July 10, 2017

They’ve Followed Their Passion and Life Is Good

G.M. Filisko

Do what you love, and everything else falls into place—at least, that’s what many successful people contend.

It’s also what’s actually happening for many women lawyers who’ve found a way to do what gives them great fulfillment. Whether it’s on the job or off, these women have identified what makes their heart sing, and they’ve made it a part of their life.

Helping Lawyers Who Stumble

Megan Zavieh always planned to get her law degree, then a medical degree, and to work as a psychiatrist serving lawyers with mental health issues.

Finishing law school first, Zavieh began practicing to pay down debt and found she liked the law more than she expected. When she began advising a lawyer facing bar discipline, she found her calling. “I’m helping a lot of depressed and addicted lawyers because they’re the ones who often get in trouble with disciplinary agencies,” she notes.

Acting as a consultant to lawyers who can’t afford full representation, Zavieh offers advice, provides form documents, and reads draft filings. “Many are going in blind and getting railroaded because they don’t know what to ask for, what approach to take, or what facts to raise,” she contends.

Sometimes Zavieh even helps save a career. “I have a client who’s severely depressed, and when he came to me, he was ready to sign a bar resignation letter,” she recalls. “He didn’t offer up that he was experiencing depression. But I said, ‘Something isn’t right here. Are you suffering from depression?’ He almost broke down on the phone.”

The client sought treatment and is now actively practicing law again. “He’ll face a sanction, but it’s nothing he can’t handle. He recently told me, ‘I’ve got my practice going again, and it’s all working.’”

Lady Happily Sings the Blues

Paula Boggs became a lawyer while serving in the military. Nearly 30 years later, while serving as general counsel for Starbucks, she had her aha moment.

“Music is something I’ve always known was within me,” she says. “I came back to something I always knew I had a passion for.”

Today, Boggs plays guitar and ukulele and writes most of the music performed by the Seattle, Washington-based Paula Boggs Band, which had its first gig in 2008 and became Boggs’ second career after she retired from Starbucks in 2012. The band has recorded three albums, two in studio and one live, and performed at more than 70 gigs in the United States and Canada.

“We call our sound Seattle-brewed soulgrass,” she explains. “There are influences from folk, rock, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, blues, and even a little bit of world music infused in our sound.”

Attending the ABA Annual Meeting in August? Don’t miss the band’s performance at the opening assembly.

Was it scary to leave a successful career? “There’s a lot about it that’s scary,” Boggs says. “I tell young people all the time that it’s OK to be afraid. The challenge and opportunity are to figure out how to navigate that fear.”

The Art of Practicing

When Leila Amineddoleh saw the opportunity to go all in on art law, she didn’t blink. But that was only after years of purposeful plotting so she could jump when the time was right.

She started in 2006, getting litigation experience at an intellectual property firm. While there, Amineddoleh hunted for ways to get involved in art law matters. She did mediation training with Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, wrote articles, and attended conferences. She began teaching art law at Fordham and St. John’s University law schools. Eventually, places like the New York Times began calling her an expert on the topic.

“I’m a musician, so I know a lot of musicians,” adds the New York City lawyer. “I have a lot of friends in creative areas, whether it’s in film or music. I felt confident I’d be able to meet clients.”

Amineddoleh went solo in 2016, but she’s already added two lawyers to her team. The firm discounts its work for emerging artists. “My pitch is that I think artists need protection—they just do,” she says.

Amineddoleh also represents established artists, galleries, governments protecting their cultural heritage, and art collectors. “There’s this network you tap into when you do good work for someone,” Amineddoleh notes. “They’re happy to refer you to their friends, and I ended up getting really wonderful clients along the way.”

For a Fallen Friend

Just weeks after Becca Niburg had lunch with a friend—an elder law attorney named Harbour, who’d long suffered from deep depression—Harbour committed suicide.

“It was just after the birth of my second child, and I was struggling with postpartum depression,” recalls Niburg, a Laurel, Maryland, federal immigration lawyer. “She was helping me to the bitter end, telling me, ‘It’s OK; go get help,” which I did, and got better. She was really there for me while she was struggling herself.”

Niburg now combats depression, which so many are afraid to admit they have, by chairing her county’s American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Walk.

“After she succumbed to her disease and died by suicide, I felt like this was a way for me to continue Harbour’s legacy.”

The event Niburg chairs annually draws 500 to 600 people and raises $75,000 to $100,000. Niburg’s job is to make sure every aspect runs smoothly. She does it for Harbour, and she does it for the people who tell her what the event means to them.

“It’s about looking out over the crowd and seeing people connecting,” Niburg explains. “It’s also about having people come up and say, ‘Thank you for that opportunity to speak with somebody who understands.’ Or, ‘I have lost somebody and found out that it gets better.’ Or, ‘I don’t know how I would have gotten through the next couple of months without this.’”

