Grace Weatherly ('90), a personal injury and civil trial lawyer in Denton who has litigated more than 50 jury trials in 25 years, was nominated this year as the 65th president of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA). ABOTA membership consists of more than 7,600 lawyers -- equally balanced between plaintiff and defense -- and judges spread among 96 chapters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Its mission is the preservation and promotion of the Seventh Amendment -- the right to a trial by jury.
"I saw the organization as a great opportunity to meet both my opponents and my competitors, as well as socialize with the judiciary," says Weatherly, who was invited to join in 2006. "I've since met so many accomplished lawyers from all over the country."
Prior to being nominated as the 2021 national president -- a one-year term -- Weatherly served as president of the Dallas chapter in 2015, president of TEX-ABOTA, the statewide chapter for Texas, in 2019, as well as a trustee for about six years before being elected to a one-year term as vice president of ABOTA in 2018.
"I'm the first woman in Texas to become president," says Weatherly, a partner in Wood Weatherly Trial Law in Denton. "I didn't think it would happen to me, being a small-town girl with a small firm, so I was really surprised and honored I was nominated."
Weatherly hadn't always planned on becoming a lawyer. In her 20s, she attended night classes at UNT while also raising kids and working full time as a manager at her family's Denton-based furniture store, Your Furniture Connection. After earning a bachelor's degree in applied arts and sciences, Weatherly didn't know what she wanted to do post-college until a friend mentioned she was applying to law school. Weatherly decided to follow in her friend's footsteps by applying to take the LSAT on a whim, and later was accepted to Southern Methodist University.
"At UNT, I took marketing and management classes because they helped me with my job, but I had a real interest in sociology and behavioral analysis because I enjoy studying people. Looking back, those classes were the perfect preparation for running my own firm," Weatherly says. "I rely on what I learned in marketing and management for accounting and finance decisions. Behavioral analysis comes in handy with handling witness clients, and sociology in studying the fascinating group of people -- the jury."
However, like all journeys, Weatherly's path to becoming a lawyer had its fair share of challenges. Since she was still raising her kids while attending law school, she says she wouldn't be where she is today without the help of her husband. She also commuted 70 miles to SMU each way and had to overcome her fear of public speaking. But she was motivated by her goal to become a lawyer and help others.
"I wanted to do something where I could make a difference. Growing up in a small town like Gainesville, I didn't think I was going to have the ability to make a change in society," Weatherly says. "But through my education, I saw law as the way that I could actually make a difference in individual clients' lives, as well as in the bigger picture too."
In 1996, Weatherly partnered with Bill Wood to form their firm, which specializes in personal injury as well as discrimination cases, such as sexual harassment and police brutality, which Weatherly became interested in when she learned that in 1990, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was amended to allow discrimination cases to be tried before a jury. Before then, those cases had no jury.
"In my first six months of practice, I had a very compelling sexual harassment case right out of Denton," Weatherly says. "I was pretty much hooked because I saw the difference I was able to make for my client standing up for her, and as a result, she learned to stand up for herself."
As a personal injury and civil rights lawyer, Weatherly spends a lot of time investigating each case. The average personal injury case can take a couple years to develop. She meets with investigative scientists and expert witnesses more than she does with the actual client, who is often dead or recovering from a severe injury.
"I don't think most people realize that it's not like TV," Weatherly says. "You think it all happens in a week or two, but it takes a long time to compile all of the evidence, facts and research, and less than 3% of cases are tried to jury."
Since becoming president of ABOTA, Weatherly has had to take on fewer clients. However, the trade-off is positive since she is able to make a big impact on the organization and civil trial law as a whole. ABOTA offers educational programs and materials on the 7th amendment and civility for students in K12, college, and law school, as well as attorneys and judges. Her position entails that she oversees both arms of ABOTA, one being the National Board with 200 members, both being nonprofit. She also will travel to all 96 chapters, but due to COVID-19, the meetings will be virtual until at least August. While president, Weatherly hopes to bring more information about the local chapters to the National Board.
"It doesn't matter if you're a female, a minority or grew up in a small town," Weatherly says. "You don't have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth or have gone to an Ivy League school to succeed and make a difference through the law in people's lives."