“Easy Like Monday Morning”: Five Minute Law Interviews Rachel Vindman

“Easy Like Monday Morning”: Five Minute Law Interviews Rachel Vindman

This is an edited transcript of my interview with Rachel Vindman, co-host of the podcast The Suburban Women Problem, wife of the author of the New York Times bestseller Here Right Matters, and Lionel Richie enthusiast.

Zach Wolfe: I am super excited to be joined today by Rachel Vindman. Welcome, Rachel.

Rachel Vindman: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure, Zach.

ZW: I just listened to your fourth podcast. Tell people what the podcast is called.

RV: The podcast is called The Suburban Women Problem. And it’s a bit of a play on Lindsey Graham saying that the GOP has a real suburban women problem, which I agree with him. I don’t agree with him on a lot, but I agree with him on that. We try to talk to regular people, and maybe a little people who are better known, but we try to talk about issues affecting women, and not just women in the suburbs, urban women as well, but just women everywhere.

I like to say women know what problems we have. We actually have some pretty good ideas about solving them. We don’t need people to talk at us, but we just need policymakers to recognize those problems and to work with us, to figure out how to solve them. But women are natural problem solvers. So I think this is not much of a stretch.

And I have to say the fourth episode when I got to talk to Connie Schultz was a true delight and honor, and one of my favorite ones so far.

ZW: Yeah, I enjoyed it. It was probably also my favorite so far. I definitely recommend the podcast to people, and really, whatever your political views are, I think you would get something out of it. Now my blog and my YouTube channel, where I like to share these interviews, I don’t get very political. It’s a little more law related, but when I had the chance to possibly get Rachel Vindman on my show, I could not pass it up. So thank you for agreeing to talk with me. Let me ask you this: Why does the world need another podcast?

RV: That’s a really good question. I’m not sure that I have an answer. I am a big consumer of podcasts, so I’m a big fan.

I started listening to podcasts, I guess, more like NPR programs, some podcasts where I live overseas, and the convenience of it is huge because you can just listen to any show that you miss at any other time. So I am always listening to a podcast, if I’m cooking and if I got my earbuds in and I’m just doing work around the house, I listen to a tremendous number of podcasts.

I think that ours, The Suburban Woman Problem, really is special because it’s for women and by women. We try to talk about issues that you might discuss with your friends. We try to talk about things that are going on, but the listener might not have a direct connection to.

RV: So we’ve talked to the mom of a trans child. We talked to a woman who lost her sister to Q Anon. And those are things that we hear about, but we might not necessarily know someone in our neighborhood or our social groups.

I think it’s important to hear these stories firsthand, to have some empathy, to realize we’re getting a lot of information from different sources on the subjects, but to talk to someone firsthand is a lot different. Particularly on the trans issue, because it’s something with which I have no experience. And I don’t know anything about this subject. It’s confusing to me, as a lot of unknown things are, but a lot of things exist in spaces that I know nothing about, but I can relate because I’m a mom and I have a child.

RV: So I might not know the answers, but I do know that we need to treat people with dignity and respect. We don’t need to discriminate. We need to just hear a regular mom, in her words, describe her child. And that really humanizes something.

You can agree or disagree with a lot of things, but if we’re going to move forward and we’re going to heal as a nation, we really need to come together and listen to others. And I hope that’s something that our podcast does, to teach people to listen and be respectful, even if your view is different.

ZW: I like how, when you listened to the podcast, you kind of feel like it’s just three moms who know each other talking, it just happens to be three moms who are super smart and in kind of high-profile positions. It’s great. Now, let me ask you this. We hear the word “suburban” in politics all the time, and I’ve started to wonder what does suburban even mean today? What does suburban mean to you?

RV: For me, for where I live in Northern Virginia, suburban is the area where I can drive around. It’s less on foot, and it’s more people driving around. Where we live, the Metro doesn’t come out this far. So this is not any kind of definition that you will find in any sort of book or anything. I learned this reading Michelle Obama’s book, that I was woefully uneducated on how the suburbs got started. And I grew up in a suburb of Oklahoma City. I didn’t realize it was basically people leaving urban areas.

Where we are, I think the suburban DC area is a huge sprawl and it encompasses more area than even the urban areas of DC. Some of those places like Alexandria and closer are places where it’s impossible, if your child had an after-school activity, you would be better taking the Metro than trying to drive and finding a place to park, even in what is classified as the suburban area. Where we live, we chose our house sight unseen when we lived in Moscow. The schools were good, it was drivable, and the price was good.

But in terms of demographics, I think we have sort of a generational difference in defining the suburbs. I think President Trump viewed the suburbs in a very 1950s view that just really doesn’t exist anymore. Certainly not where I am. My county is majority minority. It’s not where I grew up, in Edmond, Oklahoma. There’s a lot of factors that come into play, but it’s definitely not a homogenous, whites only, the moms stay home and wear dresses and pearls, and the dad’s going to work with a briefcase and a white shirt and tie. So that’s not what it is, but what it is now is ever evolving and changing.

ZW: My daughter just finished her first year of college at the University of Central Oklahoma, so I was just in Edmond recently. Tell us a little bit about growing up in Edmond, Oklahoma. What was that like?

RV: It was pretty idyllic, I think in a lot of ways. My father’s family came in the land run of 1889 from Iowa, and their family settled just north of Oklahoma City, what’s currently Edmond. My mother’s family, part of them came actually in the Trail of Tears, from the east, the Georgia area, Chickasaw nation. So those are the two sides, my mom and my dad, and of course there’s nuances within both of them. Although I grew up in the suburbs, I had rural roots on each side, just one generation away. All four of my grandparents grew up in the Depression. One grew up in a town, but the other three, grew up on farms, quite poor. But they managed to go to college, at least two of them, and my grandfathers were involved in World War II and the army. And through that, were able to get government jobs or good jobs and really be part of that greatest generation and what was spurred on by that war.

So when I grew up in Edmond, I was the third generation to attend high school at that time. I graduated from high school in Edmond, and I have a brother who still lives there, and his children live there. It was a small town where my family name meant something. It still does. That gave me a huge sense of responsibility and everything that carries. I think a lot of people who grew up in smaller towns can relate to that. It’s a big thing for me now in our new newfound life and fame.

But even before, just when I was Alex’s wife. And I know some people don’t like that I’m introduced or known as Alex’s wife, but frankly, I’m very proud of that, and I always have been, even before any of this, when I was married to Captain Vindman and Major Vindman, before he was a Lieutenant Colonel, that was my identity. And I’m proud of that.

But I think growing up, with my family name, it gave me that sense of importance. I went to college in Oklahoma and I studied education. I ended up leaving when I was 24, but it’s also given me a great perspective from where I am now in this national moment that’s happening, because I understand Oklahoma, I understand the small town, I understand the struggles.

I also understand that the way of life that they might yearn for was not good and equal for everyone. That’s something I’m still learning at 47, but we still need to listen to each other. We still need to listen to each other’s stories and understand that not everyone felt equal, not everyone was equal. And that’s just fact. It’s hard to face that and learn it and understand it, but I appreciate my background and the understanding that it’s been able to give me to where we are today and how I can best use the voice that I have now to reach people.

