‘Amazing Things Can Happen’


Volunteers

Advocacy Outside The Box – and Other Benefits of Working Outside Your Comfort Zone

By Sarah Barlage, ProKids Staff Attorney

Sarah Barlage and Rob Bilott
Sarah Barlage and Rob Bilott at the New York City premiere of “Dark Waters.”

I believe there are no coincidences in life. Amazing things happen when we change our perspective and get out of our comfort zone.

My husband, Rob Bilott of Taft Law, engaged in an epic battle against DuPont on behalf of a farmer in West Virginia which has been made into “Dark Waters,” a feature movie released at the end of November 2019.

Rob, left, with screenwriter Mario Correa, and Sarah at the movie’s premiere.

Rob, I and our three sons are overwhelmed that part of our lives is in this movie. But mostly we are humbled and deeply gratified that Rob had the opportunity to meet and get to know the Tennant family from West Virginia, and he was able to help them when nobody else would. This experience changed him as a lawyer and as a person. It changed my professional path. Our sons learned the value of keeping an open mind and of moving outside the comfort zone.

To understand the power of what we have learned, it helps to know how this all began. When Rob was a new associate, still meeting all the partners at Taft, one of the senior litigation attorneys quizzed him about which law school he’d graduated from: Harvard, UVA, Yale? When Rob responded with Ohio State, he was met with the response: “Oh, the Dark Horse.”

The Barlage-Bilott family gets the red carpet treatment at the New York City premiere.

Rob was not what you might call “well-connected” to Cincinnati but he tried his best to fit in when we moved here, purchasing one grey and one black Brooks Brothers suit, a few white button downs and a handful of ties. After nearly 10 years at Taft as a corporate defense attorney, Rob got a phone call from Earl Tennant, the West Virginia farmer whose cows were dying. Rob’s firm agreed to let him take the case on a contingency fee basis..

It wasn’t easy. But after some vigorous discovery battles, and a legal odyssey lasting over 20 years, there was justice for the farmer and his family, as well as clean water and medical testing for the 70,000 people in the community. The required disclosure to the government and the public showed the chemicals were contaminating water nationwide and could be found in the blood of virtually every living creature on the planet.

Undoubtedly, this case would not have succeeded without Rob’s years of experience as a defense attorney. But his willingness to change his perspective got me thinking about my own professional path. I also had practiced law in a corporate firm, defending companies in employment and workers’ compensation disputes. Then I spent 15 years as a full-time mom, raising our three sons. I knew I now wanted to use my skills to make a difference somewhere. I remembered the Cincinnati Bar Association worked closely with ProKids. To satisfy my curiosity, I visited the Prokids website and learned about becoming a CASA Volunteer. Although the CASA Volunteer role seemed totally out of my comfort zone, (I had no background in social work!) there was something that kept pushing me to try it.

Son Tony and his girlfriend meet actor Mark Ruffalo, center.
Son Tony and his girlfriend meet actor Mark Ruffalo, center.

There was a lot to learn about the families ProKids serves. I had never spent much time thinking about the circumstances in a family that could lead to abuse and neglect. Many of these children (and some of their parents) were born into situations where the odds of success are completely stacked against them – through no fault of their own.

The CASA Volunteer training changed me. The work was still out of my comfort zone. But it was fulfilling and I felt like I was making a difference. I loved the work so much, I joined the ProKids legal staff. It is the best advocacy work I have ever done. But I would not have predicted this path.

As parents, we were always eager for our sons to know what it feels like to truly give of themselves and help another person. Rob’s case enabled him to have this feeling. And I am grateful that his case motivated me to think outside the box, and to join ProKids.

I often think about a comment made by our ProKids Executive Director Tracy Cook:  I believe that if you are here, a child needs you. Perhaps if you are reading this, a child needs you. No special skills required, just an open perspective and a willingness to use your gifts for a new purpose. It’s a way to get outside your box.

A version of this article appeared in the November/December 2019 issue of the Cincinnati Bar Association’s “Report.”