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Emory Law News Center

Kathleen Kessler's legacy: 22 years of scholarships for women

Lisa Ashmore |

When a ValuJet DC-9 crashed in the Everglades 25 years ago on May 11, 1996, hundreds of lives were changed forever. But as a result of a lawsuit brought by the family and friends of Kathleen Kessler 72L, nearly 50 female Emory Law students have received scholarships to help them become the formidable trial lawyer she was.

Kathleen Kessler was one of 13 women in a class that graduated 129 students. She became one of a few female trial lawyers who practiced in Georgia in the ‘70s. Her story is tied to Emory Law not only because it’s where she earned her law degree, but also because she met her husband, Richard Kessler 71L, during her first week of classes. They made lifetime friends here, including Mike Eidson 71L.

Kathleen was on a return flight to Atlanta after attending her daughter’s graduation from the University of Miami. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed, with no survivors among 110 passengers and crew. To accommodate the more than 400 people who came to celebrate Kathleen’s life, a memorial was held at the Fox Theatre later that month. When she died at 49, she was chair of the General Practice and Trial Law Section of the Georgia State Bar. News accounts from the time describe her as exceptional: an outspoken, determined, and feisty trial lawyer with a big heart and a soft spot for the under-represented. 

“Throughout her career, Kathy Kessler was a trial lawyer, never fearing to speak her mind or to tackle unpopular causes if she thought she was right,” Eidson said when the endowment was created. “She was a woman of sound ideals and principles who gave unselfishly of her time and talents for the good of her profession and for her frequently downtrodden clients who so badly needed her help.”

Later that summer, Kessler and his daughter Grace channeled their grief and testified before Congress to protest and prevent callous treatment of families involved in fatal crashes, by airline companies, lawyers and the media.

Mike Eidson had another idea, Kessler says. Eidson, who practiced in Miami, would sue Valujet for wrongful death and donate his fee to establish a scholarship in Kathleen’s name. The trial techniques program (required of all Emory Law students) would be renamed The Kessler-Eidson Program for Trial Techniques, and a room at MacMillan Library is also named for her.

“Mike, Kathleen and I were great friends,” Richard Kessler said this spring. “Mike and I thought that establishing the ‘Kessler-Eidson Endowment in Memory of Kathleen Kessler’ would be one of the best ways to represent our family.” The Kesslers committed to match Eidson’s fee, and proceeds from the endowment have provided scholarships for 47 women at Emory Law since 1999. Also, the initial endowment has since nearly doubled, which ensures annual scholarships in Kathleen’s name should continue indefinitely, said Associate Dean of Advancement and Alumni Engagement Courtney Stombock. Laurie Speed 96C 99L was the first recipient.

“The Kesslers have touched my life in many ways,” Speed said. “Over the past 21 years, I have gotten to know Dick Kessler and learn more about Kathleen. She was a trailblazer, a feminist, and a leader by example. As a plaintiff's attorney, I often feel like I am fighting an unpopular cause, but for true victims who need help. It is women like Kathleen Kessler who paved the way for many of us.”

The Kessler’s confidence in Speed was well-founded. In 2015, she was on the legal team that secured an $11 million verdict against Philip Morris. In 2017, she formed Speed + King, a firm that specializes in personal injury and medical malpractice. She has served as president of both the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association and the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers, and in 2016, she was honored with the latter’s Kathleen Kessler Award, given annually to a female attorney who exhibits professionalism and dedication to service and is highly esteemed within the legal community.

“It’s a daily reminder for me to be a better lawyer and to always fight the good fight,” Speed said.

“We are very pleased with how much has been accomplished in these 25 years since Kathleen’s death,” Kessler said. “It ensures that her stellar legacy lives on in perpetuity and helps many women law students at Emory.”

Eidson became a nationally prominent lawyer by representing plaintiffs in product liability lawsuits, including some of the nation’s biggest automotive recalls. An early one took on the Ford Motor Company, where Eidson successfully argued the Pinto’s fuel system was faulty, and sometimes deadly.

For more than 25 years Eidson has also funded scholarships for female trial lawyers through the American Association for Justice, the University of Miami and Florida International University.

“Women are clearly underrepresented in the practice of trial law and we want to do our part to provide opportunities to close the gap and encourage young female trial lawyers,” he said in 2019. At his own firm, Colson Hicks Eidson, the attorney roster includes 50 percent women “who are all exceptional trial lawyers,” he said.


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