ZW: Well, you already answered one of my questions that I had planned, but maybe you can elaborate on it. Let me preface this by saying, just to give an example, when I told my wife who I was interviewing today, I said, it’s Rachel Vindman, you remember Alex Vindman who testified to Congress? Like I had to explain that, and then she’s like, okay, I know who that is. And I was wondering, does that ever bother you, that you’re known as so-and-so’s spouse, even though you’ve got your own accomplishments and views and experiences, and as you said, you’re proud, but did it ever bother you to kind of be sort of compartmentalized that way?

RV: It really doesn’t. It bothers other people for me, and I completely appreciate that. I think you can follow wherever you are on the spectrum and still be right, because it’s a personal decision and a personal choice. But again, it does really bother other people. In the podcast with Connie Schultz, she talked about this, and I can totally identify with what she said, and I absolutely got it. It’s just that I was kind of going down one path and I met Alex and right after we got married, we moved to Germany and I really couldn’t work. And we literally moved every year. So even if I got a job on a base, it was, it wouldn’t have been something that I could have gone to another place.

RV: And for military spouses, it takes a time to get a job at a new place. If we were in Germany, we were in very small bases, so just not a lot of employment opportunity. In addition to that, I’ve shared a little bit, we were really facing infertility and struggles with starting a family. So there’s a lot of time and energy devoted to that as well. So it just didn’t happen. I think if I had more professional identity, this would be more of an issue to me. I just haven’t. Maybe I’m creating one now. Life comes at you fast sometimes, and you just gotta take it wherever it leads you. But I think being Alex’s wife, it’s obviously the most important relationship in my life, and it is a huge part of my identity. So I don’t mind being known as that. I hope my accomplishments and what I do speak for themselves, but no, it doesn’t really bother me.

ZW: I see. Well, in a few years, maybe when Alex meets somebody, they’ll be like, oh, are you that podcaster’s husband?

RV: It’s funny. He just was joking about that this morning, and I think his description on Twitter actually says like, Rachel or @natsechobbyist, that’s my name on Twitter. He was like, that he’s my husband.

ZW: That’s great. Well, also I noticed on your bio, it says something about foreign policy chops.

RV: I have none.

ZW: What does that mean?

RV: I don’t think I have any foreign policy chops, so I have to go back and look at my bio, but I need to be clear that I have no foreign policy chops. In Russia I worked at a Russian kindergarten, and I learned a lot about, I wouldn’t say everyday Russians, because most of the parents were very wealthy Russians or aspiring middle class who wanted their children to learn English. But I learned a lot about the Russian psyche and culture, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. It was just a fascinating insight. 

I’ve lived in countries as a diplomat, and I’ve lived as just a regular ex-pat not connected to an embassy or consulate. It’s much more sanitized when you are a diplomat, because your activities, you have less to deal with the local nationals. But I love to travel and meet other people and learn about other cultures. So it was definitely a way for me to do that and was really fascinating.

Everything I know is just sort of self-taught. But to that end, I must say Zach, that I think everyone, even if they don’t study foreign policy or national security at a really high academic level, that you can teach yourself, you can engage and learn and you don’t have to attend an elite academic institution to be able to weigh in and discuss these issues intelligently.

ZW: Right. I mean if you had to choose between living in Russia for a year versus reading about Russia for a year in an American university, I mean, that’s a pretty easy choice. So from your time living in Russia, what would you say the average American doesn’t really get about what Russian life is like?

RV: The holdover from communism. They’re not a communist country. Vladimir Putin is not a communist, despite what people may have heard. Senator Ted Cruz recently said that Vladimir Putin was a communist. He is not.

They’re not sure what they are, but we take for granted democracy, we take for granted the freedoms we have, particularly free speech. Even today. Russians will self-censor themselves. There’s still the mentality that people are listening and watching. And I say that even for generations that are much younger than me.

RV: We had a young Russian nanny, and I think she was born in the early 90s during a very turbulent time, actually in Russian history. And she never expressed this to me, but it’s something they were taught. They were taught from a young age. When I see people idolize Russia, when I see them talk about Russian society and oddly enough, sort of celebrate Vladimir Putin, which is very bizarre to me, I think that’s the part that they missed. They just simply do not understand what it’s like to live in an authoritarian country. And, and I don’t understand it either because I’ve never lived without that passport that says diplomat, which gets you out of any number of issues. So I don’t know what that’s like either, but the number one thing is our First Amendment rights, and I think a lot of Americans just have no idea the freedom that that gives us.

ZW: You also spent some time living in Israel, I understand. What was that like?

RV: I lived there for three years. I was with the Southern Baptist Convention. I grew up evangelical and I worked with them. I did work with helping teach English classes to women. There were a number of summer camps, and I worked at a camp conference center and helped facilitate those events.

Living in Israel was a wonderful, positive experience. What it taught me more than anything else was that people are more alike than different. I had Israeli friends, I had Palestinian friends, and they all wanted the same thing. I was there before and during the second Intifada.

I also realized because it’s such a small country, and the Palestinian national authority is also very small in numbers, so a lot of recurring characters, and you could really see on such a small level, how often politics is perverted from maybe people truly wanting to make a difference to then understanding and appreciating their power and it becomes something, and maybe they’re lying to themselves, but it becomes very self-serving. What might start out as very pure for a lot of people can quickly turn into something else, and I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say, they don’t even realize it’s happening. They delude themselves into thinking that them being there is a bulwark, that it’s a stop-gap and no one else could do what they do, but it happens everywhere. Seeing it there on that level, I think was an eye-opening experience.

But on the regular everyday people, I saw them as victims of the extremists on each side that would keep them from really having meaningful conversations and making meaningful, lasting peace. Because again, I think in so many ways, the politicians and the extremists had all the motivation in the world to prevent that from happening. And I see that in our country as well. People on both sides have created a market for what they’re selling, and they have convinced people that they have to fight this fight that they have to continue the struggle that they alone have created, and it’s really disappointing, but it’s easy to do.

ZW: Considering what you experienced when you lived in Israel, and this is a tough question, obviously, but do you think there’s a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

RV: I don’t know what it would be. I think there is, but there is so much hurt and distrust. I’m going to sound like Jared Kushner. I’ve read a lot of books on the subject. I like to read people’s memoirs, and even though I know that memoirs are biased by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s interesting just to get people’s perspective, even if it is their bias. I particularly recommend Ehud Barak’s biography because he’s more of a centrist and had a fascinating life, by any account, but really tried.

I just don’t know. A two-state solution, I get it, but what’s confusing to me is Palestinians don’t even have their own currency, so there’s just a lot of steps that need to be made to make it happen.

I don’t want to misstep and misspeak on the subject because I’m just not an expert, but I will say that in order for there to be lasting peace in Israel and Palestine, what really needs to happen is to recognize that both sides are made up of human beings. And again, it goes back to the dignity and respect. And I saw that in individuals. It’s a misconception to think all Israelis are far right people who live on settlements, and all Palestinians are members of Hamas, because reality is so, so different.

