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| 21 minutes read

CMO Series REPRESENTS - Empathy in Action: Kristen Gibbons Feden’s Journey to Justice

Dubbed by The New York Times as “The Prosecutor Who Stared Down Bill Cosby,” and internationally recognized as a leading litigator in the #MeToo Movement, in this very special live recording of the CMO Series REPRESENTS Podcast, Yasmin Zand welcomes Kristen Gibbons Feden, a Shareholder at Anapol Weiss. 

This special episode recorded at the #FollowFriday Conference on International Women’s Day delves into Kristen’s passion for advocating for abuse and trauma survivors and why she’s focused on harnessing empathy and understanding to support the people she represents.

Below, you can also watch the discussion, recorded in front of a live audience at the #FollowFriday Conference. 


Yasmin: Welcome to CMO Series REPRESENTS, a platform for diversity, equity and inclusion. I'm Yasmin Zand, Client Success Consultant at Passle. And today I have the pleasure of sharing a very special live recording of the series from the #FollowFriday Conference created by Robin Addis of LISI, which took place on International Women's Day. In this session I had the absolute honor of speaking with Kristen Gibbons Feden, a shareholder at Anapol Weiss and widely regarded as one of the nation's leading litigators in the field of sexual abuse and civil rights. We explore Kristen's passion for advocating for abuse survivors and why she's focused on harnessing empathy and understanding to support the people she represents. Some listeners may find the content of this conversation triggering, but we hope you are as inspired by Krissy's successes and determination to create a lasting impactful legacy as we are.

Thank you guys so much for joining and of course, Robyn, thank you so much for inviting us and including us and obviously Krissy. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your incredibly busy schedule to be here today. I can speak for everyone, I think everybody in this room that we're all eager to hear anything you have to say. So very quickly, I'm gonna start out by saying Krissy is known as and dubbed by the New York Times, as the prosecutor who stared down Bill Cosby. Okay. Those of you who know me will know, I will say this that is hard core. And I mean, you're a leading litigator for the #MeToo movement, you specialize in tons of different practice areas, of course, especially with sexual abuse and civil rights. Anybody who knows Chrissy knows as Robyn said, the most warm person I've ever met,  the kindest person I think I've ever met and had the privilege of speaking with. So I'm not gonna, you know, go on too much about how wonderful you are because I think I have some questions that we wanna get through and a conversation that we wanna have. But before I kick it off, Krissy, do you wanna start out with anything or saying anything?

Kristen: The only thing I would just love to say is all of those sentiments, I would echo them and say it right back to you and to Robyn as well. This is a conference that you guys can see, Robyn put it all together and this is like her baby and like it has been so amazing all day. So I am just incredibly thrilled and honored to be in a room full of wonderful, amazing, tremendous women and gentlemen like all of you. So I'm super excited to be here and thank you all just even for being here and being willing to listen.

Yasmin: I think, yeah, I think we're all very eager. So without further ado I'm just gonna get right into it. I think Krissy, when we first spoke, I really just wanted to know how did you become the Krissy that you are today? Like how did you get here?

Kristen: So, it's so funny because, you know, as a little girl, I always wanted to be a doctor. My daddy is a physician. My sister who I looked up to my older sister, she was definitely on the track to be a physician as well. So, of course, that's what I was gonna do. And so finally you go through all, you know, elementary, middle, high school in college. So I was doing neuroscience. That was what I was getting my bachelor's in and then my sister calls me, she's a year ahead of me. She calls me, I guess it would have been her first year in medical school. So it had been my senior year and she's like, oh my gosh, Kristen, I just had the craziest experience. There was some guy who had a cast on and he was getting it removed and they were like, maggots underneath. She's like, there's bugs, there's blood, that's everything you hate. And I was like, oh, my gosh, I do not wanna be a physician. This is not gonna be for me. And so I had to pivot but I couldn't change my major because there was no way I was gonna stay an additional year at college, so I took a couple of years off. It was interesting because even though I wanted to be a physician, my dad was like, you really should be a lawyer. And it was mainly because all I would do is go back and forth. No, I'm gonna do this. No, I'm gonna do this. You know, it was very, I was very stubborn if you will. But it had to be my decision what I wanted to do. So I ended up taking a couple of years off and in that time and when I was a younger girl, I fell in SVU Law and Orderlove with Law and Order SVU and I decided to apply to law school and, you know, it really kind of drove me into a path of representing survivors of crime. And then I ended up kind of being more into representing children of sexual assault. Children who are victimized in child pornography-type ways. Adult survivors who were sexually abused both in college or even in their lives from a domestic partner, for example, and also homicides. And that's really what I focused on in the District Attorney's office.

