TEACHER-TURNED-ATTORNEY KATHRYN BAYLESS WAS THE FIRST FEMALE ATTORNEY
TO SET UP SHOP IN HER WEST VIRGINIA TOWN BY EILEEN SMITH DALLABRIDA
Kathryn “Kay” Reed Bayless credits a bunch of
junior high kids for her ability to win over jurors.
“Talk to the jury like they are in the eighth
grade,” says Bayless. “Nothing aggravates a
juror more than a lawyer talking in a manner
that is over [his or her] head … or under their
heads, quite frankly.”
The teacher-turned-attorney helms the
Bayless Law Firm, a solo personal injury
and employment law practice based in
Princeton, where she grew up with five
siblings. Her mother was a nurse. Her father
was a truck driver.
Young Bayless taught herself to read,
sitting at the kitchen table watching her
mom help her two older brothers with their
homework. As soon as she was old enough,
she would ride her bike to the library, where
she read To Kill A Mockingbird.
“I was struck by the majesty of Atticus
Finch, and of law as a vehicle for change,”
That bike took her to the courthouse, too,
where she would sit in the gallery and watch
trials all day.
“I am sure that my mother was aware
of what I was doing, but she never did
anything to discourage me,” Bayless recalls
with a laugh.
Her parents also supported her desire
to succeed. Bayless was the first in the
family to go to college. She started out in
pharmacy, then switched to chemistry, but
retained her interest in law. By the time she
decided to go to West Virginia University
College of Law, she was on her own with a
young son to raise.
“I would exchange home-cooked meals
for babysitting, so I could go to the law
library and study,” she says.
It was 1976, and there was an influx of
women entering law schools across the
nation. “Unlike Harvard or Yale, WVU always
admitted women to law school,” Bayless
says. “But it was only a handful each year
until the mid-1970s, when 20 percent of the
class was women.”
Bayless was the first female attorney in
private practice in Princeton, although one
worked in a legal aid group and several other
women in town held law degrees.
“They were successful businesswomen,”
she says,“but a woman practicing law was
somewhat of an oddity.”
Employment law was also a rarity when
Bayless was starting out. To bolster the
community of attorneys who serve clients
wronged on the job, she helped found the West
Virginia Employment Lawyers Association.
Bayless is passionate about securing
justice for people who have been harmed
through no fault of their own. In the early
’90s, she brought a products liability suit
against General Motors Co. on behalf of
a single father who was blinded when the
hood of his car came loose on one side, spun
around and crashed through the windshield,
severing his optic nerve.
“We took on the big boys in Detroit,”
The lawyers for GM were so impressed by
her grasp of physics that they asked Bayless
if she would represent the company in all of
its West Virginia cases.
It would have been a heck of a boost to
her practice, but she turned them down. “I
told them that I couldn’t sleep at night if I
did that,” she says.
Bayless enjoys being picky about her cases.
“Money is not a motivating factor,” she
says. “It’s the nature of the case, the nature
of the harm. I ask, ‘Can I do some good that
helps people beyond this particular case?’”