RV: Even our own politicians are trying to feed both narratives. Common sense tells us that’s not true. Many U.S. presidents have tried to work on this, but I don’t know what the answer is. I do think there probably is an answer, but it’s going to take great concessions on each part. And there’s so much hurt and anger and years of turmoil, it’s really hard to get around it. But I remain hopeful because I think youth oftentimes are that catalyst, that they can just see things in a different way. And maybe you look beyond the hurt and the years, and just say, we need to look forward and not to the past. So the biggest hope I would say is in the future, and then the youth to try to make something lasting.

ZW: Well, I threw an almost impossible question at you, and you actually gave a really good answer, I think, but let me give you an easier one. You mentioned books, and I know you love to read. Do you have any book recommendations for us, something you’ve been reading lately?

RV: I said recently on Twitter, the book that if anyone asks me for a recommendation lately, I suggest Jesus and John Wayne, a book that I read early this year. I think it came out in 2020. It is just absolutely fascinating. If you grew up in an evangelical culture, or even if you weren’t part of that, if you were just surrounded by evangelical culture, I think for those people, they’ll definitely relate to the book. I think people who did not grow up in that environment can understand something, a segment of our population, our culture that has a huge impact on today’s Republican Party. So I think it’s a way to understand it better, but it’s just a fascinating well-researched book that explains a lot, it articulates a lot of thoughts and feelings, it’s a very well done and well researched book.

And I recently read How the South Really Won the Civil War by Heather Cox Richardson, who was another person that I spoke to on the podcast. That is a fascinating book as well. I do read fiction, but what sticks with me most is non-fiction. I’m trying to learn about things.

Another great book is Robert Lee and Me by Ty Seidule, who was head of History at West Point. He describes his very complicated relationship with Robert E. Lee and what he was taught. It caused me to have a conversation with my husband, and when he was like, how could anyone believe that? I said, well, you grew up in New York City. You were probably never taught as I was. I distinctly remember a teacher saying this to me. “Well, slave owners didn’t treat their slaves poorly. They treated them very well.” That was literally something that was said to me, and my husband, I don’t even know if he believes me. He still thinks it’s just ridiculous, but I promise it happened, and these are the themes, I think in so many parts of our country, people just don’t realize, and it happened. I never would’ve thought about that had I not read this book. It was something that happened to me so many years ago. I wouldn’t even remember it, but you hear it and it’s in your brain forever. Whether you dismiss it or accept it, it’s there, and you have to at some point reconcile with it and face it.

The Daughters of Erietown by Connie Schultz was also a fabulous book. I try to read one to two books a, a week, and it’s kind of my saving grace, that and podcasts. You’re probably thinking that I ignore my family, but we spent a lot of time together in the past year.

ZW: No, I wasn’t thinking that at all. Those were some good recommendations. You mentioned Twitter, and I think that’s actually how I connected with you.

RV: Yeah.

ZW: So what made you decide to get on Twitter and to be active, especially considering that you must have known you were going to get attacked, right? So what was your thought process there?

RV: I was always on Twitter, and then the first day Alex testified, I shut down my Twitter. It was not with my real name, but I got pretty freaked out and I think I closed that account. And then I got back on Twitter anonymously.

Last summer Benjamin Wittes said something. I didn’t necessarily try to. At some point I stopped hiding who I was, but I didn’t announce it. Some people figured it out, but not many people. It was mostly to read what other people were saying. I think the benefit of having a curated feed on Twitter is the algorithm figures out what you want to see and what you don’t want to see, so it made for a more enjoyable experience by having an account and following people. But then Benjamin Wittes outed me, which was fine. And I gained quite a few followers then, and I still stayed relatively anonymous. I spoke out as I could.

RV: I did not have a verified account with my name until I did the CNN interview with Brianna Keeler, which was after we did the Lincoln Project ad in October. And the reason for doing that ad was that after the “suckers and losers” comment article came out by Jeffrey Goldberg and The Atlantic, Alex had a conversation with him, and I remember he came in and told me, his family has gotten death threats, he’s had to relocate them temporarily. It really hit me, because we had been there not too long before. And I was like, I’m done. You’re out of the military now, we can speak out about this.

I understand why journalists like Jeffrey Goldberg don’t want to become part of the story. But as I’ve said many times, when you have a group of people who are playing by one set of rules, an established set of rules, and then you have a group that’s like, “nothing is off limits, everything is on the table, the gloves are off,” it’s really hard. So, it’s not a fair fight, and people should hear what this has done to families, and that it’s going to continue. We were normal people. I know my husband worked at the White House and people might not see that as normal, but it felt normal to us. It’s what he had worked for his whole career, was to do that and to be in service.

And then things just got really crazy, and Jeffrey Goldberg is reporting a story. Did he go and seek the story out? I suspect it was a comment that was made to him, and he wrote the story. I don’t think he went and asked people, “did the president ever call people suckers and losers”? That’s not how he does journalism. So all that’s to say, once I did that, we came out, we had a tremendous amount of support. Of course, we have a lot of people who hate us, and it’s a free country, you can, but I enjoy engaging with supporters because they’re just really kind, and I want people to know how much it has meant to us. It truly has sustained us. It truly has buoyed us. And so it’s important to me for that.

And then it’s a fun community. It can go to a really dark place. I think you have to know your limits on social media. I think it’s taught me a lot about social media and children. You said you have a daughter who just finished her first year at UCO. So you’re probably intimately aware of social media, teens and adolescents, and the effects of that. My daughter’s only ten, so it is not an issue that we have faced yet, but it’s taught me a lot about setting limits and how I view social media and just internet usage for her or in general. But with the proper limits, it can be fine. I think it can be encouraging to people, especially people who may live in a place where they are different politically and have different views than a lot of the people around them. They can connect with others and not feel so alone. So I think social media is good for that purpose. We can also be bad, and everyone needs to be careful with them.

ZW: I enjoy reading your tweets and also reading what people tweet to you. Here’s one, “are you the Ukraine whistleblower traitor’s wife?” You should tell her, “hey, I’m not just his wife. I have a podcast.”

RV: Yeah, I know, people gave me some really good things that I could have said, after the fact. And I was like, oh, I really missed an opportunity there.

ZW: My question is, and you and Connie Schultz talked about this a little bit, but what is your strategy for dealing with the trolls on Twitter?

RV: Well, Connie is much better, and as you can see, I did not take the high road on that, on my response to that tweet, which I probably should have. Sometimes the urge to be snarky is very strong, but as Connie said, they want access, they want a reaction. So it is better if you can block them and not give them that. And I have been exercising that a lot more. I just spoke with Connie last week, but even prior to that, I learned that they can get a rise out of me. I like to think that my comment to that was not getting defensive or upset. I hope it was a witty retort, but even that is not the best sometimes, and you can elevate people.

I learned that quickly with Twitter. Right after Alex’s closed-door testimony, there was a retired Lieutenant Colonel who had supposedly served with Alex. This is kind of in debunked, not served with him, but was at a place where he was when Alex was traveling with the Russian military who was doing a joint exercise in Germany. And he gained prominence by this sort of tall tale about serving with Alex and whatever, and it got a lot of traction, and Don Jr was re-tweeting it. A lot of people, even the President alluded to it at one point, which was—I’m pretty open about that—it was one of the scariest days. And this is where I think we have to really careful with our kids, but what was scary is someone was saying something and we couldn’t speak back because Alex was active-duty military, and you gotta be careful.