Yasmin: Wow. So even your vernacular and a lot of people will say victims, right? And you saying survivors speaks volumes about the advocacy work that you do, right? You are an advocate for people and empowering them. So, like how does that translate back into your personal life?

Kristen:  Obviously, in my professional life, like you mentioned, I'm an advocate. I let I go into court and I want to, I really want to be their voice. I really want to make sure that whatever they want, whether it be, you know, a person to be incarcerated or a person not to be incarcerated for hurting them, because there's a lot of intimate partner violence where, you know, the spouse or the partner does not want their spouse to be incarcerated or anything like that. And so I really try to listen as part of my advocacy. And then try to be their voice and make sure that I don't pass on my judgment with them. And in my personal life, I try to do the same thing. I try to really be an empathetic listener, active listener if you will, except for when my kids are saying like the most ridiculous thing like, oh, I need to be on my iPad. No, you don't. But that's what I really try to do. And then with my, I have two amazing stinky little boys who are my absolute life. And I have a wonderful supportive husband. So I really do try to make sure that my boys grow up respecting women, respecting people, respecting other gentlemen. And really just being holistic individuals who really feel like they can shine whatever it is they are, whether, you know, they like this, that whatever I want them to feel comfortable and I want them to feel safe. And I also want them to feel confident enough to stand up for other people and stand up for what they believe to be, right? So I try to let that trickle into my parenting if you will.

Yasmin: Yeah, that's fantastic. And so when you talk about advocacy, I mean, obviously you spoke a little bit about empathy, you have to have a passion for that, right? So where does that fire, that passion come from for you?

Kristen: I think the fire and the passion comes from several different places. One of the biggest places it comes from for me is really trying to transform this world. So it's a better place for my kids and for their friends and you know, is anyone a mom in here? Ok? Or even a dad, sorry, you know, and so you don't just have your kids, you have everyone else's kids too, right? Because your friend, your kids have friends and they're your kids too, you know. So I really, I really wanna make this world a better place for all of our children. And I feel like the work that I do both when I was a prosecutor and even now in the civil justice realm, one of the things that I do, one of the biggest aims is to try and get policy changed, try to correct institutional failures where children are being sexually abused or physically abused by staff members. Those things should not occur. There are residential facilities out there and this main purpose of those facilities are to make sure that children are safe to provide them with therapeutic and mental health care. And a lot of times because of lack of funding or for whatever reason, those institutional protections which are supposed to help our kids grow are failing. And so that's one of the things I love to try to work towards is making the world a better place for our kids.

