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LEADERSHIP in ACTION

Natural born leader Ashleigh Aitken, President of the Orange County Bar Association, uses her law degree to serve others in the courtroom and the community

“My philosophy is that no matter what career path you choose, follow your values and find a way to use your talents to leave others in a better place. While I didn’t always know I wanted to be an attorney, I knew I wanted to be a positive force in my community,” says Ashleigh Aitken, Of Counsel at Aitken*Aitken*Cohn.

Today, Aitken serves others in a multitude of capacities. She was recently installed as President of the Orange County Bar Association (OCBA), which boasts a membership of over 9,000 lawyers. But that’s far from the only leadership role she fills. She also serves as a Girls Scouts of Orange County (GSOC) Troop Leader, and was honored by the GSOC with their Celebrate Leadership honors in 2014. She is a past president of Orange County Woman Lawyers, a past chairwoman of Anaheim’s Community Services Board, and Aitken is presently the Chairwoman of the 32nd District Agricultural Association (AKA the OC Fairgrounds), which oversees all activities and policies affecting the 150-acre property and has a $29 million operating budget. All of these responsibilities are in addition to raising three small daughters with her husband and colleague at Aitken*Aitken*Cohn, Michael Penn. To boot, Aitken also works tirelessly as a trial lawyer on high-profile cases such as Vego v. Southern California Edison for the plaintiffs-only trial firm founded by her father Wylie Aitken in 1969. With such an incredibly busy, full life it would be reasonable to expect Aitken to be stressed, exhausted, even cranky. But nothing could be further from the truth. Aitken has an easy laugh, and a playful self-deprecating personality, which is balanced by a deep-seated desire to help others. Though she chose to do so via a career as a trial attorney, she admits that it wasn’t her planned career.

Learning to Lend a Hand
“My father is one of the preeminent trial attorneys in the country. I grew up watching him help others in our community, and fight and change the way the law protects and assists consumers and injured victims. Watching him devote his talents to helping others inspired me to make sure that no matter what path I chose, I needed to be fiercely passionate about it,” Aitken says. In addition, she says, “My parents always taught me that it doesn’t cost anything to be kind. If you treat everyone how you want to be treated, you will sleep well at night.”

After earning her undergrad degree from Boston College, Aitken landed a job with then-Democratic Leader Richard A. Gephardt in Washington D.C. “I loved politics and public service and was inspired to move beyond studying public policy and get real life experience in how laws get made. I was amazed at how many lawyers were working on The Hill,” she recalls. Chuckling she adds, “Prior to that, my frame of reference for lawyers meant trial lawyers, and all of the sudden I was working with top policy advisors that specialized in environmental law, labor law, healthcare law, elections law, etc. They were using their talents to make laws.”

17Aitken admits to enjoying seeing that side of the law at work, but she also found herself with a burgeoning interest in getting into a courtroom. “I wanted to enforce and fight in the courtroom for the ideals behind the laws being crafted and created,” she says. Aitken was soon accepted into the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law.
Aitken’s summer associate stint with Nossaman Guthner Knox & Elliot in Irvine led to an offer of associate position as a litigator upon being admitted to Bar. “I focused on condemnation, land use and employment law issues,” she says. From there she took a position within the litigation department of Morrison & Foerster where she handled all aspects of civil business litigation practice, encompassing complex actions in contracts, business torts and consumer class actions.

“I knew I wanted to try cases, and I was lucky to be at firms that had confidence in young attorneys to strike out and get in the courtroom.”
But in 2008, an opportunity arose that Aitken couldn’t pass up. “I was approached about joining the US Attorney’s office, and I knew from my first interview that I
had to work there. It was the perfect intersection of my love of trial work, and using my law degree for public service. I can’t quantify the lessons and experience I gained from that position. I was able to prosecute those engaged in child sex crimes, armed bank robberies, mail and wire fraud, narcotics and firearm violations and immigration offenses. There was never a dull moment and it was always meaningful,” she says.

