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Front Page - Friday, June 11, 2010

Lawyer enjoying successful mid-life career change

After working as a registered nurse for 20 years, Carmen Ware changed careers and became a lawyer, giving her a unique pairing of designations after her name on her business card: “R.N.” and “J.D.”. She currently litigates for Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan. - David Laprad
If someone took the various threads that run through attorney Carmen Ware’s life and strung them together, they’d create a tapestry of bold colors and unexpected patterns. Taking her modest beginnings and weaving them through the challenges she’s overcome, one would create a dazzling array of reds, greens and yellows. It would appear as though these lines had started to form a picture, but a startling change of direction in the middle of the stitching would result in an entirely new image. Winding through it all would a single blue thread representing a line of sadness that runs through Ware’s life.
Born and raised in Chattanooga, Ware attended Riverside High School. She did well, although as she prepared for college, she wondered if her roots would hold her back.
“I was getting a good education and knew the people at Riverside cared about me, but I started to doubt my abilities because of the perception other people had about the school,” she says.
Despite her worries, Ware did exceptionally well at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she graduated in 1986 with a Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree. She’d wanted to become a doctor, but changed direction when she had a son at 18.
“My grandmother and mother were going to keep my son
for me while I was in school,
but I couldn’t leave him, so I decided to become a nurse instead,” she says. Her mention of her mother adds a trace of blue to the conversation.
Ware went to work at Erlanger and immediately showed grace under pressure as she confronted prejudice on two fronts. The first had to do with her age; the second was related to the color of her skin.
“Patients would look at me like I was a little girl,” Ware says. “I’d explain what I was doing and why I was doing it, and go over their lab results and medication with them, and by the time their family arrived for visiting hours, they were ready to defend me.”
Ware also confronted racial bias as a nurse, although she says that too would often melt away once the patient realized how good she was at what she did.
“Some patients didn’t want a black nurse,” she says. “Early on, we made concessions, but it got to the point where the (director of nursing) would tell the patient they were getting the best care available. The next day, the patient would ask to have me again.”
Ware says the most rewarding work she did during nearly 20 years of nursing was in ICU.
“I didn’t have time to question something or even to think. The knowledge had to be there and I had to apply it. That was challenging,” she says.
She also liked the degree of independence ICU afforded her, as she prefers to work alone.
“My momma always told me that if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing right, so I take everything I do seriously,” she says. “It can be frustrating when other people aren’t on board with you.”
By 2001, Ware was looking at pursuing a more lucrative career so she could take care of her mother. She no longer wanted to be a doctor, though, partly because she’d already scratched her medical itch, but also, because she didn’t want to be in school for eight years. As a result of witnessing a lot of injustice as a nurse, she decided to become a medical malpractice lawyer.
The road ahead of Ware was everything but easy. Although her two sons had graduated from high school, she still had to deal with the financial baggage she’d accumulated. Ware also had to stay on course when her loved ones didn’t believe she’d go through with her plan.
Ware took the LSAT “on a whim at the last minute,” thinking if she didn’t do well, she’d take it over. While she wasn’t entirely pleased with the results, schools began sending her offers. She began to pray for the right one.
“I told God all of the things I could do if I became a lawyer. And when I opened an envelope from Regent (University School of Law in Virginia), everything I’d told God I could do was in the letter,” Ware says.
Ware excelled academically at Regent but missed being close to home, so she transferred to Vanderbilt after one year. She also learned during her first year of law school that she didn’t like being poor – she often had to eat at a soup kitchen the university operated – so she took a full-time job as a nurse at St. Thomas Hospital in Nashville.
Ware took on even more work when she accepted an internship at Gideon & Wiseman, a firm that focused solely on medical malpractice.
“It was good experience, but I wouldn’t recommend it. I fell asleep during one of my finals that year,” she says.
After graduating, Ware interned with several major firms in Music City and then turned her eyes homeward. But finding the right practice in Chattanooga would not be easy.
“Being my age, I needed to go where I could hit the ground running,” she says. “But I was finding that associates at most large firms don’t get any substantial legal experience until their fourth or fifth year.”
During interviews, Ware was upfront about her desire to jump feet first into medical malpractice litigation. Eventually, one of the firms with which she was speaking suggested she interview with Leitner, Williams, Dooley & Napolitan. It was good advice, as the firm offered Ware a position, she accepted it and she’s still there today.
“The litigation practice
here lends itself to young associates getting their feet wet quickly. I was doing depositions, ordering motions and doing trial work my first year. Then I got to argue before the Supreme Court of Tennessee my second year,” she says.
Ware says she also made the right choice in becoming a litigator, as it connects her to the human element in her work. Plus, she says the transactional work she did as an intern was agonizingly dull.
“In the corporate environment, you deal with documents, but when you litigate, you’re helping someone. There’s a wrong that needs to be made right or a dispute that has to be resolved. I like to feel connected with people,” she says.
Through hard work, perseverence and sleep deprivation, Ware had pulled off a hard right turn in mid-life, but she hadn’t achieved the financial standing she needed to take care of her mother in the manner she wanted. Then in September of last year, her mom passed away.
“Every child’s desire is to make things easier on their parents. I’d tell my mom about the things I was going to do when I became a partner, but she didn’t live to see it happen,” Ware says. “That makes me sad. It was important to me that I do things for her because she’d had a hard life.”
Ware looks down and appears to holding her emotions just beneath the surface of her skin. As she’s discussed her life, she’s spoken with great articulation and projected remarkable self-assurance, but the topic of her mother’s death melts her slightly before she straightens up and moves on.
And she will move on. Ware says she hopes to someday take on more cases where she feels like she’s making a difference. She also has her eye on the bench.
“African American women have not been represented in the local judiciary. I have the same issue with the U.S. Supreme Court. There are qualified people, but we’ve been overlooked,” she says.
In addition, Ware says she’d like to set up a legal clinic at which the parties would try to resolve their disputes using faith-based principles.
In the meantime, she’ll scratch her pro bono itch by working with Legal Aid of East Tennessee.
“I can’t take as many cases as I’d like to. If I were a sole proprietor, I’d probably go bankrupt because I have a tendency to want to help everyone,” she says, laughing.
As Ware smiles, all hints of blue disappear from the space around her. She relaxes and talks about her husband, about wanting to find God’s purpose for her life and about what she enjoys doing during her leisure time. With each new topic, it becomes increasingly clear that in the years ahead, the threads that run through Ware’s life
will continue create a tapestry of colors and patterns that are bolder and more unexpected than ever before.