LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2020: Jessica Schnelker

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IL photo/Eric Learned

Jessica Schnelker recently moved to Church Church Hittle & Antrim from Frost Brown Todd, where she built substantial experience representing clients in product liability and wrongful death matters, among others. She also has been active as an advocate for children as a guardian ad litem and as a supporter of the Riley Cheer Guild and other community engagement efforts. Additionally, she is active in the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana and other bar and legal organizations.

What’s something that you always try to do for yourself when preparing for a trial?

Sleep! When you can, where you can, as much as you can! It’s hard to make time for enough of it when you’re busy preparing for trial (and even harder during trial), but the only way I’ve found to recover and function at my best is to prioritize rest as much as I can. I’ve also learned over the years that accepting help from family and friends before, during and after trial is a key part of my self-care. I’ve had friends prepare meals for my family while I’m gone, and we’re lucky to be near family who help support my husband and daughter when I need to be away for work. It truly takes a village, and I’m grateful for mine.

What got you interested in product liability defense?

Since the days of participating on my high school mock trial team, I dreamed of being a trial lawyer. Starting out my career in product liability defense allowed me to gain valuable trial experience working on complex trials alongside talented trial lawyers. I’ve since expanded my practice to include many other types of litigation, but I learned a lot about how to handle complex and difficult legal issues from these formative experiences.

Why is it important to you to volunteer your time to serve as a guardian ad litem?

The legal system can be an overwhelming and intimidating place, even for adults and experienced practitioners. Children are particularly vulnerable, not just because of their unfamiliarity with the process, but so often there is no one to speak up for them. The litigants involved are understandably incentivized to argue for their own interests and to speak from their own viewpoint. Working as a guardian ad litem allows me to give a voice to the child whose best interests are being considered and to provide perspective on his/her unique needs and concerns. I could never take on such a challenging and important role alone. The Kids’ Voice of Indiana attorneys I’ve had the privilege of working with over the past six years are tremendously talented, and they are doing incredible work for central Indiana kids.

How do you find time for active involvement with bar associations?

I allocate time each week to work I find professionally fulfilling. Although I’m not always successful, I try to limit myself to one event a week so that I don’t burn out and still have time to manage my client and family obligations. It also forces me to prioritize and commit fully to the events and roles I’ve chosen. Learning from and working with smart and talented people is part of what makes the practice of law enjoyable for me, so getting involved in bar associations has been a welcome part of my practice. Being able to call on and learn from the expertise in my network makes me a better, more well-balanced lawyer.

If you could change one law in Indiana, what would it be?

I read that nearly a quarter of women in the United States go back to work within two weeks after giving birth. Law firms seem to be trending in the right direction by providing longer paid parental leave to employed parents, regardless of gender. However, access to paid parental leave is a luxury for most parents, and longer leave times are highly correlated with other economic privileges (like advanced degrees and the jobs that come with them). There is so much work left to be done on this front. If I could change one law, it would be to ensure that more families — ideally all families — have access to paid parental leave like the parents in many other developed countries around the world.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell myself the same thing I now tell new associates. Learning to practice law is hard, but it gets a lot more fun as you gain more experience and develop extensive support networks within and outside of the legal profession. I would tell myself to be a little more patient and give myself a lot more grace. Just as with life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.

Where do you see yourself professionally in another 10 years?

One of my teachers in high school had us write a letter to our future selves and sent it to us 10 years later. If I’ve learned anything from that experience, it’s that the best parts of our lives are often unplanned. That said, I hope I’m still doing work I love in my professional life and surrounded by loving family and friends in my personal life.

Who is someone who mentored you, and what did you learn from them?

I could never pick just one! I’ve had the honor of learning from and being mentored by so many kind and talented teachers, family members, colleagues and friends. As I was thinking about this question, I realized that the very best mentors in my life all have the same traits in common: they strengthen my resolve and inspire me to be a better version of myself.

What do you think you might be doing if you weren’t a lawyer?

I’m fascinated by human behavior and decision-making. It’s part of the reason I love trial work and litigation. While I was in law school, I worked for several years as a research assistant with a professor studying behavioral law and economics. If I weren’t a lawyer, I might have gone to graduate school to continue that research.

What do you most like to do when you have free time?

I love staying active and spending time with my family and friends. I also enjoy reading for fun. Mystery novels have always been my guilty pleasure, but I read a lot of other fiction and nonfiction, too.•
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