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November 01, 2010

November 2010: Malissa Hathaway McKeith, Esq.

Vision impairment creates a zealous advocate out of law firm partner.

A large number of attorneys with disabilities grew up, received their education, and began the practice of law without the assistance of important civil rights legislation such as the Americans with Disabilities Act. Many of them had to make due without the law on their side.  In the end, those struggles have given them skills essential to being a successful lawyer. Malissa Hathaway McKeith experienced discrimination early in her life and her legal career, but she used these experiences to become a stronger woman and a better advocate.

Malissa, who was born legally blind, is a Partner and Chair of the Water, Energy & Environment Group at Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP in Los Angeles, the third largest firm in California.. During and immediately after her attendance at the University of San Francisco School of Law, Malissa was unable to get an associate position with any law firms due to her disability, but was fortunate to land several clerkships,  including one with a California Supreme Court justice. While clerking, she gained confidence in her abilities as a lawyer with a disability. After moving to large law firms, she began to work her way up her current firm’s hierarchy. She cites her strong work ethic and ambition for her success, which has included being named this year as one of the top Women Litigators in California by the Daily Journal.   She has been a Gubernatorial appointee to several environmental commissions and, in 2002,  recipient of the POWER Carla Band Award for Excellence in Environmental Advocacy. She has never formally requested an accommodation from her employers, and instead relies on text-magnifying technology already found on her computer as well as her Doberman guide dog.    

Growing up Malissa had to “fight hard ” to make her way. Today she uses this spirit and vim for herself and her clients. Personally, she knows she has to work tirelessly to generate revenue for her firm. “At the end of the day at a law firm, it doesn’t matter whether you have a disability or not,” she noted, “The amount of business and revenue you bring in for your firm is how you are judged, so I make sure that I am always working long hours, bringing in new clients, and keeping our current clients happy.”

Malissa also realizes that her previous life experiences make her a better advocate when zealously representing her clients and their interests. “I actually enjoy taking on controversial projects particularly if there is a larger public impact beyond just my client,” she said, “My strengths are in strategizing, organizing and implementing complex environmental transactions and litigations.   However, my ability to fearlessly stick up for my clients and protect their interests comes from my experiences in making sure that I, as a person with a disability, was never bullied or taken advantage of.”