You don’t want to get like a counter-narrative because then you’re chasing, so you don’t want to do that anyway. It’s not a very good calm strategy, but it was really hard. I think that is one thing for children, for teens and adults, the lessons that they really get lost in was social media. Something can just catch fire, and it’s not true, but they have no way or no voice to counter it. And if you’re reacting, then you’re playing catch up and you’re probably losing anyway, because someone else has gotten ahead of you. So it’s better most of the time just to let it be. Sometimes I just like to come back with a snarky comment, but I also think a well-timed highlighting of some of those comments does a couple of things strategically of like showing people, this is still happening, not just for us, it’s happening for almost everyone.

I mean, look at Olivia Troye’s Twitter feed and the way they attack her, and Lisa Page. They are still attacked with stuff that’s been debunked a long time ago, but this is what they go with. I think also just a gentle pushback of “we’re not going to let you control this narrative” and you might say it, but you have to be pretty careful there. Disengage and don’t react either way. But I do think it’s important for people to realize Trump and Trumpism is still attacking people. And if he were to come back to power—I don’t think he’s going to be reinstated in August, despite what people might be saying or what he perhaps believes—but this is what you would be signing up for: full-on authoritarianism. And this is what they think is okay.

ZW: Speaking of this August, there is a big event coming.

RV: There is.

ZW: Tell us what that is.

RV: My husband’s memoir: Here Right Matters. It’s going to publish on August 3rd. We’re very excited. We rearranged our entire summer to accommodate the new publication date. I’m very excited for him. It was tough. Everyone talks about, what were we doing a year ago at this time? And we were spending a lot of days sitting in our office trying to have discussions and not worry our daughter. But it was like you think your career’s over, it’s not going anywhere, but what are we going to do? How are we going to live? Once people talk about separating from the military, they plan on this for several years in advance, and that was definitely not, we were going to do.

There were people who wanted him to write a book about Trump, and that’s not the book he wanted to write. Also, he never met him in person. And there was a push to get it out before the election, which logistically never would have happened because as someone who held security clearance, his book had to go through a pre-publication review, and they would have never allowed it to see the light of day. So, it was challenging.

But as challenging as it was for us, I know it was even more challenging for a lot of other people. I know there’s been a lot of criticism for people who stayed working in government, who maybe didn’t leave or didn’t leave sooner, but you have to understand, everyone has to live, has a place to live and eat and support their families, and this is a very expensive area of the country to live.

I think we need to really look at our public servants and our people who served in government, even in the Trump administration, non-partisan people and good people who stayed, and be forgiving to them, not forgiving, but understanding. People could not just walk out because they didn’t like what was happening with the Trump administration. That’s not how it is. These are public servants who work their whole lives and they have a tremendous amount of institutional knowledge that is very important.

When they talk about the Deep State and they talk about unelected, radical bureaucrats, those people are actually the glue that keeps the government together as the administrations change, as the political appointees change. They are the ones that have the knowledge of how the organizations work. Whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it requires so much institutional knowledge. I’m not here to make that debate. I just know that the way the system is currently, you cannot burn it down and build it up every four or eight years, it’s not possible. And we need to appreciate what they do and how they work for us for, Republicans and Democrats alike, they work and they give us their all, and they serve a very important purpose.

ZW: You mentioned pre-publication review. Did the book have to pass Rachel Vindman’s pre-publication review?

RV: It did. I didn’t read the parts that might have sensitive issues. But we went back and forth, and I guess everyone’s gonna read the book and think that I begged my husband to ask me to marry him. I really don’t remember it that way, so I will let the readers decide. But I guess when you write a book, it’s your memoir, it’s your version of the truth, no matter who you are, so this is Alex’s moment to remember it the way he wants.

He talked about our personal struggles with infertility. We had a daughter who was born at 24 weeks. She passed away. How we handled that, how the grief brought us together and how, going through things as a couple, going through things in life, it prepares you to deal with other things. It’s all part of a stepping stone.

And that’s really what the memoir is about. It’s about his immigrant story and his family, what he learned from that, how it prepares you for all the moments big and small that, that you have a foundation there. I’m biased, of course, but I read a lot of memoirs, because people fascinate me, and I’m very proud of it. I think he is as well. And I hope that people will find encouraging inspiration in it and the message that it has, even during this time, as we continue to kind of figure out what the path is forward for our country and where we want to land.

ZW: I did not know about the experience with losing a daughter, so I’m very sorry for that.

RV: Thank you.

ZW: But on a happier note, do you want to share with us—to set the record straight—how did you meet Alex and what did you think of him when you met him?

RV: I was a flight attendant. When I moved back from Israel, I had this idea that I wanted to work for the FAA because they have a very large facility in Oklahoma City. So I wanted to work there, and I was told the path to this would be being a flight attendant, then working in flight attendant management, just a couple of years here and there, and then you could get a job with the FAA. So I was working on the flight attendant part, and I had a friend that was like, you need to meet this guy. And I thought, okay, I know I can fly free, but I’m not just gonna fly somewhere for a date, that’s just a little a bridge too far.

But Alex had just completed ranger school, and he was in New York City. I was based in New York City at the time, but I didn’t live there. I was just staying there the night before I started a trip. He had finished ranger school and was picking up his parents in New York City, and then they were going to drive cross country. So we realized that our schedules were matched and we were going to be in the same city at the same time. So I was staying at the Holiday Inn at JFK airport, and he came to my hotel room to pick me up, and I opened the door, and I think this is actually in the book, but I was like, “oh my God, he’s so skinny,” because he just finished ranger school and probably lost weight, and didn’t have a lot to lose. So by the way, when people comment about Alex’s weight and he has all his weight in his face, but you can thank me for that because that’s just my excellent culinary skills.

But anyway, I saw him, we drove into the city into the West Village. We walked around and talked, and it was a great day. We got lost on the way home. I think it took us two and a half hours to get from Manhattan back to JFK. And if anyone is ever in a taxi and that happens, it’s not supposed to work that way, it definitely should not take that long, so you should call someone if you were in that situation. I did not, and it turned out okay, but I would not recommend that for everyone.

And then he then did not call me for several days. He was driving cross country and I guess he forgot about me. I don’t really know, but he got to Tacoma, to Fort Lewis, Washington, and a few weeks later, I flew there for our second date, and the rest is history.

ZW: You and my wife should talk. I’ll just say that.

RV: Okay. All right. Well, now I want to hear your story.

ZW: I think she could relate, but that’s great. Well, it’s been awesome talking with you. I know you probably have a lot of people who want to talk to you. And so for you to join my little show here has been just great. So I really appreciate that. Now, I want to go back to Edmond, Oklahoma just for a minute. You and I both grew up in the 80s. I grew up in south Austin, Texas. You were a little farther north up in Oklahoma, but I’m curious. Number one, what was the first big concert that you attended as a teenager in Oklahoma?

