PCBA President Shana Graves reflects on career
April 10-16, 2023
By Jay and Kathy Edwards
As Shana Woodard Graves closes in on the end of her term as president of the Pulaski County Bar Association, we sat down recently with her for a conversation.
The Daily Record: So, your year as president of the PCBA is about over. How has it gone overall?
Shana Woodard Graves: I have so loved being the bar president but I’m not sad it’s about over. There are a lot of moving pieces.
DR: I remember when Melanie Martin was in your spot and having conversations with her at midnight from time to time about ideas she had.
SWG: She was a great president. I was on her board. She is such a trial lawyer which is why she doesn’t sleep. Ever.
It has changed some since Melanie was president, I think. We, like many organizations, are trying to figure out what we look like post Covid. I remember when I first joined the bar, and even when I was in law school, getting involved in the PCBA was the thing to do. It was the place to network. Our monthly meetings were always sold out. Covid changed things in that so many people got comfortable with going virtual. One of the challenges is to get it back. I think we have the leadership going forward to do that.
DR: Can you give us a little background on yourself?
SWG: I was born and raised in Osceola. Both of my parents are remarried and as I got older I split my time between Osceola, where my mom and stepdad lived and the Bay area of California, with my father. It was kind of a tale of two cultures. After high school I went to Hendrix College.
DR: Was Hendrix where you decided to become a lawyer?
SWG: No, that came much earlier, when I was about nine. Up until then I had wanted to be a teacher. But when I started saying I wanted to be a lawyer, someone asked me if I knew anyone who was, and I said, “No, that’s why I want to be one.” My momma told me if that was what I wanted then that’s what I should do. And the older I got the more I understood what it really meant and wanted to do it even more. I started looking around Osceola and found there were very few young lawyers, and I didn’t know any lawyers who were women or any who were not white, which surprised me. So, I thought I should go to law school. And it helped that I love to read and write. When I was in high school people were predicting I’d be a writer because I liked it so much. I remember working part time at a video store. When it was slow I’d get some paper from the copier and write stories.
DR: When did you begin at Hendrix and what was that experience like?
SWG: 911 happened on my freshman orientation trip. They had divided us into groups for different trips. My group was to go trout fishing on the Little Red River. One of my classmates woke me up that morning and said, “The twin towers are gone!” I walked out, half asleep and everyone was watching the TV, and we watched the towers come down. It is still surreal to me. I could not realize then, in my 18-year-old mind, what an effect it would have on my life. My plan was to have a double major in politics and international relations, and study abroad.
I really love politics but it’s also a love-hate relationship. I knew I never wanted to run for office but I enjoyed learning about it all. I liked learning about making laws and helping people understand them and why they should change some and not change others. I was convinced that was what I was going to do. I remember telling Jay Barth I wanted to be like the progressive Condoleezza Rice, which was funny because I never wanted to like her but I kind of did. So, I was convinced I would be in foreign policy and that I’d never practice law.
DR: I suppose 911 changed things for everyone, in ways we might not even know.
SWG: One thing Hendrix has always had are classes no one else has. One of my classes was on Palestine, Israel and the Middle East. There were a lot of books for that class we were to read over Spring Break and our professor told us, “Do not fly home with these books. You might not get through the airport.” Some of the books were Muslim studies and there was one about Al Qaeda. Also at the time, young black women were wrapping their heads in these big turban-like things, because some popular singer started doing it. Our professor warned us not to wear them in airports, especially if we had those books in our backpack.
Then there was another professor who planned a trip for us to Israel, for an archaeology dig. That was cancelled because of 911. Things like that just kept happening, which was frustrating. So, I became more focused on politics, and International Relations became my minor.
DR: Then on to law school at Bowen?
SWG: Yes, and I interned for Congressman Vic Snyder, and then Mark Pryor. I liked the behind-the-scenes parts of politics. Then when Barack Obama was elected and the ACA passed, I became more involved in health policies and the inequities there. I thought I would go into health policy, which somehow transformed into wanting to practice health law. I found I like regulatory work and later found myself in insurance law.
When I got out of law school my litigation professor joked and said you picked the worst time ever to graduate from law school.
DR: Why was that?