Finding Her Way to the Family Firm

Aitken is honest when she says that she felt a need to “make her own way,” in her legal career. “I did want to step out of the shadow of my father, but my last name was a bit of a give-away,” she laughs. However, she says that the first 10 years of her career allowed her to have experiences she wouldn’t have otherwise had, if she’d immediately gone to work at the family firm. “I wouldn’t trade my experiences for the world. Working at big firms and being a prosecutor introduced me to so many different personalities. Each boss has different strengths, their writing was unique, and it made me a well-rounded attorney,” she says.

Still, there was a lot that appealed to her about joining her father, her two brothers, her husband, and the other highly revered attorneys at Aitken*Aitken*Cohn. “I wanted to join my family firm and practice law with my father—a legend—and my equally distinguished firm family. I wanted to continue to use my law degree to effectuate change and outside of the prosecutor’s office, plaintiff’s law is a great way to do it. You get the joy of working with real people and helping them during the lowest times of their lives.”
“We only represent victims, whether it be an injured party, the surviving family of a decedent or a wronged executive, business or business owner who are often victims of their own insurance companies. We are plaintiff-only trial lawyers and battle with the big comfortable corporate entities that far too often take advantage of the average person and each other. We do so on a contingent basis both to be affordable, and to share the risk with our clients.”
18The cases that Aitken*Aitken*Cohn take on often include high-profile cases, which the firm uses to better protect the average American. A prime example that Aitken worked on includes Vego v. Southern California Edison.
“This was the saddest case I’d ever heard of,” Aitken says. “I remember reading about it in the paper on a weekend morning, and an hour later getting a call from my landscaper’s wife. She started telling me about the facts: an electric wire from a big power line fell into the back yard and the father, mother and oldest son die in front of the then 16 and 10 year old children. That kind of horror story is unreal.”

Over the next year, Aitken devoted her time and efforts to the family, shepherding them through family law court, juvenile court and the civil lawsuit. “Not only were we able to secure the confidential settlement, but the PUC later came out and issued a $25 Million fine for Edison’s negligence, the largest single fine for a death in the history of the PUC,” she says. “It reaffirmed the theory we developed and provided to them, that Edison had long-ignored the blatant safety issue in this neighborhood, because it was a working-class, poor neighborhood.”

“That is the beauty of what we do. We not only assist families in navigating a complex legal system and fighting for just compensation for their loss, but we force major corporations to re-examine their policies to prevent further victimization of the public. No major tragedy happens in a vacuum. Corporations calculate how much safety is necessary and cost-effective. It isn’t until lawyers start uncovering evidence of intentional wrongdoing and negligence, and involving state and federal authorities, that consumers and victims are properly served. Today the airwaves are flooded with Edison’s warnings and instructions on how to deal with fallen wires, and hopefully lives are being saved,” Aitken says proudly.

Legacy of Leadership
With all of the tragedy that the firm deals with, Aitken says that the people who she works with are the reason that she can tolerate the injustice and the suffering she sees her clients go through. “I’m very lucky to work in the firm I work in. The kindness and the compassion of my colleagues is inimitable. They are genuinely nice, funny people. Our business model is also one of giving, which is why people like working with us.”

19Indeed, Aitken says it is those who she works with who inspire her to lead beyond the walls of the firm or the courtroom. “I am inspired to do good things when I am at work. But inspiration comes from the top and can’t be faked. I sometimes think I am crazy in taking on a new cause, but when I look at others in my firm, I am humbled by their example. As a firm we all volunteer each year at the Cal State Fullerton Special Olympics in honor of Kathleen Faley. It is so inspiring to have our dedicated staff alongside the attorneys in a day dedicated to such amazing special needs athletes.”

Beyond that, Aitken says, “Each attorney gives back in our office. My brother Darren is a former President of OC’s ABTL chapter and is the Vice President of the Public Law Center , and the immediate past president of Constitutional Rights Foundation. Rich Cohn is involved with the United Cerebral Palsy of OC. Chris Aitken is the former Chair of Laura’s House. Casey Johnson is the President of OC trial lawyers. My husband, Michael, is a mock trial coach and is very active in our church … and Wylie volunteers with everything. He is the Chair of the California Arts Council and Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees at Chapman University.”

