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WJA 2021: Joanna V. Billingsley

Joanna Billingsley hadn’t really thought of a legal career until her constitutional law professor at Missouri State University presented a career suggestion to the Republic, Mo. native.

billingsley“I really enjoyed it. She taught it like a law school class,” recalled Billingsley, who majored in political science. “She was very inspiring and encouraged me to apply for law school.”

Today, the 64-year-old is glad she took that advice.

After graduating with a law degree from Washburn University, Billingsley aimed to do civil litigation and worked for a firm which did so at the federal level. But soon, she moved back home to serve the people of southwest Missouri. She opened her own firm in 1983 and shared an office with another lawyer.

Since 2014, she’s shifted focus from family law to a contract position as the attorney for the 38th Judicial Circuit’s Juvenile Office, a part of the court system that often deals with some of society’s most vulnerable individuals.

“I really liked the people,” she said. “I did enjoy litigating but I think I enjoyed helping people try to solve really difficult situations.”

Those situations could include drug abuse or other issues which impact the ability of parents to care for their children and require Billingsley’s established expertise in state statutes and Supreme Court rules governing abuse and neglect, delinquency and termination of parental rights as well her knowledge of applicable federal laws.

“It is really an area of law where you can see people at their lowest ebb and then see them work their way up and be reunited with their children,” she said. “It is very rewarding.”

Those rewards often come from seeing young people able to gain enough stability to get a chance at a solid foundation in life.

“Helping children achieve permanency is the most important thing that I do now,” she said.

Billingsley also spent about 15 years as a mediator. It was a position that allowed her to use her skills to work with others and avoid the pitfalls of the adversarial process.

“It was a personal challenge to bring two people who were totally at odds together and keep them talking to one another and help them come up with a solution,” she said.

She’s also been a volunteer for the Volunteer Lawyers Project for Legal Services of Southern Missouri.

But, regardless of her role, Billingsley’s philosophy remains constant.

“I think that it is important to be respectful of other parties and other attorneys and try to see things from their point of view,” she said. “Don’t get too wrapped up in your own narrative.”

At the end of the day, she likes being a part of the solution.

“There is really no orderly way to resolve disputes without the law,” she said.

Women's Justice Awards 2021