RV: Don’t laugh. It was Lionel Richie.

ZW: Oh that’s awesome.

RV: I’m a Lionel Richie fan. It’s funny because one of my oldest best friends, she went to the same concert. I didn’t even know. I think like her parents surprised her, but yeah, I went with my parents to see Lionel Richie, as one does. I think that was the first concert.


ZW: Did he do “Dancing on the Ceiling”?

RV : Of course. I mean, it wouldn’t be a concert without that.

ZW: Did he do “Easy Like Sunday Morning”?

RV: Yes. And I have my own version. I tell Alex that he’s easy like Monday morning. I love him, but Alex is not easy like Sunday morning, which is to say generally not easy at all.

ZW: Got it. Now related to that question, I’m curious, what was the first record that you bought for yourself, if you remember?

RV: I think Footloose, the soundtrack to Footloose.

ZW: On cassette, I’m guessing.

RV: Yeah, on cassette. Album? I remember playing the Fame album, but I don’t think I bought it for myself. The record cover I remember most of all from my childhood, and this was my childhood song when I was much younger, was Rhinestone Cowboy by Glen Campbell. And the album cover was raised, it wasn’t just flat. It was this horse and there was a very cowboy scene, with cacti and mountains. But I remember that album cover, and of course, I just loved that song, I still love that song. I still listen to it all the time, but when I was little, I would apparently just listen to it on repeat.

ZW: Oh yeah, he was great. All right. One more question relating to Edmond. Next time I’m up there, where do I need to go to eat? You know, like where the where’s the local place that I might not know about.

RV: For sandwiches, I really like City Bites. That’s an old family friend, they’re the owners of it, just great hoagies or whatever you call them. And Johnny’s Charcoal Broiler was another local favorite. It’s one of my favorite places, really good hamburgers and onion rings. They have the best onion rings ever, I think. When I go, I go for cheap Tex-Mex, which is the best Tex-Mex. So that is something that I always have. And Hideaway Pizza, which started in Stillwater.

ZW: I’ve been there!

RV: Those are my top picks for every time I go home to Oklahoma.

ZW: Awesome. Okay. Now I have some new places to try. Anytime I go to a new place, I want to know, like, where are the hidden gems?

RV: I know, absolutely. When we’re traveling or figuring out the book tour schedule, it’s kind of coming together, and I’m like, okay, well, when we go to these places, where are we going to eat? So, yes, totally same.

ZW: Great. Well before we wrap this up, I’ll leave the floor open to you. Anything you would like to add that you would like the readers or viewers to know about Rachel Vindman?

RV: I don’t think so.

ZW: This is where you plug the next podcast.

RV: I do think The Suburban Women Problem, it’s something that I’m very proud of. I was asked to be a part of it. It’s come together very quickly, but I think it is an important place to have discussions. I always liken back to one of the favorite parts of my day during the school year is the bus stop with my fellow bus stop moms, as we call ourselves. We come from different backgrounds. We live in the same neighborhood, in the same community, but very different backgrounds and different political beliefs, but we can come together and be with our children, get them on the bus, experience a moment of relief in that, and also respect each other’s opinions, but talk about the things that are important to all of us and maybe learn something too.

RV: So I hope that the podcast has that feel of a space where we can talk about it, and you can agree or not agree, but I hope you know that I still care about you and appreciate you. There’s still room for disagreement, but also for great respect and love. And that’s what I hope we continue to create with our podcast.

Other than that, thank you for having me. It was a super fun conversation. And I always like to talk about Edmond, Oklahoma. It definitely made me who I am, and I think I’m better for it. It was not a lot of diversity, but that’s okay. I think that I’ve learned a lot from that as well. Someone actually sent me a quote today of “our background is just our launching point.”It can’t be our excuse to always stay in that place, but you’d never have to look at it as bad either.

So your life is just, it’s where you go and where you take it, but never be ashamed of where you came from and your history. I think you can just always use it to go forward. And if you think there’s places for change, make that change and be that change, and whatever voice you have, use it. That’s what I’m trying to do. Not to make a name for myself. I’m not even getting anything out of this personally, but I think that it is kind of a responsibility, Alex and I both look at it like this because he’s out of government and the military. We have a voice now to speak, and we very much want our country to move forward, and if we have the opportunity to educate people and be part of the discussion in a meaningful way, we will definitely lend our voices to that.

ZW: Great. All right, one more question. Who is your dream guest? Like the person you think, oh, I would never get this person on the podcast, but who you would just love to interview?

RV: Michelle Obama. And I say that because I, well I always liked Michelle Obama, but was I a fan of president Obama’s policies? No, not all of them. And I’m very centrist in my politics, so that’s probably why. But when I read her book, it was just such a phenomenal growth experience for me. And in many ways, I had always had a great appreciation of her, but I could relate on so many different levels. As a woman, as a mom, just her growing up experience with her family and how close she was to her family. Even though we had very different experiences, I could certainly relate to that, and I have a tremendous amount of admiration for her drive for pursuing her education and career. And it was difficult for her.

She also faced infertility struggles and really strove to raise her daughters in a way that I think is comparable to how I wanted to raise my daughter. And part of that is especially now like your dad’s, yes, he’s known for doing a good thing, but that’s your dad. That’s not you, if you want to do a good thing. So you have to go out there and do it too. And this kind of goes back to you have the name, but you have to make the name mean something. Growing up in Edmond, my name was associated with the people who did good things before me of our good family name, but that’s very easy to ruin and not easy to establish.

So I know that she tries to give her daughters that space and I just, I appreciated so much of her experience and just her honesty. And it’s really hard when you’re in the public eye, to be honest about things, but I appreciated how she really threaded that needle and educated people on and a lot of history that even occurred in her lifetime. But for me as a white woman who grew up in the suburbs, I was really unaware of.

ZW: Let’s work on that. I’m going to use my political influence, which is zero, but we’ll make that happen. All right, Rachel Vindman, thank you so much for joining me for this interview. It’s been a pleasure.

RV: Thank you. Next time you’re in Oklahoma, let me know.

ZW: I will.

____________________________________

Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a 2020 Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

“It Never Hurts To Be Bold”: Karen Kaplowitz, Trailblazer for Women in the Law

“It Never Hurts To Be Bold”: Karen Kaplowitz, Trailblazer for Women in the Law

This week’s post is my interview of Karen Kaplowitz, who I first knew as a business development coach for lawyers. Turns out she was also a real trailblazer for women in law practice, as you will see. If you prefer to watch the interview in convenient video format, you can find it here on my YouTube channel, That Non-Compete Lawyer.

Z: I’m Zach Wolfe. I’m here with my friend, Karen Kaplowitz. Karen, welcome.

K: Thank you, Zach. Thanks for inviting me to have this conversation with you.

Z: You’re welcome. So, let’s start with what you do today, and that is you are the founder and owner and operator of The New Ellis Group.

K: That is true. The New Ellis Group is a business development strategy and coaching firm, which I started in 1997 when I was a practicing trial lawyer in Los Angeles. So, for the last 23 years, I have been the owner, operator, proprietor, chief cook and bottle washer of the New Ellis Group.

