“My mom was an incredibly hard worker,” Melissa Judd says of the woman who had her at sixteen, dropped out of high school, and raised her and Judd’s two younger siblings as a single parent. “She had a very strong work ethic, and even though we were living in poverty, she instilled in me the way that I should work.”
Judd didn’t just notice her mother’s work ethic while growing up. She also very quickly observed that certain jobs afforded people certain lifestyles. By age eight, she had identified the legal profession as a potential ladder for climbing out of poverty.
“Growing up in my circumstances, in my mind, I had this ideal vision of what life could be like on the other side of the tracks,” says the senior counsel of labor and employment at Westlake Chemical. “I had a very basic understanding that there were certain careers that could lend themselves to more comfortable living.”
It also helped that Judd’s mom worked hard to inspire faith in her children. “I knew that I could be destined for something more, something greater—if I wanted it, I should go after it.”
Although she recalls not knowing what applying to college entailed, she took it upon herself to read the college brochures available in her high school guidance counselor’s office—and made up her mind to go Ivy League. Although she was near the top of her class, a principal suggested she should set her sights lower. Yet she was admitted to Yale, where she completed her bachelor’s in sociology. For law school, she matriculated at the University of Texas at Austin and became intrigued by labor and employment law.
“Growing up in my circumstances, in my mind, I had this ideal vision of what life could be like on the other side of the tracks.”
“I had taken a labor and employment class, and I thought it was pretty interesting. And I’ve always liked that there’s a civil rights piece that goes with it,” she explains. “Labor and employment law lends itself really well to storytelling. There’s always a new case, and there are always new facts that will surprise you.”
After law school came a clerkship with the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas, which reinforced Judd’s resolve to pursue labor and employment law. She then took an associate role at Shook, Hardy & Bacon before arriving at Littler Mendelson, the largest labor and employment law firm in the US. It was here that she realized she had finally made it over to the other side of the tracks.
“I really wanted to find a place where I could stay for a long time, and, thankfully, Littler was that kind of place,” says Judd, who made shareholder in less than five years. She was deeply satisfied with her success, and not having a far-flung goal in mind was novel.
By the time she was elevated to shareholder, she also began her own family and began questioning what new goals she should aspire to in her career. “Once I made shareholder, it was like, ‘OK, I got the T-shirt. Now what?’ I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of what I had dreamed of for such a long time.”
Though she felt like she could stay at Littler forever, she was also eager to embark on a new chapter in her own story. She somewhat spontaneously applied for an in-house position with Westlake Chemical, a petrochemical manufacturing company. Once the offer to join came back to her, she found herself in a strange win-win position: should she stay with Littler, or try something completely new?
“Labor and employment law lends itself really well to storytelling. There’s always a new case, and there are always new facts that will surprise you.”
“It was kind of like being on The Price Is Right,” she jokes. “Like, you might not get the Hawaiian vacation, but you still could get a really nice appliance.” It turns out that Westlake is a great fit for her.
“I’ve gotten to be much more involved in areas of law, like labor and data privacy, that I just didn’t have the opportunity to be involved in before,” she says. “It’s also been an awesome move from a work-life balance perspective. I know people sometimes make a career change and find that balancing work-life becomes harder, but that’s not been my experience at all. Instead, I feel like I picked a very good company and we have a very good working group and great clients.”
Becoming a part of the team at Westlake has also honed Judd’s view of exactly what kind of attorney she thrives at being. “I used to ask myself what kind of shareholder I wanted to be. ‘Do I want to be the rainmaker? Do I want to be the subject matter expert?’ But quite honestly, all I’ve ever wanted was to just do good work and make my clients happy.”
Judd is happy that she can be a new inspiration for her family’s next generation. “I’m just so fortunate that I am in a position to be able to give to my children more than what I had growing up,” she says. “That is something that really helped push me and still pushes me.”