Bruce & Ginny Whitman Launch One of School's Newest Fellowships
How one couple’s passion for helping the “underdog” led to funding a new fellowship
For Bruce and Ginny Conlan Whitman (’80 and ’81, respectively), law school served as a means to an end. “I wanted to start fighting for people, helping the little guy fight the powers that be,” Bruce says. “I realized years ago that I could do this if I became a lawyer.”
To keep that dream alive and growing, the Whitmans funded the Whitman Fellowship. Starting in 2016, this annual fellowship is helping train future attorneys who want to represent those battling the big and powerful. “We want to preserve this unique aspect of American law,” Bruce says.
When was this dream born? About four decades ago, in a Cincinnati bar where two college dropouts worked as a bartender and waitress.
The road from local bar to law school
Bruce and Ginny met on the job at a local Clifton hotspot, Incahoots. “We liked each other and decided we wanted to be together,” says Bruce, smiling. Together, they decided to go back to school, enrolling as students in UC’s night school to finish their degrees. Both also chose to pursue law careers.
“I thought I’d just be a paralegal,” says Ginny. “My father, who was an attorney, encouraged me to think bigger and be a lawyer. I grew up talking about law around the dinner table. My dad was politically engaged, interested in social and legal issues. It was always a part of who I was.” Bruce, inspired by the 1982 book Gunning for Justice by trial lawyer Gerry Spence, knew he wanted a career in trial practice. Both applied to and were accepted at Cincinnati Law. And both say they owe their careers to the law school taking a chance on them.
“I was 27 years old when I was in law school,” says Ginny. “I had a great career in school, working in leadership roles in class such as on SLEC and as an editor on the Law Review.” All the while, Ginny continued working full-time at Incahoots. “I felt very supported by the college,” she says.
“For me, law school was a great place. I had lots of fun. I’m still friends today with my first year study group: Jerry Metz, Mark McDonald, and Pat Lane,” Bruce says. He also gained a strong interest in tort law. Indeed, it was in his tort class with Professor Stan Harper that Bruce confirmed his area of focus: helping people fight against the powers that be. While in school, he worked as a law clerk for Phil Pitzer and at the law firm of Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley.
After graduation, Bruce worked for several small firms before going out on his own in 1983. His big break came with the litigation related to The Who concert disaster in 1979. Eleven people were killed in a stadium rush at the former Riverfront Coliseum in downtown Cincinnati. The brother of a friend was one of the victims, and the family hired Ginny’s father, Thomas L. Conlan, as his lawyer.
However, Conlan became ill, giving Bruce the opportunity to step in. “It was a dream come true—fighting for the underdog,” says Bruce. “There’s nothing like rolling up your sleeves and getting into the fray.”
The Who concert litigation also turned into a huge learning opportunity for Bruce on how to put together a major lawsuit before taking it to trial or settlement. Afterward, he continued to grow professionally and his law firm began to flourish.
Meanwhile, Ginny clerked for US District Court Judge S. Arthur Spiegel, followed by a job at her father’s firm. “I walked out of my clerkship into the courtroom,” she recalls. After her father died in 1984, Ginny went to work for Cincinnati Law alum Jim Helmer, then at Helmer, Lugbill & Whitman, where she stayed until leaving to start her own practice in 2007. Then, a position at Legal Aid of Greater Cincinnati opened up.
Leap of faith
“This was my opportunity to change the delivery of law and make it more available to those who are underserved,” Ginny says. “Bruce said to me, ‘This is what you’ve wanted to do all of your life.’ And he was right. I took a leap of faith that it would work.” She became managing attorney for the Volunteer Lawyers Project, a position she held until her retirement last year.
Today, Bruce and Ginny remain committed to helping the underserved. “There is a tremendous need for working and middle class people to get proper legal representation,” says Bruce. “We’ve devoted our careers to helping people against powerful forces. There’s a great need for lawyers trained to deal with these situations.”
That’s why they established the Whitman Fellowship, with the goal of developing a cadre of attorneys who want to champion the needs of the little guy. “This is tremendously satisfying work,” Bruce says. “It may not be as lucrative as big time firm work. But there’s great satisfaction in representing people and winning their cases.”
Adds Ginny: “We wanted to create this fellowship so we could help find and train students interested in doing this type of work.” The Whitman Fellowship is designed to support students who are gaining internship experience with tort attorneys. “The fellowship is a great way to help one lawyer at a time develop skills, start a practice, and develop other mentoring relationships with groups,” Ginny says. “It’s also a way to make an impact.”
The career of the citizen lawyer—the entrepreneur lawyer—“is sort of a dying art in this era of specialization,” Bruce says. “I believe the best representation is one lawyer, one client—partners working together with common goals. I don’t want to see it die.”
About the Whitman Fellowship
Launched in 2016, the Whitman Fellowship provides a Cincinnati Law student with a $5,000 stipend to work for an employer that specializes in representing individual plaintiffs and their families in personal rights litigation, tort and employment law, such as those injured by the negligence of another or wrongfully terminated from employment. The Whitman Fellowship recipient will work (minimum of 300 hours over the summer) on substantive legal assignments under attorney supervision, supporting the employer’s work. Examples of assignments include legal research, drafting memorandum, drafting pre-trial litigation documents, filing, and observing meetings/hearings.