Step Aside, Bill Nye

Imagine you’re looking for a science club for your five-year-old daughter, and when you can’t find one, you create one yourself and end up being recognized at the White House.

Andrea Hence Evans, who heads a patent, trademark, and copyright firm in Laurel, Maryland, comes from a family of scientists and engineers. “I was doing science projects in college labs and projects with my family members, and participating in math camps,” she recalls. “I always had the name KidGINEER in my mind, never knowing what it would be used for.”

That’s the name of the program Evans created in 2007 that now teaches about 120 students each year. Evans’ four-year-old son is the youngest, and her daughter, now 12, helps teach and is a mentor to many students. “We find that’s a success because children are enjoying having someone who’s more relatable,” she says. “It makes her feel good and me feel proud.”

In 2014, Evans received a White House STEM Champion of Change Award for KidGINEER in a White House ceremony her 90-year-old grandfather attended. “It was incredible,” she says.

Just as incredible are the program’s results. “A lot of our students have gone on to science and tech high schools,” Evans adds. “Parents tell us they have to drag their kids away from the computer—but their kids aren’t playing games; they’re creating them.”

A Dream Delayed, Not Deferred

Throughout her 20 years of legal practice, Julie L. Kessler toyed with her dream of writing. But then life happens, and soon it’s too late.

Not for Kessler. After her kids were in college, she had an opportunity to travel to Indonesia for two months. She spent it writing the first half of her book Fifty-Fifty, the Clarity of Hindsight. When she got back to Los Angeles, she finished it and got it published in 2012.

And then the book began winning awards. “That kicked me in the butt,” Kessler says. “I thought, ‘I can take this opportunity to make a change.’ I always wanted to do it, but life got in the way.”

Kessler’s unique niche combines travel writing with legal topics. She journeyed to Kenya to interview a young victim of female genital mutilation. She jetted to interview foreign supreme court justices in places like Bhutan, Papua New Guinea, Israel, and the Solomon Islands.

“I love the marriage of law and travel,” she asserts. “I love the act of writing. And I love the ability to educate and inspire. I have an opportunity to do that in a much broader way than I ever did practicing. I did a lot of great things practicing, but they didn’t leave me with the same feeling of satisfaction.”

A Jolly Rancher

Have you ever made an offer on a 23-acre citrus and avocado ranch as a lark, fully expecting rejection? And then your offer was accepted?

“I thought, ‘I guess we’re doing this!’” recalls Melissa Sayer, who fell into ranching exactly that way. She operates a general business law practice in Ventura, California, and then heads home to her ranch.

“My husband’s family has been in agriculture since the 1800s, and he always wanted to go back to it,” she says.

When the couple made the offer on the ranch, Sayer was figuring out whether to stay on a partner track at a Palo Alto, California, firm.

“I figure it turned out the way it was supposed to,” she says. “I think I’m a better lawyer because I have another business. And I have a much closer connection to my clients than I did in the Bay Area.”

She’s also more connected to her community. There’s a farm lab at the ranch for school-age kids, and California State University sends its students out for hands-on learning as the Sayers experiment with various grains. That can lead to unexpected outcomes, like a partnership with a distillery making moonshine with the Sayers’ experimental sugar beets.

“This was a really good move,” Sayer concludes. “I feel much more centered. It’s twice as much work, but I’m much happier.”

Picture Perfect Pro Bono

Films, especially documentaries, are Ashley Durbin’s thing.

“I love the power of film to really touch people’s hearts and expand the way we see things,” she says. That’s why the corporate lawyer at Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte, North Carolina, who attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, California, after graduating from Vanderbilt University dedicates her pro bono time to helping filmmakers.

“Entertainment work is part of my practice,” Durbin says. “But I also do it to fulfill my passion for great stories I think are important for the world to hear.”

Durbin worked the legal side of These Storied Streets, a documentary on America’s homeless. “That film now gets screened at schools all over the country to help students understand the reality of the homeless in America and shatter stereotypes about the homeless,” she says.

Waiting for Mamu, which documents Pushpa Basnet’s work with children growing up in prison in Nepal, was another of Durbin’s legal efforts.

“I’ve learned that it’s really important for me to have one or two film projects done each year, whether it’s pro bono or a short video I’m doing for a nonprofit organization or the firm internally,” Durbin says. “That’s what really keeps me happy and fulfilled beyond the everyday grind of my practice.”

G.M. Filisko

G.M. Filisko is a lawyer and an award-winning, Chicago-based freelance journalist who covers legal, real estate, business, and personal finance topics for such publications as the ABA Journal, Consumers Digest, REALTOR Magazine, AARP.com, and Bankrate.com.