Yasmin: Yeah, that's beautiful and powerful. You mentioned a little bit of course about work. And so there have been these incredibly impactful moments. I mean, we already talked a little bit about the Bill Cosby case, but in your career in your lifetime, what were those like key moments that you thought, you know what I did it, I've met my calling, I've done the thing that I need to do here. So there are two that really stand out to me. When I was in the prosecutor's office, I litigated a case that I mean, honestly, I thought we were going to lose the case. It was a really, really, really tough case from an evidentiary standpoint. Long story short, a young girl had been sexually abused by her mother's best friend's boyfriend since she was eight years old. At the time when I met her, she was about 16 years old and, you know, understandably had fallen in love with her offender. And what he was essentially doing was taking her as his friend he was in real estate. And so he had access to a lot of vacant homes. And so he would call his friend, get access to the vacant home, take the young girl there and you know, obviously sexually abuse her. Well, long story short, we were able to through, like it was Facebook, it wasn't Facebook. I think it was like Myspace and Facebook. Like it was definitely a transition between two different social media sites. We were able to link it such that we had enough proof and evidence to really go forward with the case. That was an impactful case for me because on the one end, the young girl felt very ashamed because she loved this guy who she was going to have to put in jail and she really did not want to do that. And so it was really impactful for me because I had to explain to her, it's okay to love your offender. But what he did was wrong. That doesn't mean you did anything wrong. Right. And obviously she needed some therapeutic assistance because that relationship was inappropriate from the start. But nothing she did and none of her feelings should be invalidated and nothing she did was wrong. The other thing that was interesting was if you caught it, I said her mother's best friend's boyfriend because her mother was unstable and because her father was not part of her life, she stayed and would sleep on the floor of her mother's best friend's house and that's where the boyfriend would come out and do really inappropriate things to her. Interestingly, because the mother was unstable, CPS had become involved at some point. They found the biological father turns out she was a love child. So the biological father had younger kids and older kids with his wife. So it was a really odd situation. But the father, the biological father and his wife took the little girl in because mom was so unstable and dad did the right thing. And that's how they were able to capture this guy, because her older siblings actually are the ones that wait a minute, what's going on. Where are you going? You know, and they played that protective role. The reason why it was so impactful though is because, you know, I'm really close with my family and when we went to trial one of the most difficult things other than the evidentiary burden. Other than all of this was the fact that her maternal brother got on the stand and said, my sister is a liar. She has a character of untruthfulness. You shouldn't believe anything that she says. And I just wanted to cry. Her biological mother the whole time, the unstable one was sitting on the defense side. She had a whole, like all of her maternal, like her maternal siblings and her mother were on the defense side. But her paternal ones were over, you know, on the prosecution side. But keep in mind, some of them were witnesses because they kind of stopped things. So they couldn't be in the gallery when she was testifying. But they were because they were just character, non-factual witnesses. And so it was really impactful to me because you can see the dissolution of the family through sex abuse. You can see the dissolution of things that should be stable for kids. That just wasn't, it was just so I couldn't imagine a situation where my brother got on the stand and testified against me. So it was like super emotional for me. But of course I had to stay strong because, you know, I'm not the survivor here and I wanna be strong for her and her family. So that was really impactful for me. And it really made me stronger as a person to make sure that my, she had nowhere to go. She could not tell her mother that this man was sexually abusing her and she darn sure, couldn't tell the only stable person she had in her life at that time, which was her mother's best friend. So I always want to make sure that I'm a stable person for my boys, for their friends, for other kids in the community. So that if God forbid something happened to them, they feel safe coming and saying something. That was one that was impactful. The other thing that I thought was super impactful was one time I got an award for one of my survivors. And then like an hour later, I got another award completely different case. It just happened. It was a coincidence that the judge issued the opinions on the same day. And so that was really awesome because I got to call seven survivors that day and say, hey, you got some money coming your way and it was just such a great day for them. And they were just so I was like, are you free? Can you jump on a Zoom? Can I see you? I wanna see your face. So it it was really nice because you know, a lot of times for survivors, they just wanna be heard and money is the only thing that our civil justice system really has as the mode of compensation or some type of mode of recovery trying to make that person whole again. But a lot of times and most of my survivors will tell you, it's not the money. It's that an objective arbiter, the judge, the jury, whoever it was, listened to them, believed them and found that they validated their feelings. And in that particular case, I think the aggregate award was around $32 million for all seven of them. But again, it wasn't the number, it was the fact that it was such a large number and that was validation for them that this happened and that their pain, (oh I'm sorry guys) that their pain was understood by an objective arbiter like the judge. Yeah, so that was really, really amazing because they were just so happy. 

Yasmin: Okay, this is kind of a side note but I have to ask, how do you celebrate your wins?

