterosexual pornography, Canadian customs could not discriminate against gay porn by applying the standards unevenly. 

Scales said the pornography issue was the first time feminists were no longer “all on the same team,” and it caused a dreadful split in the movement.  Even so, she said, it was worth it, because the understanding of equality developed in that case made it possible to expand the idea of equality into so many areas of American law, including the definition of sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Ultimately, Scales said the feminist movement is stronger for it.  “Since the 1970’s, feminism has been the most successful jurisprudential movement.  The post-modern critics of feminism have nothing to show for their work,” she said, “so I’m very pleased with our continuing legal achievements.”

As a recent breast cancer survivor, Scales is now turning her attention to companies that develop cosmetics and pharmaceuticals that cause sex-specific cancers and signature diseases, including those that target men. 

She is exploring causation-shifting legislation that would require chemical companies to show what they knew and when they knew that their product was dangerous. 

“So now I’m working on a statute with California legislators to require chemical companies to prove their way out of causation,” she said, “because it’s impossible for a plaintiff to prove their way in.”

Scales’ advice to law students was emphatic:  “Don’t do work you hate!  When I found myself feeling sorry for Ford, I had the wherewithal to quit.  I learned a lot, but if you find yourself in a job you hate, or at some deep level you know it’s corrupt, don’t do it anymore.”

And she encourages lawyers to swing for the fences.  Scales has a history of taking on cases nobody thought she could win.  When she took the University of Colorado football gang rape case, she was told she couldn’t win against a football giant.  When she represented feminists who filed suit to prevent the Olympics from going forward in Los Angeles, the headlines read “Uppity women sue sacred cow.”

“How delicious!” said Scales, “And we won!  It was my legal team that got the Olympics to bring back the women’s marathon and now we have equity in number of events, because it was just in 1980 that women had 40 percent fewer events.” 

Scales challenged the Wake Forest law students, “Go ahead and sue the Olympics!  And if you win, what a gas!”