Suzan F. Charlton
The goal of this column is to enlighten our readers about the private endeavors of attorneys who are part of the MCCA network. By examining lawyers and their work practices by day in contrast to the personal interests that they pursue outside of the office, it is our hope that this series of articles allows our readers to see the other side of lawyers who manage to pursue unique interests despite their demanding careers.
Suzan F. Charlton
“I got into cartooning for the same reason I was drawn to litigation,” explains attorney Suzan F. Charlton, somewhat mysteriously. “The truth is I’m an attention hound. Over the years, cartooning got me noticed. Similarly, part of what I like about litigation is that it allows me to be out there making an impression.”
Special counsel in Covington & Burling LLP’s Washington, D.C., office since January 2008, Charlton practices insurance coverage litigation and business dispute resolution. She has represented a wide range of policyholders, from oil and gas companies and manufacturers to cable television stations and health care services. Charlton says, “I sue insurance companies and make them pay claims. How I do that on a day-to-day basis varies according to the case I’m working on: last week I was flying all over the country taking depositions, tomorrow I may be on the phone negotiating a settlement.”
Besides liking the attention that insurance litigation sometimes confers, Charlton adds, “I’m very happy to be working on the side of policyholders because I feel that I’m representing the good guys. Maybe it comes from working on this side of the fence for so long, but I’m a believer in the cause for insurance policyholders.”
Charlton grew up in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. After 12 years of public school, she attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where she majored in political science. Subsequently, she earned a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center.
It was at Georgetown that Charlton became acutely aware of the powers of cartooning. “Sitting in the back row—I was always a back bencher—I liked to doodle in my notebooks, sketching my professors, making fun of other law students. Well, at some time or another, one of my cartoons got passed around, eventually making its way into the hands of the editor of The Georgetown Law Weekly.”
The editor liked what she saw, and soon Charlton was publishing regularly and had a loyal following of readers. Her strip, “Lawtoons,” amusingly skewered all aspects of the law school experience: professors, pressures, and classes. The cartoons were drawn with felt-tip pens on copy paper, and often cranked out just hours before deadline. “Several times at Georgetown, my cartoons—then known as ‘Love the Law’ —created controversy,” says Charlton, “and when it happened it always surprised me, because those particular cartoons typically involved the least amount of forethought and struck me as totally innocuous.”
Cartoon courtesy of Suzan F. Charlton
Charlton recalls her most controversial law school offering: “I drew the dean as a paper doll. Surrounding her were items of clothing labeled with tags like ‘tuition-hiking boots’—that sort of thing,” she says. “That cartoon generated letters to the editor for weeks. Some letters reviled me as a sexist, while others touted me as the new Garry Trudeau. Talk about attention.”
After law school, Charlton joined Anderson Kill & Olick LLP as an associate but continued to publish “Lawtoons” in The National Jurist, a monthly publication targeting aspiring legal professionals—only now her cartoons dealt more with life at the firm. Cartooning continued to be rewarding, but as time passed and Charlton concentrated more and more on climbing the ladder at firms like Swidler Berlin LLP and Heller Ehrman LLP, “Lawtoons” fell mostly by the wayside. (Today, the entire collection can be found at www.lawtoons.com.)
After her second child was born, Charlton scaled back her work schedule. “There are actually a lot of us at Covington who work part time. It’s not an issue here at all,” she says. “Throughout my legal career, I haven’t witnessed blatant discrimination. I really think we’re beyond that; however, there is definitely something at work. Of my women friends from law school, currently I’m the one working the most. Half work 75% or lower part-time schedules, and the other half are stay-at-home moms now. When was the last time you heard of a man leaving a law firm to be a stay-at-home dad? I do think it has less to do with what firms are doing, and more with what the world is doing. Until men feel free to have the same flexibility as women, big firms may not change.”
Charlton first knew that she wanted to become a lawyer in high school. Time and again, the stymied teenager lost arguments with her parents simply because they were her parents and therefore always had the final word. “I longed for the day when I could stand before an impartial judge and present my case,” she says. “There were so many times that I felt I was right and all I needed was an objective party to say so.”
Had Charlton not gone to Vassar, where she laid down serious plans to attend law school, she says, there is a very good chance she would have aspired to be an artist. “It’s definitely not outside the realm of possibility that I might have pursued a career in art,” says Charlton. “All the art in my home was done by my grandmothers, my mother-in-law, or me. I’ve been drawing and painting most of my life. I still do.”
Still, Charlton has derived great satisfaction from the law, particularly pro bono work. “The case that I’m most proud of in my entire career is one of those,” she says. “I represented an indigent woman who on the day of her surgery was turned away because her insurance company had denied her claim. Through a letter-writing campaign and many phone calls, I got the company to change its mind without suing them. My client’s surgery was rescheduled, was fully successful, and was paid in full by the insurance company. To work for a big law firm but to still be able to touch an individual’s life in such a positive way is amazing. My client couldn’t pay, but she baked the whole office cookies and gave me a kite that still hangs in my office today.”
Along with the kite, Charlton’s small office contains other inspiring artifacts, including a drop ceiling that includes squares painted by Charlton depicting a colorful abstract as well as the words “She who laughs lasts.”
Though Charlton no longer publishes regularly, she continues to carry a folder of drafts in various stages of progress wherever she goes. She always has something in the works, but has not finalized anything in a while. Asked whether she will step up her production of cartoons again, Charlton is unsure but optimistic: “I find that I’ve drawn some of my best cartoons at the most miserable times of my life. For me, it’s difficult to write sharp, biting cartoons when things are good and I’m feeling content. Maybe that’s why I’m not drawing cartoons so much these days. But who knows, the attention from this article may possibly inspire me to start up again.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the September/October 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®