Kristen: I guess like, so I celebrate it by like making sure that the survivors there with me, you know, like I have one case that just settled and I was like, all right, we're gonna get some Moet and we're gonna pop this bottle right when we sign the release. So I'm like, I was gonna have, we're gonna have a party and she's like, I'm super like, I'm a cat lady. I love, I only have one but I love, love, love my kitty and she loves cats. And then I had colleague who was helping with that one. She loves cats too. So we're gonna like do some little kitty videos like those little YouTube. It's ridiculous. I know. But that's, you know, and then like another time, when we had, and this wasn't really celebrating a win but it was keeping the mood chill while the jury was out. You know, it was one young lady. I love Beyonce, love her, love her, love her. So, so did my survivor at that time. So she was like, I was like, all right. And we threw on Beyonce, we were dancing, you know, waiting for the jury to come out. So we celebrate in different ways. But it's always like there's always some common thread that you're gonna have with whoever it is you're representing, you're talking you're helping or you're getting assistance with. I'm just finding that common thread and having fun with it.

Yasmin: Yeah, that's beautiful. I think a lot of us have a really hard time and I mean, how many of you guys can say yeah, I celebrated a win this week? Raise your hand. Okay. A couple of people good for you. You're a lot better than the majority. But I think it speaks, you know, volumes because it's such hard work that you're doing and your survivors are experiencing this trauma again and again and just to be able to make light of that experience is so powerful and the fact that you can bring that every single time that you're with a survivor and say, you know what we're going to put on Beyonce and we're going to dance and do that and to be able to lift the mood is so powerful and again, just speaks volumes about you as a person. So in light of, I mean, this conference, there are so many things that we can really talk about when it comes to legacy and I think that you have a fantastic legacy just from Googling you. Like you could Google you and everyone's like, yeah, that's Kristen, like she's got it. What is the legacy that you want to leave?

Kristen: So it's so interesting because we were just talking about that in your session - both of you, I'm sorry, I didn't see with the light’s killing me here, but I'm sorry, you guys gave an amazing session. And it was so interesting because you guys started off with legacy, right? What legacy do I wanna leave behind, I just want to leave behind a not a world, right? Because I want to be able to leave behind the next generation with just more education and awareness so that like certain things won't occur, for example, delayed disclosure for sex abuse, for example. Well, why the heck does it exist? Well, because society, right? When you feel like you can't go to your parent or law enforcement or whoever, for whatever reason that's a problem when you can't be open, when you can't be yourself. I wanna be able to leave behind a legacy that has more transparency with reality, understanding that racism exists, accepting it and moving forward, trying to make some transformational changes, societal changes. That's the legacy that I want to leave behind. And I would love to eliminate it because that's really the legacy I would love to leave behind. But I think I'd be crazy if I thought I would do that. But I want to pave the way start it so that our generation, the next generation, the following generation can finish it. So that at some point, there's a generation where everyone's super accepting of everyone else, everyone is welcoming of differences and not shunning them or pushing them away. People feel open to have their opinions and be themselves, their true selves so that they can kind of lead more productive and efficient lives.

Yasmin: Yeah. And it was interesting you were talking about policy changes that you want to make. So what, what kind of policy changes are you looking at? I mean, that's evolving the entirety of society that's impacting that legacy you're talking about. Well, I mean, this could go on forever, but some of the policy changes I would love to make is, you know, I would love for there not to be a statute of limitations on crimes like sexual abuse, for example. And that's because there's so many different reasons why people don't necessarily disclose right away. And I think that's super important because when a Survivor doesn't disclose and it's not that survivor's fault, right. There's shame, there's humiliation. There's all these type of barriers that they have to jump through. But when you don't allow them their time to grow, and their time to heal such to a point where they're ready to disclose because you're cutting them off by some legislative arbitrary statute of limitations that could prevent an offender from really facing justice. And what does that really mean? That means that offender gets to walk the street and offend again. So I would love to eliminate the statute of limitations on some of those types of crimes where, you know, through no fault of the survivor. You know, they're now prevented from seeking justice or even like I said, making sure that the streets are safe for our future generations. Some other policy changes that I think are really simple, making sure that the criminal background checks are on like, you know, individuals who are going to be around children. The Sandusky required a lot of, made a lot of great moves with legislative changes on mandatory reporting, laws and things like that, but employees still need to be screened. I had a case last year, that ended up settling, but you think that this happened so long ago? But in 2019, a young man was sexually abused while he's in a residential facility and he was autistic and minimally verbal when I pulled this guy's rap sheet. I mean, he had two protection from abuse orders against him. He had a history of violence but the issue was, he was working in New Jersey. All of his crimes were in other states and we're not talking about just crimes, convictions. Right. I mean, in fact, this guy, when he was hired, he was on probation for, I think it was for assault. No, for stealing from an individual who was in a residential facility that he worked at before. Oh, and by the way, was used as a reference on his application. It's just the most craziest things. But if there's a little bit more effort taken into the screening process and just interviewing people, then our kids, our vulnerable population, whether it be adults, elders or those with different abilities will be safer. You know what I mean? In some of these residential facilities.