Aitken is also quick to point out that the matriarch of the Aitken family deserves a great deal of credit for her role in inspiring and encouraging Ashleigh, her father and her siblings. “Hands down, I would not be where I am today without the daily love and encouragement my mother has given me. She is my number one fan, thinks every case I am working on is the most interesting case in the world, attends every trial, and has a reassuring and sympathetic presence. She is a model of grace under pressure, plus she tells me I am the prettiest girl in the world, which some days, especially mid-trial with my roots showing, I really need to hear,” she jokes.
For all of Aitken’s levity, underneath it lies sheer determination to do well for her clients, and fierce resolve to serve those around her, whether they be victims her firm is helping, attorneys who have referred clients to her, attorneys who have asked for assistance as co-counsel, or even for young, new attorneys looking to carve a name for themselves in the community.

“I encourage everyone to get involved in their community. It is too easy to isolate yourself behind your desk or in the law library and it can create a lonely existence. The benefits of actively using your bar memberships, whether in the OCBA or an affiliate bar, cannot be measured. Relationships with other attorneys have a huge impact on the success of your business. I have always loved meeting lawyers outside my practice area. I never fail to learn something after spending an evening or lunch talking to a lawyer at a community event,” she says.

As far as her own future is concerned, Aitken says that she plans to continue in the family tradition of compassion and excellence in advocacy through serving others. “I have been so blessed in my life I cannot claim to have received anything less than the Golden Ticket. I am able to do what I love and practice law with the people that I love, each and every day. People come to us at times of tragedy and loss, and as a team, we are blessed to be able to use our talents to ease their burden. My luck continues to this day, as I am privileged to practice in a county that is home to some of the most intelligent, compassionate and talented attorneys and judges in the nation.”

16a» EDUCATION

  • University of Southern California Law School, Los Angeles, CAJuris Doctor, May 2002, Admitted: California, December 2002
  • Boston College, Boston, MA
  • Bachelor of Arts (Secondary Education and History), cum laude, June 1997

» PUBLICATIONS AND PRESENTATIONS

Presenter:

  • Chapman University, Issues of Women in the Law, November 2014
  • Consumer Attorneys of California, Deposition Skills, November 2014
  • Celtic Bar Association, Debunking Myths of Substance Abuse, September 2014
  • Hispanic Bar Association, Debunking Myths of Substance Abuse, May 2014 Consumer
  • Attorneys of California, Elimination of Bias, November 2013
  • Consumer Attorneys of California, Tactics in Opening Statements, November 2013
  • Whittier Law School, Issues of Women in the Law, October 2012

Publications:

  • Bringing it Home: Some Strategies for a Successful Mediation Negotiation, by Dean J. Zipser and Ashleigh E. Aitken, Orange County Lawyer, November (2006).
  • Pre-Trial Motions, California Litigation Review. Co-authored the chapter on pretrialmotions in the California State Bar Litigation Section's yearly update of California law(2005, 2006).

» AFFILIATIONS

  • Orange County Women Lawyers, Past President and Board Member (2002-present);
  • Orange County Bar Association President (2015)
  • Orange County Bar Association, Board Member (2004-2010);
  • Celtic Bar Association, Vice-President and Member (2002-present);
  • Association of Business Trial Lawyers, Member;
  • Hispanic Bar Association, former Vice-President and Board Member, Member(2002-present);
  • Orange County Bar Foundation, Board Member (2004-2007);
  • Member, Central District of California, Pro Bono Panel;
  • South Coast Repertory Theatre, Gala Committee Member (2005-present);
  • MOMS Club, Anaheim Hills West, Vice-President (2007-present).
  • Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC)-Board of Governors at Large (2012)
  • Appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the 32nd District Agricultural Association, OrangeCounty Fair Board (2012)

» HONORS AND AWARDS

  • Attorney of the Year, Orange County Women Lawyers, 2013
  • Super Lawyer, Super Lawyers magazine, 2013, 2014
  • Rising Star, Super Lawyers magazine, 2005-2007, 2012

Contact:
Ashleigh E. Aitken
Aitken*Aitken*Cohen
www.aitkenlaw.com
Ashleigh@aitkenlaw.com
3 MacArthur Place, Suite 800
Santa Ana, CA 92707
(866) 434-1424

Jennifer Hadley

Jennifer Hadley is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal

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