By Zack Richards

Nationally, the field of law is filled with middle-aged, white males, and Lexington is no exception. But Kelly Cotting, a young, female prosecutor, is challenging the old order.

In March Cotting became the first female prosecutor in the office of the Rockbridge County commonwealth’s attorney. At 26, she also is the youngest lawyer in the office.

Before Cotting’s arrival, the only females in the office were secretaries and stenographers. The other two lawyers are Robert “Bucky” Joyce, the commonwealth’s attorney, and Christopher Billias, an assistant prosecutor.

Prosecutor Kelly Cotting (Photo by Zack Richards)

“Being the first female doesn’t feel that strange, although sometimes I do look around the courtroom and realize I am surrounded by men, which is kind of amusing at times,” she said.

Cotting said she feels the same way about her age. At first, she says, she tried to avoid telling people how old she is.

Listen to: First Female Rockbridge Prosecutor

“Initially some people discounted me,” she said. But as lawyers got to know her, she says, her youth became “more of a running joke” with her colleagues and defense attorneys.

She says she’s learned to use it to her advantage. “My age, in some cases, enables me to help the victims better than maybe Bucky or Chris can,” Cotting said.

The path to law

Growing up in Maryland, she attended the Friends School of Baltimore, operated by Quakers, where Cotting developed a desire to help others.

“It taught me that everyone deserves equal treatment,” she said.

When Cotting was in high school, her parents tried to adopt a child who attended the Quaker school but were denied because her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Cotting said her mother urged her to volunteer at a group home for abused and neglected children. “My mom knew that the experience would be valuable to me,” she said.

And it was. It led Cotting to the law, she says. “I wanted the opportunity to advocate on behalf of people.”

Cotting says Joyce affectionately calls her a “liberal hippie.”

Money not a goal

She says she suppressed her desire to help victims and turned toward corporate law because her classmates at the University of Virginia School of Law were looking for high-priced jobs and she thought that’s what she was supposed to do.

Cotting landed an internship with Kaye Scholer, a corporate firm in Washington. She says she was “miserable.” Corporate law was not for her.

More than 80 percent of lawyers practice corporate law or work for law firms, according to a 2008 American Bar Association study.

Only 8 percent of lawyers nationally work in the “public interest,” the study said. The ABA’s definition of public interest includes prosecutors, government agency lawyers and legal aid attorneys.

The same study said the average lawyer is a white male in his upper 40s.

“I am not a lawyer for the money or prestige,” Cotting said.

A woman’s touch

Cotting got married last year two weeks after she graduated from UVA’s law school. She says she wanted to stay in west-central Virginia and jumped at the chance to work as a prosecutor in Rockbridge County.

Her husband, Dan, also works in Charlottesville. To cut their commutes, they live in Staunton.

With only three lawyers in the prosecutor’s office, Cotting must handle cases of all types, from traffic violations to domestic violence.

She says she’s drawn to the abuse cases because she says she thinks she can make a difference, in part because of her age and gender.

“Once I started working with adult domestic violence victims, I began to understand the psychology and realized it is a feeling of being trapped and powerless,” Cotting said.

“There are always certain victims who are more comfortable revealing personal details to a woman,” she said. “On a basic level, I think it’s easier for me to imagine psychologically what victims experience than it is for most men.”