Z: And that’s actually how I first met you. You were doing some business development coaching for a firm that I formerly worked for, and we had a firm retreat and you gave some great tips. And so I’ve kept in touch with you and gotten lots more great tips over the years. But what led me to want to do this was I started hearing some of your stories about law practice, law school, all kinds of things. So we’ll come back to the New Ellis Group later, but first let’s go back in time. It’s the late 1960s, and a young Karen Kaplowitz is a student at the University of Chicago Law School. Now, people who are not lawyers might not realize this, that is one of the elite law schools in the country. So, you’re a student there. And there were not a lot of women students at that time. What was that like?

K:  I am a child of the sixties, which was a time, which was a lot like now in some ways. I started law school in the fall of 1968, the day after there were riots in Grant Park, in Chicago, in connection with the Democratic National Convention. It was a time of great political turmoil and crisis. Robert Kennedy had been assassinated that spring. Martin Luther King had been assassinated that spring. It was a time of chaos and violence and political upheaval. It reminds us a lot of what it’s like now, 50 years later. So, I’m about to celebrate my 50th law school reunion from the University of Chicago. But the struggle in those days, a lot of it had to do with the Vietnam War. And I was admitted to the University of Chicago Law School because of the Vietnam War. The University of Chicago saw that men were being drafted and decided that instead of having empty seats, they would accept women law students. My class, the class of 1971, was the first class at the University of Chicago Law School with 20% women law students. That’s how I got into law school. It was an economic decision on the part of the law school. So that’s where I fit kind of historically. And here we are, you know, 50 years later.

Karen Kaplowitz, lead plaintiff in Kaplowitz v. Univ. of Chicago

Z: When you started law school, what did you have in your mind that you wanted to do with that law degree?

K:  I wanted to be a civil rights lawyer. I wanted to change the world. I wanted to create more racial equity in particular. I was just beginning to think about gender equity. That wasn’t as much on the horizon in those days, but I thought I’d be a civil rights lawyer or a legal aid lawyer. I didn’t expect to end up in a commercial kind of law firm environment.

Z: Speaking of gender equality, what was the on-campus law firm interviewing like for women at the University of Chicago in the late sixties?

K: Well, so that was one of the surprises. You know, there we were, there were 30 women in my class and maybe 15 or 20 in the class ahead of us and the law school had accepted us, but law firms weren’t hiring women lawyers yet in any great numbers. And so one of the things women in my class encountered was a lot of really overt sex discrimination.  Law firms would show up and they’d just kind of blow off the women law students. And, you know, “we don’t really need to talk today.” “We’re not hiring trusts and estates lawyers this year.” “So there’s no point in our talking to you,” with the subtext, that the only reason we’d consider a woman would be for a trust and estates job. So that was pretty disconcerting. And we found to our dismay that when we took those experiences to the law school administration and said, this is what’s happening, please help us deal with it, the law school was pretty indifferent initially.

Z: And it turns out there was even a lawsuit, and there’s an opinion. People can actually read about this. And the case is called Kaplowitz v. University of Chicago [387 F. Supp. 42 (N.D. Ill. 1974)]. Now, would you happen to know the named plaintiff in that case?

K: Well, so when we experienced, when some of the women in our class experienced sex discrimination and the law school wouldn’t take action, one of my classmates who had just studied the new civil rights law, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,  said, “you know, the law school is acting like an employment agency, and don’t we have rights to enforce a non-discriminatory environment against a law school as an employment agency?” Ultimately we filed a Title VII charge, and then a lawsuit, asking the federal court to require the law school to protect women from overt discrimination.

Z: Reading that case, it seemed like the law school had a very clear written policy of non-discrimination. So if that was the case, what did the law school do wrong?

K: What the law school did wrong was failed to take action. When it discovered through complaints filed by women law students, that there was actual overt discrimination taking place on its premises, in connection with the recruiting function, having a non-discrimination policy that’s not enforced was not, to our minds, a sufficient application of the spirit of the law involved.

Z: The federal district court judge agreed with the theory that the law school was acting as an employment agency as defined in Title VII. So that was a win. And then I want to read just a little portion of the judge’s opinion. He said: “Sex discrimination is a bane to both men and women in this society, and to the extent that it is practiced by the employers who use the University of Chicago Law School placement facilities, it is a particularly ugly scar on the legal profession. In this decade of heightened consciousness, it is disheartening to note the degree to which sexism flourishes. It is prevalent in both professional and non-professional careers and all the more odious because of the subtle manner in which it is practiced.” That sounds pretty darn good. So you had the right judge, right?

K: And the judge by the way, was named Abraham Lincoln Marovitz.

Z: So Judge Marovitz ruled in your favor?

K: In some ways. This case, Kaplowitz v. University of Chicago, is a landmark case because it is the first case interpreting the scope of the employment agencies’ section of Title VII broadly. So, from that standpoint, it was a win. But the judge at the end of the day told the women in my class that we needed to exercise our rights against employers directly against the employers, and that we could not require a law school to hold hearings to make determinations. So we lost that part of our case. And at that point we took the part we won and we called it a day.

Z: It definitely set a precedent. And I imagine that even though you didn’t get the relief you were asking for in the lawsuit, this must have had ripple effects in the law school community.

K: For sure. This year is my 50th law school reunion. And we’re expecting to be doing a panel at reunion weekend in the spring on 50 years of women at the University of Chicago Law School, students, faculty, and alumni. So yes, we made our mark, elicited a lot of commitment on the part of the Law School, more of a commitment to gender equity. And that was at the end of the day, what we really wanted to accomplish.

Z: Now on just a personal level, when I think back to when I was in law school, I was just like, okay, just keep your head down. Don’t cause trouble, don’t make anybody mad at you, get good grades, get a job offer. I would be terrified to take on the entire law school and, and, you know, have people think, oh, that guy’s a troublemaker. Did those thoughts go through your mind at the time?

K: Well, you know, I didn’t act on my own. I was one of about 15 women law students who confronted the law school over these issues. And there’s safety in numbers. This was an era of protest and commitment to civil rights. I honestly really never thought too much that it would have adverse consequences, and the opposite turned out to be true. Because I was a leader of that group, I had a lot of interaction with the faculty and with the administration of the law school. And the Dean of the Law School taught me an incredible lesson about professionalism. You know, the Dean never held it against me—that I knew about anyway—that I had confronted the law school in this way and challenged their policies, and he went out of his way to be helpful to me. So that was kind of an interesting lesson on the outcome of being bold and of being courageous. It didn’t hurt. It probably helped me in my career.

Z: That’s great. Okay, so you graduate from law school and you start doing civil rights law?

K: No, I actually ended up deciding that before I became a civil rights lawyer, I wanted to get some conventional experience in a big law firm. And I joined what was then the largest law firm in Los Angeles, O’Melveny and Myers, where I was recruited by a University of Chicago alum who was very committed to bringing in more women. And I was the third woman lawyer at O’Melveny and Myers.

I love L.A.

