Donor Profile: Laurie Speed-Dalton 96C 99L
by Susan Carini 04G
With all that strength, determination, and youth provide, Laurie Speed-Dalton competed as a swimmer during her high school days and college years at Emory. Now, after 10 years out of the pool, she has chosen open-water, distance swimming. It’s murkier—with no lanes and one’s principal enemies being time and the elements.
But make no mistake: the straight-ahead, competitive style of Dalton endures, even in moments where it might look to outsiders as if she is flapping around in a cold lake. In fact, she joked about her first open swim, a race that she competed in with her brother. She said that after thirty minutes, he turned to her and said, “I think we’re almost done.” “No,” she said, consulting that well-tuned clock in her head, “we have another hour.” It was cold, she remembers. Her answer to both challenges? “I swam faster,” she said.
As in water, in life. Little deters Dalton. She made the choice, for instance, to go to Baylor High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee—which previously had been an all-boys military school—because it had the reputation of producing Olympic swimmers. As Dalton recalled, the early days of coeducation there were themselves a bit murky; in her words, “They didn’t know how to handle women.”
Despite Baylor’s having only four members on the women’s swim team when Dalton became a student, the team started winning state meets and competing nationally. Then when Dalton sought a college that could further her ambitions athletically and academically, water continued to play its part. It rained every time she visited Emory.
No matter. The rain failed to obscure that Emory was, as Dalton says, “forward looking. The fact that it had women’s studies, African American studies, and liberal studies made it an ideal setting for me.” Moreover, she was delighted to find that the lack of a football team meant that Emory put a lot of resources into her sport. Throughout her Emory College days, the team was in the top eight nationally.
Dalton chose a joint major in English and women’s studies. Her intention was to become either a sports journalist or lawyer. The presence of women’s studies was a welcome surprise. As Dalton notes, “It allowed me a multidisciplinary perspective while keeping women at the center.”
Dalton met her husband when they were both undergraduates. He went on to Emory’s medical school and is an orthopedic surgeon in town. Had he decided on anywhere else than Emory for medical school, says Dalton, she wouldn’t have followed him. She had her own career to consider, and its next phase was at Emory’s School of Law.
There, she appreciated deeply—knowing that she wanted to be a litigator—the alumni who came back as adjuncts to teach civil and criminal litigation. She also had the distinct, and pleasurable, feeling that she was starting to build a network in the city of Atlanta that would be important to a future practice. At Emory Law, Dalton served as director-in-chief of the Moot Court Society and also was honored with the James C. Pratt Memorial Award, given to the most outstanding third-year student in the Emory Moot Court Society.
After law school, Dalton accepted an associate position at Chambers, Mabry, McClelland & Brooks, a midsized Atlanta litigation firm. In 2000, she left with five other lawyers (she was the only associate asked to join) to form Chambers, Aholt & Rickard, where she became a partner in 2003. For those unfamiliar with careers in law, that kind of progress is called taking the first turn in a swim meet before your competitors hit the water.
For the first part of her career, Dalton defended individuals and companies in civil matters, ranging from auto accidents to complex personal-injury cases. Soon thereafter, she switched sides and—rather than work for insurance companies—decided to help everyday people who had been injured by the negligence or wrongdoing of others.
In 2005, Georgia passed tort reform that made it more difficult for litigants and more favorable for doctors. Lots of personal-injury attorneys got out of the business. As they streamed out, she claimed her niche, saying, “My personality is such that it made me mad.” Her clients largely are widows or people who are badly hurt.
She turns down fully 95 percent of the inquiries that come to her, which seems—on the surface—a questionable business model. As she explains, though, cases have to be winnable, and Georgia juries especially are conservative, respecting doctors and granting them considerable leeway. Further, the need to hire experts means that every case must yield between $30,000 and $50,000 just to cover expenses.
Asked about the ambulance chasers who might dominate the public consciousness in her field, Dalton avers, “I am a good advocate because I choose my clients; I believe in them.” She goes on: “I equate it to being a women’s studies major. When I was in school, people assumed I was a lesbian. They would say things like, ‘There’s no male studies.’ I will change people’s views. I am ethical. If I own it, it will change the image of the profession.” It doesn’t hurt to have a father—himself a lawyer—who was the victim of medical malpractice.
It sounds like a life split between cold lakes and forbidding courtrooms, but it is a heck of a lot more fun than that. For one thing, Dalton has become very involved with the Center for Women, saying that it was “a natural fit.” She became a member of the Center for Women Advisory Council in 2010, agreed to co-chair the Development Committee, and has helped formulate an effective fund-raising strategy that, says Dalton, “lets people know what we do and why they should be vested.” A recent event involved bringing the distinguished Lee Wilke—surgeon and director of the University of Wisconsin Breast Center—to Emory in conjunction with Winship Cancer Center and also making her available for a women’s center donor event.
Finally, there is an adorable little girl at Dalton’s home with whom to play. Is anyone surprised that Dalton concluded the interview by saying, “I don’t love playing Barbies with her, but summer in the pool is awesome.”
Susan Carini 04G—the executive director of Emory Creative Group—is a member of the CWE Editorial Advisory Board and a former CWE Advisory Council member.