LEADERSHIP IN LAW 2023: Elizabeth Klesmith

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(IL photo/Chad Williams)

Notre Dame Law School, 2014

Who is someone who has inspired you in your career?

Hopefully she doesn’t get mad at me for calling her out by name, but I’d like to model my career after Judge Cristal Brisco. She started in private practice, then worked for the city, then a university, then moved into the judicial sphere. She’s always been an informal mentor of mine. Now that I say that, I’m not sure she knows the impact she’s had on me. Surprise! More than her technical legal career, though, I’ve been inspired by her willingness to give back to the community. She’s always happy to share advice, wisdom, etc., on a panel or with our high school interns, or just informally over coffee. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard her give is to lean into every opportunity that comes along and walk through those doors. It can be scary to pursue a new or different opportunity, but
so fulfilling.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Be authentic. It’s terrifying to be vulnerable and 100% myself, and I don’t always succeed at it, but I’d rather connect with people as my true and authentic self than try to change myself to fit my assumption of what others are looking for.

How do you spend your free time?

I do two to three musicals a year at my local community theater and I volunteer there in other capacities, as well. I’m also building a theater troupe with friends, which will be incorporated as a nonprofit in the next few months. I also love to be active, and I got into running and yoga during COVID. I’m currently training for three 5Ks between now and June, and lately I’ve been noodling around with the idea of pursuing my 200-hour yoga certification. When I have time, I also enjoy taking adult ballet classes at Southold Dance Theater in South Bend, swimming at my fitness center and doing pub trivia with my friends. Oh! And on Wednesdays I spend my lunch outdoors with the horses at Reins of Life.

Do you have a secret talent?

Nothing really secret, but I have a black belt in Tang Soo Do, and I’m a classically trained soprano.

You’re active with the St. Joseph County Bar Association — what do you enjoy about working with the bar?

I love the community of legal professionals in St. Joseph County. It really is a special group of people who respect and enjoy one another. I enjoy learning about people’s lives, journeys in the legal profession, gripes and joys. I’ve always been big on community, and this is one that is always willing to volunteer, share knowledge, etc. I just really like people.

Tell us about your work with the South Bend Civic Theatre.

How much time do you have? I started with the Civic in 2014 after taking the Indiana bar exam. I knew almost no one in town and I was the only person at my firm without a significant other, children, etc. So, I decided to pursue a passion for theater that I’d set aside during law school and audition for the Christmas musical. The theater became my family in South Bend. It’s big, it’s messy, it’s dysfunctional and it’s full of love. Since then, I try to do two to three shows a year. I also volunteer as an usher, and have designed and painted sets for several productions. Most recently, I got into directing and have directed three cabarets. I was also on the board for three years, and I continue to sit on the Season Selection Committee.

Why did you decide to enter the legal profession?

The short answer is that I went to law school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Not a great reason to go, I know, but it worked out in the end. I’ve always been one of those people who have so many interests that I couldn’t settle on one. One of the best things about litigation is getting to learn about so many different areas of the world — from business to construction to med mal and everything in between. My original plan was to be an architect, but several internships at architectural firms made me change my mind. My mother suggested law school because she thought I’d enjoy the academics of it (she was right) and because there are so many things you can do with a law degree.

What makes a good lawyer/judge?

You have to care. It seems simple, but it’s true. People place their lives, possessions, hopes and futures in the legal system and you have to appreciate what an honor that is, but also what a responsibility. Related to that, I think all good attorneys have a keen attention to detail. They can see the intricacies of a situation and the nuances.

What is something you wish people knew about lawyers?

This is a hard question because it depends entirely on the circumstances. I wish people knew how overworked and underpaid public defenders are. I wish people knew that lawyers (for the most part) are not in it for themselves but for their clients. And I wish people knew how much we agonize over decisions and strategies. We don’t take things lightly. It’s an incredibly stressful job and I don’t think people always understand how all-consuming it can be when they’re criticizing the legal system as a whole.

If you hadn’t pursued a legal career, what would you be doing?

I’ve narrowed it down to three other things I’d be doing. First, I’d be a travel photographer for National Geographic. I love immersing myself in other places and cultures, and I’m pretty artsy. Second, I’d be a professor, maybe of anthropology. Third, I’d gather all my courage and actually try to be a professional opera singer.•

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