Z: So, I know what it’s like to be a brand-new lawyer at a firm with experienced lawyers who know what they’re doing, and you’re trying to figure out what to do. You had to do that while being just the third woman at the firm, right?

K: Well, what that meant though, was that there were people who mentored me, you know, like the lawyer who recruited me, he was a mentor to me. There were other people at that office in those days who cared about the idea of being more diverse. Warren, Christopher, who later became Secretary of State was a partner in the firm, for example. There were people of goodwill, in other words.

Z: That’s great. So back to the subject of civil rights, I understand there were issues early in your career with the LA County Women’s Jail. Can you tell us how did that come about?

K: O’Melveny and Myers absolutely supported lawyers doing pro bono work. And I took on a project to investigate and then challenge civil rights violations at the Los Angeles Women’s County Jail, along with the ACLU. I organized a group, there were about 25 lawyers involved, and we investigated civil rights violations. And then we brought a civil rights lawsuit against the Women’s County Jail. And this was all under the rubric of pro bono work at O’Melveny and Myers. That was a tremendous learning experience for me as a young lawyer.

Z: Was that the case where you had sort of a run in with the FBI, or was that another case?

K: No, ultimately, I didn’t have a run in with the FBI. I was a young lawyer. I was like a second year lawyer doing this civil rights work. And I made a really classical mistake of a young lawyer. My mistake was that one of the named plaintiffs in our civil rights case was a member of the Manson family, if you remember Charles Manson. So this woman who was an inmate at the Women’s County Jail was not one of the murderers. She was a burglar in the Manson family, and we included her as a named plaintiff in the case. And at the hearing, when we filed the lawsuit, there was a TRO hearing at which the County Counsel had to stop the rest of the hearing to explain to the judge that our plaintiff had just tried to escape from the Women’s County Jail and that she had a hacksaw blade, which he was sure must have been smuggled into her by one of her lawyers, pointing at me.

Now, the good news was the judge did not take seriously the idea that I had smuggled a hacksaw blade to this member of the Manson family, but my hearing on the TRO, you know, blew up, didn’t get too far. Fast forward a couple of years, and I get a call one day from the FBI. And the FBI is calling me around the time that Squeaky Fromme, another member of the Manson family, had tried to assassinate President Ford, and the FBI called to say, we got your name off a list that Squeaky Fromme had in her possession. And we’re calling to warn everybody whose name was on the list to be careful. And I said, if my name was on the list, it probably wasn’t an enemies list. I represented another member of the Manson family in connection with my civil rights case. So that was my contact with the FBI. The FBI was trying to protect me from a risk I probably didn’t have.

Z: When your named plaintiff escaped using the hacksaw, did she tie the bedsheets and climb out the window?

K: She didn’t escape, she attempted to escape.

Z: Oh, she attempted escape.

K: She attempted an escape and they confiscated her hacksaw blade.

Z: Got it. That’s just an amazing story. Now, you also had something early in your career involving the Beverly Hills Hotel?

K: Yes. So, you know, I’ve explained that I started my law career at O’Melveny and Myers, and I stayed there for three years. At the end of three years, I left and started a women-owned law firm in Los Angeles with two other women lawyers, one from Gibson Dunn & Crutcher, the other big firm in town, and the other from the State Attorney General’s office. And that was a law firm that was designed to handle civil rights cases. So, I started with an idea of civil rights, I went to O’Melveny and Myers for three years, and then I started a women-owned law firm to handle civil rights cases. And one of our cases was against what’s now probably still well-known, the Beverly Hills Hotel. Former President Trump had some alleged liaisons that took place at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Well, in those days they had a bar called the Polo Lounge, and the Polo Lounge had a rule. The rule was a woman who was not escorted could not enter the premises. And the concept behind that rule was that if a woman was unescorted, she must be a prostitute. So, our law firm represented somebody, an unescorted woman who tried to patronize the Polo Lounge and was of course, escorted out. And we brought a lawsuit against the Beverly Hills Hotel on the grounds that that was sex discrimination. They couldn’t arbitrarily say an unescorted woman was not allowed on the premises. And we resolved that case quite quickly.

Beverly Hills, that’s where I want to be.

Z: So, you were at this women-owned firm in the mid-seventies in LA and you’re doing all kinds of different cases. This like sounds to me like basically a women’s version of LA Law. This has got to be made into a TV show.

K: We’ve been asked actually on several occasions to submit some information on our stories. One of my favorite stories I can share with you, in those days, was the lawsuit we brought against the California Court of Appeal. The court itself was advertising to hire a new deputy court clerk. And we had a client who had experience in the trial court level being a court clerk, who applied to become the deputy clerk of the court of the Court of Appeal. And the man who was the court administrator flatly turned her down, saying quite explicitly he would not hire a woman. So that was one of our very favorite cases. We brought a Title VII lawsuit against the California Court of Appeal itself. And again, the Court quickly settled that case because we kind of had them dead to rights. It was a pretty blatant act of sex discrimination.

Z: Now, again, in that case, you’re successful with the case, but did you worry about some kind of retaliation later on by, you know, judges or other lawyers who were not happy about this?

K: You know, we didn’t really worry about it. One of my law partners in those days had been in the State Attorney General’s office, and the offices of the California Court of Appeal were in the same office building as the Attorney General’s office. My partner knew justices on the California Court of Appeal. One day she was in the lobby of that building. One of the justices she knew well came over and started to give her a hug, and then he said, “oh no, I better not do that, you’re suing us”. So, you know, it was the right thing to do. It didn’t seem like it took a lot of courage to do it. It needed to be done. It was simply the right thing to do. And fortunately for us, we did not suffer any retaliation that I’m aware of.

Z: So then, I guess all good things must come to an end. You eventually leave that firm and you go to a bigger litigation boutique, is that right?

K: So after six years of our women-owned firm, my partners and I parted because we just had different interests. One of my partners became one of the most prominent family law attorneys in Los Angeles. I joined a twenty-five-lawyer litigation boutique and stayed there for close to 20 years.

Z: How did you end up becoming the marketing partner, in effect, for that firm?

K: When I joined the firm, I was of course used to running my own small firm and bringing in clients and managing client work. And that firm had a problem. The problem that my new firm had was that one lawyer, a very prominent trial lawyer, brought in most of the work in the firm, and that created a risk. That was a risk for everybody else because he was young and healthy. But if anything happened to him, if he got hit by a bus, the firm would have collapsed because there were 25 lawyers who mostly depended on a work he generated. So, I became initially really just the de facto go-to person to help any other lawyers in the firm who wanted to create more independence, wanted to create their own pipeline of clients and cases. So that’s kind of what I did, just to be a good team player and to fill a need.Over time, it became something I really enjoyed, which ultimately led me to start my consulting business.

Z: In addition to your consulting and helping people with business development, I know that you’re active in a number of nonprofit causes. I think one of those is Legal Momentum. Can you tell us a little bit about Legal Momentum, and what’s your involvement with them?

