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VOL. 38 | NO. 9 | Friday, February 28, 2014

Fort's passion for the law is passed from father to daughter

By Jeannie Naujeck

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Fort found work in the Metro Public Defender’s Office to be rewarding, but low pay and student loan debt made it unsustainable.

Despite a prestigious law degree and a seemingly endless capacity for work, Willow Fort has eschewed higher-paying opportunities for a career as a public service attorney.

After graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School, Fort spent five years as a public defender and now serves as an attorney for the U.S. Department of Labor, enforcing actions against companies cited for labor and safety violations.

“I really believe in public service,” Fort says. “It sounds funny because usually people are running for office when they say it but I really do.

“There are lots and lots of ways to make lots of money, but I really like helping people. You see a lot of sad things in criminal and labor law that can be really enraging, but I just love being a part of it. Being enraged and not taking action – that’s where the real sadness is.”

As a member of the Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor, Fort enforces occupational and mine safety regulations on behalf of government agencies that bring actions against companies for labor and worker safety violations – many in the mining industry. Her office serves the southeastern region comprised of Kentucky, Tennessee, Western Virginia and Alabama.

It’s a job that allows her to serve people and take some action and control over unjust situations. And it suits the idealist bent she developed growing up in an eccentric household with highly intelligent parents who were committed to a back-to-nature lifestyle.

“They were straight-up hippies,” Fort recalls.

Willow Fort

Employer: U.S. Department of Labor, Office of the Solicitor

Academic background: Vanderbilt University Law School

Quote: “I love being a lawyer and I love what I do, and wherever I work my challenge is to make sure I have a private life. I’m very likely to err on the side of coming in on weekends or staying late because I love it so much.”

Fort’s artistic ambitions were nurtured by her parents. A gifted artist and writer, she attended the prestigious Governor’s School of the Arts and won creative writing scholarships as an undergraduate.

But while she was in high school, her father had gone back to night law school to become a labor lawyer. His passion for helping the working class made a big impression, and Fort took a job in the Knoxville criminal court clerk’s office where she quickly became enamored of criminal law.

“I loved watching trials and hearings and reading the pleadings,” Fort adds. “I was the nerd of all nerds.”

An English and Russian major, she was fascinated by the view on society’s underbelly, and crimes that were more bizarre than fiction.

“I was first interested in criminal law, because that’s the most Southern Gothic of it all,” Fort says, recalling the “Job Corps murder” in which 18-year-old Christa Gail Pike received a life sentence for murdering another student and carrying around a piece of her skull, and the drawn-out trial of serial killer Thomas Dee “Zoo Man” Huskey, who admitted to murdering four prostitutes but was only convicted for sex crimes.

“The attorney who worked on that trial damn near drove himself insane,” Fort explains. “It was just so dark and funny all at the same time, and I thought, ‘This is the kind of stuff lawyers get to be involved in. Isn’t that amazing?’

“So I was really intrigued and decided to go to law school based on that.”

At Vanderbilt, she served as president of the criminal law society. One professor joked, “You’re going to end up being an ambulance chaser if you don’t watch out.”

“Many of the professors had worked in the litigation departments of these big firms for four, eight years, and had never seen the inside of a courtroom,” Fort says.

“I thought, ‘Hell I’m not doing that. I’m going to court.’ It was kind of frowned upon because it wasn’t erudite and scholarly enough. But I wanted to go to court with this passion because I loved people. And I do like the performance and creativity and humanity of it. I didn’t want to be in an office.”

After graduation, Fort took a job in the Metropolitan Public Defender’s Office that paid a meager salary and required her to live an ascetic lifestyle due to her enormous student loan debt. The client population – including people who were homeless, mentally ill and addicted to drugs – was challenging.

“You’re dealing with some of the most legitimately needy people on God’s earth – no one cares about them and no one gives them anything,” Fort explains.

“With my personality, I want to help. I could give and give and give, and they would need and need and need.”

Still, she loved the job and spent five years there – only leaving when the financial burden and psychic weight of the job became too heavy, making it nearly impossible to demarcate a boundary between her work and personal lives.

“I love being a lawyer and I love what I do, and wherever I work my challenge is to make sure I have a private life,” she says. “I’m very likely to err on the side of coming in on weekends or staying late because I love it so much.”

Fort now has a job that eases some of the pressure of the student loans and allows her feed her passion for helping people. And it’s a legacy of her late father’s commitment to the working class.

“I saw how happy my dad was when he went to law school. He would always talk about how his job as a lawyer was ‘to be a friend to the working man,’” Fort says.

“He had this wonderful sort of populist view, and I found it to be an inspiration. It was a big reason I decided to go into labor law.

“If you make something, you should be able to afford to buy it. And just because you need to make a dollar doesn’t mean you should have to die early.”

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