Photo by Jim baron
Personal injury firm Petersen & Petersen, behind the husband-wife trial lawyer team of Todd and Susan Petersen, has recovered more than $25 million in settlements since 2015. Susan has been selected as one of “Ohio’s Top 100 Trial Lawyers” by the National Association of Trial Lawyers every year since 2011. She is ranked by Martindale Hubble as an AV Preeminent attorney, a peer ranking of the highest level of professional excellence. Local news fans may remember her as an on-air personality for WEWS (Channel 5) in the mid-1990s.
Q. You studied mass communication/media studies as an undergrad at Youngstown State University. What were your career aspirations at that point in time?
A. I loved writing and public speaking. My aspiration was to work in a newsroom as a TV reporter. Plan B was becoming a lawyer. I majored in mass communications with minors in political science and journalism. In college, I was determined to get myself into a newsroom. I called and told them I’d work for free. My first volunteer position was taking down Friday night high school football scores at WKBN in Youngstown. I eventually earned a paid internship. I’d go out with the reporters on assignments and help them produce their stories. I’d then cut my own version. My audition tape helped me to land one of 10 coveted national scholarship awards presented by the Radio Television New Directors’ Foundation. They flew me to San Antonio to receive the award, presented by Katie Couric. With that, I was hired by WKBN as an on-air news reporter while I was still in college. After graduating, I took a position as a reporter/anchor at WTOV in Steubenville/Wheeling, W. Va.
Q. Upon graduating you spent the next four years as a television reporter with three news stations, including WEWS in Cleveland. What do you miss about television news and what don’t you miss?
A. I often miss my days in TV news. It was an amazing career where I honed the skills I use today – breaking down complex information into an easy to understand and entertaining story. I had the privilege of interviewing so many different kinds of people from famous Hollywood stars, to politicians, to crime victims, to ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I absolutely miss the finality of the work day. As soon as your story hit the air, you were done for the night. My work in law never seems to have an ending. I don’t miss the job instability that seems to go with that career choice. I watched a lot of people come and go.
Q. What were your most memorable interviews?
A. I had the opportunity to produce a video documentary called “Remember the Ladies” for my alma mater, Cleveland Marshall College of Law. It was the first law school in Ohio to admit women. The documentary paid homage to its first female grads who were amongst the first practicing female lawyers in Ohio. I interviewed a collection of people from the generation who knew them. The stories of these legal trailblazers were amazing and inspiring. It was a time where you could practice law as a woman but couldn’t vote. I will never forget the tale of Mary B. Grossman, who became the first woman in the Nation elected as a judge. It turned out her male colleagues weren’t too happy about a woman on the bench. It was no mistake when they gave her the shortest chair so she wouldn’t be able to see over the bench. Undeterred, she found a stack of law books to sit on and served on the Cleveland Municipal Court for the next 36 years.
Q. Did anything occur during your TV news career that sparked your decision to pursue law school?
A. When I ventured to my news job in the Steubenville/Wheeling, I got a taste of what “supply and demand” meant to a job market. TV news was a career in which the jobs were limited and the pool of women vying for positions seemed infinite. With the supply low and demand high, the pay was not good. I decided I would have to set myself apart from the pack. I applied and was admitted to Cleveland Marshall College of Law. I sent my resume tape to the Cleveland news stations. WEWS hired me as a part-time reporter/anchor and I worked there throughout law school, ultimately working full time in my last year. My thought was that I’d become an investigative reporter.
Q. How did you juggle law school and television for four years?
A. I worked A LOT. Law school and news were my life. I was single. I had no children. I was very driven to be successful. For two years, I worked overnights at WEWS. I went on-the-air with live updates at the top of every hour. In between, when most sane people were sleeping, I studied. In the summers, I’d also work at a law firm as a clerk. I literally worked seven days a week. I didn’t think twice about that. I felt so lucky.
Q. Were you looking at becoming a trial lawyer from the get-go?
A. After law school, I decided I needed some practical experience working as a lawyer. My ultimate plan was to return to news (and I still may do so someday). I knew that if I wasn’t going to be in a newsroom, I had to be in courtroom. I loved the idea of “justice for all” — helping give a voice to the little guy who was harmed by the big guy. I’ve wanted to be a trial lawyer telling stories in the courtroom from day one. I’ve never wavered.
Q. The life of a trial lawyer seems pretty glamorous, according to Hollywood. What is it really like in a nutshell?
A. There have been times in my career where I swear I was living a John Grisham novel. My cases always become so interesting. I think the investigative reporter digging that I do so often pays off with either a game-changing witness or document. And while there are indeed Hollywood-esque moments, most are not. Being a trial lawyer is hard work. It is usually not glamorous. I’m behind a desk, in front of a computer, writing, researching, and digging. The other side will never make it easy. If anything, they will make each step as difficult as possible. You must have thick skin. You always have to be ready for the fight. You have to be extremely dedicated and persistent in order to achieve justice. It is a long journey, taking a good year and a half to three years to get to trial.
Q. Is it difficult to sleep some nights?
A. Trial is full of all-nighters for me. I just can’t seem to sleep. For me, it is the final stretch, and my eye is on the victory. I’m not very good at shutting down my brain at that point. I’m always in it to win it for my clients.
Q. What cases are you most proud of?
A. I am so proud of the cases where I know we have brought about change. When we are digging to find out what really happened in a case, we are always looking for the bigger picture. Often, we discover unsafe business practices that have not only impacted our client, but our communities. Through our fight for justice, we bring about change. I’m proud to report that national billion dollar businesses have changed the way they operate because of this small law firm in Northeast Ohio. I’m so proud to say that I, Susan Petersen, have made the world a safer place. It doesn’t get better than that.
Q. One of your immediate goals is to eliminate distracted driving. How bad of a problem is it, and what is your firm doing to diminish distracted driving?
A. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), in 2009, nearly 5,500 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver, and almost 450,000 were injured. In a recent NHTSA study, the under-20 age group had the highest proportion of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes. As a board member of the Cleveland Academy of Trial Attorneys, we decided to do something to change those statistics. For the last two years, our Community Outreach Committee has been providing public service presentations regarding the dangers to distracted driving in area high schools. We have partnered with the End Distracted Driving organization (enddd.org) to present life-saving, hour-long presentations totally free, as a way to give back. The goal of the presentation is to educate students about the dangers of texting and driving, and empower them to avoid riding with a distracted driver or becoming one.
Q. You’ve been dedicated to the cause of “women in law,” if not “women in leadership” altogether. Is that still one of your aims, and how far have women come in the legal profession since your law school days?
A. I was raised to believe girls can do anything they want to do. It wasn’t until I became a lawyer that I realized that everyone didn’t subscribe to that same belief. I quickly realized that if I was going to be successful, I needed to connect with successful women who understood what I was experiencing. It is now my time to give back. I’m always ready and willing to help and encourage young female lawyers. I honestly don’t know how far women have come in the profession since law school. I wish I could quote some statistics and tell you we’ve achieved equality, but I cannot. In part, I don’t see it as much, as I’m older, wiser, and better equipped to handle it.
Q. Your favorite law-related movies and television programs of all-time?
A. My favorite legal movie is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” While Atticus Finch lost his case, he won my heart. He epitomizes why I do what I do. I also love the movie “Erin Brockovich” for the same reason. Of course, I have a soft spot for “Ally McBeal,” which was a legal series that aired during my law school years.
For more info: www.petersenlegal.com