Through the years, Liz Blackwell has managed to blend a career as a defense attorney in high-stakes, high-profile litigation with work that also advances social justice.
She said that while practicing for Big Law firms doesn’t necessarily align with the social-justice issues she’s interested in, “it certainly has given me the skill set and opportunities to be engaged in those areas.”
Blackwell practices within Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s commercial litigation and product liability groups. She primarily defends agricultural, food and consumer-product manufacturers.
As part of her pro bono advocacy, she represents survivors of domestic violence through legal Advocates for Abused Women, a program of the Crime Victim Advocacy Center in St. Louis. She also is president of the board of trustees for the ACLU of Missouri.
Blackwell took a meandering path to law school. She studied English as an undergraduate because she enjoyed writing and literature. An interest in theology — tied to her growing up as a Southern Baptist — led her next to Harvard University, where she earned a master’s in theological studies.
In her last year, however, she found her friends with doctorate degrees were struggling to find work. Meanwhile, she said she had a growing interest in the intersection between law and religion and decided to study law at Vanderbilt University, where she graduated in 1998.
Out of law school, she worked for Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Kansas City, where she found her interest in product-liability work.
“It turns out the people in products litigation at Shook were to me the most engaging and interesting people, and they were working on cases that were front-page news,” she said. “It seemed like fascinating work with a group of people who were fascinating and fun.”
Blackwell said she loved the work and her clients, so it was natural to stay in the same practice area.
“There’s a lot of diversity in terms of what the products are, what the claims are, and you get to work with a lot of talented people,” she said. “I work with some of the best litigators in the nation.”
She stayed in Kansas City for a year before heading east again, working for firms in Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia.
After returning to Missouri to be closer to her parents, she joined Thompson Coburn, where she worked for nearly 14 years. She joined her current firm in 2018.
Blackwell said one of the cases of which she is most proud has been partnering with the ACLU to successfully challenge a school’s decision to filter internet access, which blocked pro-LGBTQ content while allowing students to see anti-LGTBQ and discriminatory content.
She said it’s important for her to give back to LGBTQ causes and to be visible as a gay attorney because she knows what it’s like to grow up in a community and a time in which it was harder to be out as an LGBTQ person.
“You don’t see a lot of people who are openly gay,” she said, noting her rural roots in Salem. “It has been important to me to try to be visible so that kids who are in areas where they don’t have role models or can’t see a visible community . . . can see people just like them.”