K: Legal Momentum is a women’s civil rights organization that was started 50 years ago. When I moved to the East Coast in 1998, after starting my consulting business, I began working on a pro bono basis for Legal Momentum and created what became known as the Aiming High Awards. The idea of the Aiming High Awards has been to recognize very powerful and successful business leaders who care about civil rights and would bring their companies and their business partners to an event to honor them and to support Legal Momentum. So, for the last 20 years, my core pro bono work has been raising money to sustain their work in women’s civil rights.

For example, one of the things that they are best known for is being an advocate for something called the Violence Against Women Act, VAWA. This is a law that was passed in 1994, which creates protection and has pumped literally billions of dollars into police departments and police programs to help support protection of women against domestic violence and other violence. So, that’s been a core part of what I’ve done on a pro bono basis. I don’t practice civil rights law anymore, but I found another way to contribute to the cause.

Z: And I think it was a few months back, I was able to watch these awards online. When is the next presentation of the Legal Momentum awards?

K: The next awards will be sometime this fall. We haven’t set the date yet. We will be honoring another group of people, including our Man of Distinction this year, the Chief Legal Officer and Secretary of Comcast, Tom Reid. And we’ll be honoring a group of people. I’ll be happy to let you know the date as soon as it’s set.

Karen is heavily involved in Legal Momentum’s “Aiming High” awards

Z: Great. I’m sure people will be interested in that. So, you become sort of the marketing guru at this previous firm, but then at some point you decide to move on from the practice of law to full-time consulting to help lawyers. What was that like, starting your own consulting business?

K: You know, it felt like a leap because I had practiced law for over 25 years and that was kind of the core of what I knew. It was a little bit scary to do that, but when I thought about what interested me and what I wanted to do, I kept thinking back to my mother’s experience. My mother had been an immigrant born in Eastern Europe who came to the United States speaking no English at age 13. And I thought, okay, well, it’s a little bit scary for me to leave my secure job as a partner in a very successful law firm in Los Angeles and start a business, but probably not nearly as scary as being an immigrant, coming to a strange country and not speaking the language and having no resources. So, you know, that’s, that was kind of my reference point. My mother was my reference point. So when I started my business, I called it The New Ellis Group, Ellis being a reference to my mother’s experience, being an immigrant at Ellis Island.

Z: What a great inspiration for the name. Now I have to ask you this. What did your mother think when she found out you were going to be the plaintiff in Kaplowitz v. University of Chicago?

K: I’ll tell you what my mother thought when I left O’Melveny and Myers and started my own law firm.  I don’t remember what she said about my lawsuit, but I do remember what she said about my leaving a secure job and starting my little law firm. She said, “are you crazy? Are you crazy? You went to the University of Chicago Law School, you have this fabulous job in a big law firm. And, you know, you get a paycheck.” I mean, you know, the paycheck in those days was probably $15,000 a year, but you know, that was a lot of money in the early seventies. And my mother was literally horrified, but she assured me that no matter what happened, she would always be there to support me.

Z: Well, that’s great. And that reminds me, what did the bank tell you when you went to get a loan to start your law firm?

K: Ah, yes. Well, so I had banked for the three years I was at O’Melveny and Myers at a bank called Security Pacific National Bank, which was later acquired by Bank of America.  I’d been a loyal and, you know, creditworthy customer of Security Pacific for three years. And when we started our women-owned law firm in 1974, we decided we needed a line of credit. So I went to my bank, Security Pacific, and I said, may I please have a line of credit? I don’t even remember if it was for $10,000 or $20,000, whatever it was, it was a modest sum of money. And they said, of course, we are happy to provide you with a line of credit, provided that you deposit an amount equal to the line of credit in the bank and do not touch it during the term of the line of credit. And I said, if I had whatever the amount was, $10,000 or $20,000, to deposit in your bank account, I wouldn’t need a line of credit. That would be enough for me. I need a line of credit because I don’t have $10,000 or $20,000 just lying around. They turned us down.

Z: But you started anyway.

K: We did start anyway.

Z: Good for you. Well, when I first heard the story about your lawsuit back when you were a law student, you told me “being bold, never hurts.” What did you mean by that?

K: I meant that I’ve been lucky in my life that when I’ve done things that you might’ve thought were bold, like bringing a lawsuit against the Law School, or leaving a secure job and starting a women-owned law firm, or starting a new business doing business development, coaching, and strategy, I’ve been lucky that those things turned out well. I may have shared with you a story.  As a young lawyer, I was aggressive, all the time, and had a lot of agendas, especially in the women’s rights arena. And about 20 years into my law practice, I ran into a judge before whom I’d appeared as a young lawyer, who had gone on to the Court of Appeal by that time. He was a very well known judge and I met him at some bar event or a cocktail party. And I said, you know, I want to share with you that I’ve mellowed, since you knew me as a young lawyer out there fighting the good fight in your courtroom. I’ve really mellowed a lot. And I’ll never forget his response. He said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Z: That’s great.

K: Yeah. So, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been lucky that the things that I’ve been passionate about and have advocated for and worked hard to accomplish, haven’t hurt me. That’s the good news. As I look back on 50 years of practicing law and look at, you know, this time period marked on one end by, you know, riots in Grant Park in Chicago and marked at the other end, by January 6th, the riots at the US Capitol, you know, I am saddened that more has not changed in these intervening 50 years, and that we are again, fighting to preserve our democracy, our rule of law, and I’m glad that I’ve had a small part in being part of a profession whose core commitment is to preserving the Constitution, preserving the rule of law, and preserving our democratic institutions. So, that’s kind of how I look back on these 50 years.

The name of Karen’s consulting company was inspired by her mother

Z: Well, I think “small part” might be a little bit of an understatement. That is quite a career of accomplishment. So thank you for sharing some of those stories with me and with our audience. Before we wrap up, I just want to get back a little bit to your current consulting practice. I know that I’ve gotten so much great input from you on business development issues. What would you say makes your consulting approach different from some of the other coaches who are out there?

K: Thanks for asking. I would say that the one thing that I try hard to do in my coaching work is to help people figure out how to identify their best opportunities and how to integrate what they do in the realm of business development and marketing into their everyday work. So it’s not an add on, it’s not an extra burden, it’s part and parcel about how they go about their everyday opportunities. It’s a real privilege for me to have worked with literally hundreds of partners in law firms around the country to help them build their practices. And I’m glad to have run into you, and glad to have had the opportunity to work with you and your former law firm, and appreciate this opportunity to talk to you about work, law, and life in 2021.

Z: Well, I was so happy to do it, and if you are a lawyer looking for coaching, I highly recommend Karen. And if you’re not ready to take that leap, at least check out Karen’s newsletter, which is called what?

K: Monday Monday.

Z: Monday Monday, a great song and a great newsletter. It comes out usually once every two weeks?

K: Every two weeks. Right. People can go to my website, newellis.com, and they can sign up.

Z: And I recommend people do that. It’s concise, it’s fresh, it’s right to the point. It’s worth a few minutes, every two weeks to check it out, if you’re a lawyer who cares about business development. Okay. Thank you, Karen!

K: Thank you so much.

_______________________

Zach Wolfe (zach@zachwolfelaw.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas “Super Lawyer”® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.

Disclaimer: Every case is different. Suing your elite law school in federal court may not achieve similar results.