Yasmin: Yeah. It's so interesting when we first talked about that and you told me that story, I think Robyn and I were both like, yeah, that's, yeah. Really terrible. Well, I think for the podcast, the last question that I wanna ask you because I could ask you a lot of questions. And the last question I wanna ask you is for those who, and there's kind of two components to this, right, for people who want to be advocates, what's the biggest piece of advice that you can give them? And if you could go back to Krissy, I don't know when you were, you know, studying to be a doctor, what would you say to her?

Kristen: So, I mean, there's two parts so we can maybe start with part one, which is the advocacy work. Yeah. So one of the things I would, the most important thing, I mean, I could go on about advocacy. I think it's super duper important. But I think one of the biggest things that I think is probably the most significant thing for me is take care of yourself. It is so difficult for me to be there for others when I'm not mentally stable, when I'm not in a good spot mentally. So take care of yourself. There's so much vicarious trauma that can trickle into, you know, your own personal life, whether with your partner with your kids, you know, so bringing home some of the trauma and you can't be a great advocate for your survivors or who whatever industry that you work in if you are just affected and inflicted by the trauma. So I try to find different ways that I can kind of release. I like to run. I like to karaoke, love to dance. So I just kind of do those things. So that's like the most important thing I think of being an advocate is know, yourself, know your limits and be strong for yourself so that you can be a strong parent. If you're a parent, a strong sister, if your sister a strong child or mother or whatever, father, whatever you are, you can be a strong person for yourself and you can be a strong person for other people. And then the other thing was, what would I tell doctor studying Kristen?

Yasmin: Yeah.

Kristen: I would tell her this is such a stupid answer…

Yasmin: Not possible. 

Kristen: If you had asked me 10 years ago, I'd say no, don't take two years off. Make sure get out of those books. Go to like, apply to law school in your junior year, etc. But if I had, if there was anything different about my life, then I might not be the mother proud mother of two angelic little crazy stinky little boys now. So I don't think I would change anything.  So I would tell that, you know, past Kristen just keep doing what you're doing girl and don't get sidetracked.

Yasmin: You're brilliant. Like, absolutely brilliant. I mean, you just are so wonderful to be around.

Kristen: I should have said 12 years ago, not 10 because my son, my oldest son is 12. I don't want him to like hear this one day and be like, wait Mom, I was here.

Yasmin: Well, Krissy, thank you so much. I mean, again, I cannot thank you enough for taking the time to come here today to speak with me, to speak with Robyn, to share all of these stories and bring light to this conference and reality to this conference and talking about legacy and impact. I mean, you are a phenomenal person and I genuinely look up to you so much and I can speak for a lot of women here. You are wonderful and I cannot wait to see what you're gonna do at your new shop, which is gonna be fab. Thank you all so much for listening to me waffle on and ask questions, James Barclay, my boss likes to say you're great at asking questions. It's very easy when you have a fantastic guest. If you haven't listened to our podcast before, please tune into the Passle Podcast. It's all over any streaming service that you use. We've got our CMO series and we also have REPRESENTS, which is where I get to interview really interesting people like Krissy. So without further ado, I think we'll just step off the stage and bid you all a good afternoon.


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