SWG: It was 2010 and the country had been through the financial crisis. Which meant a lot of corporations, instead of hiring lawyers, were laying them off. There were a lot of 50 something lawyers with 25 years’ experience looking for jobs, for a lot less than what they’d been earning. That’s what we were up against.
I was having a really hard time getting into the health law area. It was also a developing area, and just starting to expand with all the changes. So, I just started being creative about how to get there. I thought if I go work for an insurance company, it is kind of related. Maybe I could get there that way. I started off in a semi-solo practice and hated it. Probably because I didn’t know how to practice, because I was so new. The lawyer I was working with didn’t have time to mentor me.
DR: What did you do?
SWG: I started teaching, at Remington College. I taught criminal law and constitutional law and writing. I liked it a lot. Somewhere along the way I ended up at the Arkansas Board of Review. In Arkansas, the Board of Review does unemployment appeals. Because of the economic situation they were very back logged with their hearings and appeals. They ended up hiring all these intermittent attorneys to come and help with that.
Right about the time it was going to end, Larry Crain was the county clerk, and he decided he needed a staff attorney. I ended up going over there. I thought it was going to be great. I had a lot of eagerness, being a new lawyer and my naiveté, I guess. They had never had a staff attorney. It was challenging and I learned a lot. I would say it was practicing by fire. I had to work a lot with the county attorney because ultimately that is who would have represented us in anything. So, I consulted a lot with them. I don’t think the ladies in that office realized it, but they ended up being really great mentors for me. I learned a lot about practicing and navigating some of the politics.
Trying to be an inhouse attorney for a government agency, all of the craziest things that could happen probably did happen. We got voter ID during the time I was there, and worked on elections as well as same sex marriage, which passed, then didn’t pass, was legal, then wasn’t legal… constitutional, not constitutional. And we issued marriage licenses. So, it ended up being very interesting. It’s where I learned that sometimes being a lawyer is more about PR than practicing law.
Then an opportunity to go to Arkansas Blue Cross happened. I did administrative legal appeals for them and learned a lot about insurance. I had been there almost 6 years when I was recruited by Met Life to be US privacy counsel for them. I don’t know that I ever thought I would do privacy. Many people when they think of privacy law think of HIPPA. But there’s much more to it.
DR: Can you talk a bit more about that.
SWG: It becomes more complex every day, with hybrid companies and virtual employees. States have started passing their own consumer privacy protection acts, following California’s lead, who created this monster bill that is filled with things companies must do to protect and safeguard individual privacy. And many other things are being looked at, like mobile payments and ChatGPT.
DR: The program that actually writes for you?
SWG: Yes. One actually passed the bar exam recently. You may think that sounds great but how does it work? What information is it collecting? Where is the data stored? Or in our case, is it doing it on behalf of Met Life? Is it doing it on behalf of the person using it? If we use it do we have an obligation to tell you that we are using it? It might have your information. So, new issues keep arising and the field just keeps growing as technology keeps growing. None of this even existed even when I went to law school.
DR: You’ve had quite a journey since you were a nine-year-old with a dream in Osceola. What do you do in your spare time?
SWG: That would be my son Sebastian. We call him Bash. He will be six in May. He’s bossy. We joke that he is going to be a trial lawyer. I joke he’s a better lawyer than I ever thought about being.
DR: Bash likes to argue?
SWG: I have never seen a person who can negotiate so well. He’s very thoughtful and pays attention to stuff and remembers everything. He’ll say, “No no no no no, we agreed, you promised.” He remembers all these things from forever ago. His dad is like, “Stop bickering with your momma. Stop being a lawyer.” We joke about it all the time, that he’ll be the trial lawyer that I wasn’t brave enough to be. My former boss would always joke and say Sebastian needs to come and work for me.
He’s learning to speak German at Gibbs. He picked it over French and Spanish. He loves German and now he keeps speaking to me in German all the time. I can’t speak German. I was telling someone else about it and said I wanted him to take Spanish but he chose German. And he says, “She wanted me to take Spanish because she knows a little bit of Spanish.” So that’s what I deal with every day with a six-year-old.
DR: It’s been a pleasure Shana and we look forward to interviewing Bash someday.