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Until recently, few women could be found at the junction between automobiles and the law. But Jen White, corporate counsel in automotive products liability and litigation at Volkswagen Group of America, has had an interest in cars since she was young—and she’s been working in the automotive industry since before she even graduated from law school.
A child of the Rust Belt, White grew up in northeastern Ohio, in a blue-collar town dependent on the auto and steel industry. She remembers getting down and dirty to help her grandfather when he was tooling under vintage cars in his garage. Simultaneously, her parents worked in the court system. “I loved visiting them because something was always happening,” she remembers.
She was fascinated by the way judges explained rulings, but she also loved science. One summer, at space camp, she blurted out what she really wanted to be when she grew up: “The first lawyer in space!” Twenty years ago, exactly how that was going to happen was anybody’s guess.
During law school at the University of Akron, White was selected for an internship at Bridgestone Firestone. It coincided with the beginning of the NHTSA’s investigation of the Ford Explorer’s Radial ATX and Wilderness AT tires, an inquiry that would ultimately lead to a massive nationwide recall and substantial product liability litigation. White’s three-month internship turned into a part-time job through law school.
“I learned so much about crisis management, how to handle nationwide bet-the-company litigation, and how important sound legal advice is to risk analysis and the success of a company,” she says. It also gave her a deeper understanding of how a business works as a whole.
“It was stuff they don’t teach you in school,” White explains. “Usually lawyers are seen as the ‘no’ people. Everybody thinks if legal gets involved, we’ll tell you that you can’t do something. But we are really business advisors. Our goal is to help a business achieve what it wants with the least amount of risk.”
“It’s very difficult for a lawyer unfamiliar with the US legal system to understand how unpredictable it is.”
When White got her first job out of law school—at Holland & Knight, Firestone’s outside counsel—she picked up where she had left off at Firestone. This time, though, she was learning about litigation and strategy development from the outside looking in. “It also exposed me to some of the best trial lawyers in the country, from both the plaintiff’s and the defense side,” she says.
As much as White enjoyed the experience, she wanted to make a bigger impact. When she arrived at Volkswagen in early 2019, she became an integral part of an interdisciplinary team of in-house counsel and technical support professionals representing the company’s interests in complex automotive litigation and regulatory matters. This was a perfect fit, given White’s unique abilities for tackling complex scientific issues and her substantial experience, both from a business and outside counsel perspective.
White also interfaces with international in-house counsel, providing advice and insight regarding the difficult legal landscape in the United States. “It’s very difficult for a someone without training to understand how unpredictable the US legal system can be,” White explains. “So we saw our role, first and foremost, as educators. German law is based on civil code, so there is not much likelihood of a runaway jury with an astronomical verdict. For our US cases, we can give our best educated guess as to outcome, but there are so many unknowns, especially with juries. But I am proud of how our team has opened many new avenues of communication about this with both our German colleagues and our business partners.”
Given Volkswagen’s commitment to electrifying its fleet and employing more ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) features, White has had to dive even deeper into science. To better understand the complexities of accidents, she interacts daily with all kinds of engineers, including advanced software technicians. Her favorite days are when she can walk the assembly line or attend hands-on training. “I love to disassemble things and see how they work,” she says. “It helps you better understand how all the parts interconnect and how all the work behind this becomes someone’s family vehicle.”
“I love to disassemble things and see how they work. It helps you better understand how all the parts interconnect and how all this work becomes someone’s family vehicle.”
White’s colleagues outside the company have noted the level of commitment that she brings to her job.
“Jen has been a gearhead longer than she has been a lawyer, which makes her stand out from many of her peers in the industry,” says Grant Law, partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon. “This skill set makes her the ideal captain of the case teams she puts together, and there is no better proof of this than the many litigation successes she has achieved for VW and Audi.”
While the automotive industry has historically been a boys’ club, White says, it’s improved a lot over time. “Today I have a lot of female colleagues, both in the US and Germany, who are becoming the face of the company and taking leadership roles. That has definitely had a positive impact and it’s a change that has been necessary for a long time.”
The rise of women at Volkswagen also dovetails with the company’s commitment to diversity. “We want to reflect diversity not only in our company but in outside counsel as well, to better reflect our customers,” she says.
Volkswagen is also committed to developing AVs—autonomous vehicles that drive themselves—and is particularly focused on its MaaS (Mobility as a Service) initiative. Those initiatives, according to White, will help people with disabilities who can’t drive or who live in rural areas without access to reliable transportation. Presently, she is focusing heavily on the sticky legal issues of responsibility that self-driving technology will bring. “It’s about becoming better corporate citizens and educating the consumer ahead of time,” she says.
These days, White drives a Volkswagen, of course. And while she has not yet made it to space, her twelve-year-old daughter has already gone to space camp, and her ten-year-old son will soon follow. When asked if she is still dreaming about being the first lawyer in space, she laughs. “These days I think I prefer to remain more grounded!”
Shook, Hardy & Bacon’s automotive team represents most of the world’s leading auto manufacturers, handling just about every type of automotive claim. A differentiator is Shook’s commitment to science and technology, which includes an industry group focusing on highly autonomous vehicles. Researchers and analysts with advanced degrees in engineering and technology round out the team, giving the firm greater depth and breadth of knowledge in automotive technology, engineering, and product design.
Chambers ranked in class action, Shook’s deep bench of leading automotive lawyers take a multidisciplinary approach to representing clients at trial and on appeal, addressing issues in product liability and tort, class action and complex litigation, intellectual property, and heavy machinery and transportation as well as the rapidly developing field of autonomous vehicle regulation and law.
At the forefront of representing automotive companies, Shook understands its clients’ products, their businesses, and the industry as a whole as well as the legal and regulatory landscape, emerging technology, and liability theories. The automotive team stretches from DC, for regulatory guidance, across the nation to its three offices in California, for industry knowledge and litigation prowess.
Herzfeld & Rubin, P.C.:
“Jen White is top-notch, combining extraordinary legal knowledge and experience with keen practical skills, creativity, diligence and a unique ability to navigate successfully through complex legal and commercial issues. We congratulate Jen on this well-deserved tribute!”
–Michael Gallub, Member/Director