Q&A / Why Anne Joynt persists
A discussion with litigator Ann Joynt, who advocates for children poisoned by lead—and, along the way, advocating for equality for her legal sisters
Photo by kc kratt
Ann Joynt has spent the better part of a dozen years practicing law that advocates for children poisoned by lead—and, along the way, advocating for equality for her legal sisters. She was elected president of the Western New York Chapter of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York this past spring, in recognition of the young attorney’s commitment to fairness. Though Joynt has served on the board of the Erie County Bar Association, she still believes in the importance of a separate women’s bar association. In the community at large, she’s been an active volunteer for Planned Parenthood and sits on the steering committee of the Women’s TAP [Taking Action in Politics] Fund, which supports pro-choice women running for office. The Medina native and graduate of SUNY College at Geneseo and University at Buffalo Law School, is a litigator who devotes as much time to promoting gender parity in the legal profession as she does to winning cases.
You say you entered law school with altruistic intent. Is that why you got into lead-paint litigation?
Actually, I was interested in international human rights law—studied that with Isabel Marcus, one of my great UB professors. But I started out in asbestos litigation when I was offered a job at Lipsitz & Ponterio here. Did that for about five years, and then joined their team working on lead paint cases, which I’ve been doing for seven years now. That’s been a real education, and very rewarding when I can help someone shape their future, even in a small way. My clients are primarily young children. Lead poisoning is epidemic in older urban environments, places like Buffalo and Rochester, where there is old housing and a lot of rental units that are not kept up by landlords. The effects of lead ingestion can be devastating, as neurological tests show. The drop in IQ is up to sixteen points in some cases! The problem is the particular chemistry of lead and the way it’s absorbed in a child’s body at a crucial point of neurological development. So we see lead-poisoned children going off to school with processing problems, trouble with reading and reading comprehension, and also behavioral problems stemming from issues with decision-making. No surprise that later on some of these kids end up in prison. I did go to law school because I wanted to help people. Most of my clients live in poverty. Helping these victims get some cash can change the trajectory of their lives.
Sounds like you could have been a social worker.
There is that aspect to my work! I know I am lucky to have been born to the parents I have, both educators who encouraged us in that area. My mom taught in the Medina school system; my dad, a dentist, taught and served as director of admissions for the UB Dental School. I remember when I was about ten asking him what it was that lawyers do. He said they read a lot, write a lot, and argue a lot. I think way back then I could see that might be the profession for me. I found the whole legal process very interesting. What I learned in law school is how important it is to keep an open mind. If you go into something, and you’ve already written the ending—well, you miss a lot of plot development.
So for you the story continues, with a new subplot of helping support women attorneys, which is the crux of the Women’s Bar Association mission statement.
I’ve been involved in both the state and local organizations for at least a decade. This group has given me the best sense of community I have as a lawyer—these are women I might not have met in my ordinary practice. I think we need a Women’s Bar Association because I do not think the experience of women and men in this profession is equal, and we need an organization that is dedicated to working toward that equality. For the past fifteen years, half of the students in law schools around the country have been female. We still have not achieved pay equity in this and other professions. It is inherently unfair that a woman’s work isn’t seen as important as is a man’s, generally, in our society. I did have a lot of female professors at UB, but that is academia, where there is more flexibility in scheduling. Being a litigator or trial attorney is harder on women who want to have families. If you work part-time, you are likely not advancing. And if you don’t make partner within a certain time frame, it may never happen—this is a real issue for women who practice law and also are, or intend to become, mothers.
A societal problem, then. Is there any hope? And what about you—do you harbor any secret plans for the future, personally and professionally?
I do like to be hopeful. I have to hold onto hope; the dialogue in this country of late has been so upsetting! The objectification of women we see, from leaders who speak about women in the manner we’ve been seeing. I do worry about the effect on young girls who see how women are treated in the wider world. We all need to encourage each other. It is essential to find people who can support you, to have mentors, both men and women, who can give honest assessments of how you can do better, and learn to promote yourself. And who knows, perhaps I will run for political office one day. There is a lot about that prospect that is attractive to me, and I like to keep my options open. I would also like to have a family of my own someday. I think about that old question of whether women can have it all, and I think maybe it’s time to redefine what “all” means. Right now, I am a doting aunt to my two-year-old nephew Andrew. I bought him a Hillary Clinton action figure last year, and I have the Ruth Bader Ginsburg book for him, for when he’s older. I am helping to teach him to be respectful and supportive. We can all do better with that.
Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.