Solo practitioner, The Speed Firm
• Emory University, English and women's studies
• Emory University School of Law, 1999
Laurie Speed-Dalton is a relative rarity: a plaintiff's attorney working solo or assisted only by an associate taking on medical malpractice cases notorious for their complexity, cost and—in post-tort reform Georgia—high likelihood of failure.
For Speed-Dalton—a champion swimmer currently training for a 10-mile open-water race—navigating those tricky legal shoals means she must be extra careful in selecting and shepherding cases through the courts.
"It's really challenging; that's probably what kept me from doing it sooner," says Speed-Dalton, who left personal injury boutique Chambers, Aholt & Rickard in 2009 to strike out on her own. "It's easier to spread the risk among several partners. It can't be just a good liability case. You have to be very choosy, so I make sure they're really good cases because I'm investing thousands of dollars myself."
Speed-Dalton says she rejects many more clients than she accepts.
"If I'm going to take the time to review a stack of medical records, I'm either going to help them, or sit down with them and explain why they don't have a case," she says.
Speed-Dalton's fervor is at least partly explained by her own history. When she was a teen in Chattanooga, Tenn., her father was a victim of medical malpractice, forcing him to give up his law practice.
Even in high school, Speed-Dalton contemplated a legal career. "I always had kind of an advocate's personality," she says. "I tended to take on causes and pull for the underdog."
When she was offered a chance to attend Emory University as a member of the swim team, Speed-Dalton jumped at the chance.
"I wanted [to live in] a more progressive, diverse city," she says.
Upon graduating from Emory Law in 1999, Speed-Dalton signed on with what was then Chambers, Mabry, McClelland & Brooks. The following year, five partners left to form Chambers Aholt, taking her along. Speed-Dalton started off handling insurance defense and premises liability cases, but left the med-mal cases to her colleagues.
"I thought I didn't want to do that because my husband is a doctor," Speed-Dalton says.
That changed in 2005, when the General Assembly passed the package of legislation known as tort reform.
"It bugged me when that passed, and we had all these laws restricting patients' rights," says Speed-Dalton, who was then serving as president of the Georgia Association for Women Lawyers.
"A lot of lawyers left the [med-mal] practice then, and I discovered I had an expertise. These are tough cases, and the statistics are against us," she says. "I saw a report from MAG Mutual that says they'd tried 65 cases and won 60." (The insurer's 2012 annual report says it had a winning trial record of almost 90 percent.)
"Laurie is really unique in her practice field," says Christian Torgrimson of Pursley Freise Torgrimson. "Plaintiffs' lawyers have a reputation for being sharks and ambulance chasers; she's not like that at all, It really speaks to an ethical level that lawyers often don't have."
Speed-Dalton is well aware that those in her profession often are targeted for criticism. Married to an orthopedic surgeon, her practice choice makes "it a little difficult for cocktail party conversation," she says.
"It's a politically charged issue, and trial attorneys who do med-mal are often demonized," she says. "It's easy to do—until you need one."