Lisa A. Coppola: “You cannot turn “it” off”

To whom much is given, much is expected. This is the moral code by which I live. Becoming successful in law is not a one-way street. The best lawyers are those who perform their work with honesty and integrity and give back to their communities. Whether it is a little thing like connecting two people […]

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To whom much is given, much is expected. This is the moral code by which I live. Becoming successful in law is not a one-way street. The best lawyers are those who perform their work with honesty and integrity and give back to their communities. Whether it is a little thing like connecting two people or donating to worthy organizations, giving back is an obligation I welcome.

Owning my own law firm and a second business gives me the authority to discern from people whether or not they share this gratitude-based approach to life. Good people make good workplaces. If it came down to it, I would rather make less money and be surrounded by good people than make a ton of money working with greedy, corrupt people.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa A. Coppola, The Coppola Firm.

Lisa A. Coppola, Esq. understands the challenges her clients face, whether they’re starting a new business, taking their existing operations in a new direction, or facing a claim or threat. She particularly enjoys working with the underdog, because of her compassion and creativity — and she has plenty of both — are put to the test.

In the 25-plus years, she has practiced in Western New York, Ms. Coppola has actively litigated cases in State and federal court, including arguing appeals at New York’s highest court and in the Federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals. She has a breadth of experience in business litigation as well as high-exposure personal injury matters, including taking cases to verdict over the course of many years and in many courtrooms. While she is comfortable before a jury, she is equally at home before appellate and arbitration panels.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law?

I always liked to fight and was pretty good at putting words together. I went to law school with hopes of doing public interest work, but having taken loans for graduate work, I joined the largest white-shoe firm in my community. I was delighted that they encouraged me to do pro bono work. I worked very hard and made an equity partner by my early 30s, though as I matured, I began observing some limitations to large-firm corporate life. I discovered that charting your own path removes these corporate chains.

I helped to form a new, smaller law firm that provided me with more flexibility, but this flexibility meant working much harder. Along with four men, I grew the firm from five attorneys in the beginning to over 50 when I sold my ownership a dozen years later.

Just about five years ago, I started The Coppola Firm. I had honored a one-year non-compete with my prior firm and had foregone the practice of law for 365 very long days. When I opened the doors of my new law practice, I was surprised and truly honored when my clients returned to me for representation. I’m fortunate to be growing this law firm with an exceptional team of creative, no-nonsense lawyers, and we do great litigation, personal injury, labor and employment, and transactional work across New York State.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?

One of the areas in which I practice — employment law — frequently holds interesting and sometimes-comical situations. One time a corporate client called, in a panic, because an employee had brought in a dessert for the team. Turns out the dessert was brownies — and you guessed it — they were laced with THC. If that wasn’t enough of a surprise on a Friday afternoon, one of the employees who partook was on probation and needed to submit to a weekly drug test. The employee realized what he had unwittingly done, and he began to freak out. The company’s president called me, aghast at the situation and worried about liability. After all, who thinks they need to police the company kitchen for drug-laced desserts? Fortunately, the employee on probation did not get into any trouble, the company regrouped, and the baker-employee was told to leave her treats at home.

Another time, I was trying an injury case against a real live-wire fellow who had actually threatened me a few times. It was about 9 pm on a Friday when the jury came back and announced that I had won the case. My associate and I were elated, but in the quiet courtroom, this guy furiously erupted and stormed out. Shortly thereafter, I left the courthouse with my associate, carrying my litigation bag and bankers boxes of evidence. As we were crossing the street, the guy came around the corner at a high rate of speed and almost ran us over. He nearly killed the two of us! Luckily, we were both okay and chuckled about it over drinks afterward.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

Aside from my law practice, it is an honor to be one of nine women on the national board of the National Association of Women Business Owners, based in Washington, D.C., which supports and empowers the 11+ million women entrepreneurs across the country. In fact, NAWBO propels women business owners into spheres of economic, social, and political power and influence worldwide. I love the work I do with NAWBO, especially because there is such an important role for “Main Street” businesses to play in the economic revitalization of our country. We create jobs. We make the tide rise. And we are in it for the long haul. It is a privilege to be influencing policymaking on a national level and engaging with lawmakers to support women entrepreneurs.

What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Without sharing anything confidential can you share any stories?

During my litigation career, I most frequently have been on the side of the so-called big guys, but occasionally I am fortunate to get to play the role of David against Goliath. The first time this occurred in a really meaningful way was in 2012, when I took on the case of a refugee family from a southern African nation. The experience transformed me in a number of ways. I learned about the overwhelming danger and terror that existed in their country of origin, their bravery during their escape, and the travel through dangerous terrain halfway across the world that brought them to America’s doors. They had a young family, with 2 daughters, and if I were unsuccessful, they would be returned to a country where violence against women and girls was culturally acceptable, and the practice of female genital mutilation was commonplace. I knew that I couldn’t let that happen.

What I learned was that their vulnerability was, in fact, extraordinary strength, the strength that comes to common people when they face the unthinkable. I was honored to provide them with strong, capable advocacy, and we were delighted and relieved when the judge ordered asylum status for the entire family. While I never received monetary compensation for taking their case, their joy and gratitude meant the world to me. And I was further delighted to learn that the New York State Bar Association recognized my work and awarded me its annual Empire State Counsel Award for pro bono service.

Right now, unfortunately, there is a decidedly unfriendly federal approach to refugees, for example. Not only has the immigration process personally benefitted my family, because my children were born abroad and immigrated to the United States, but most refugees are incredibly brave people simply seeking a refuge — a better life. My favorite type of pro bono work is asylum cases for refugees, and it is more important now than ever to take this kind of work.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Alexander Hamilton inspires me for having taken up an important cause despite its unpopularity and moving beyond his station in life with perseverance and grit. I am moved by people who advocate for what they believe in and stick their necks out for positions that are not universally appealing.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in law?

Read all the time. When new decisions come out, read them even if they are not directly related to a case you have. Calendar the dates when appellate decisions are released in your jurisdictions, and spend time with them, because reading decisions teaches you how judges think, analyze, and write. This leads to insights that will make you a better lawyer.

If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?

The first reform would be to stop electing judges. Unfortunately, in New York, politics permeates the election of judges. I think we can solve this with an independent recommendation board, somewhat modeled after the federal system where judges are vetted and then chosen by the President with the advice and consent of the entire Senate.

I also think competent, experienced trial attorneys become great judges. While there are many brilliant lawyers, private practice success or intellect are not always sufficient experience for taking the bench. Experience as a trial attorney gives a prospective judge important perspective that is critically necessary.

Another reform I would like to see explored is retiring the billable hour. While this traditional method of valuing of lawyer services is adequate, it remains an artificial measure of value. Who is to say that one hour of work has the value one ascribes to it? A possible solution is a method called value billing where specific projects have certain fees attached to them. There are some areas of law that more easily can be valued in this fashion. Clients want certainty in budgeting and billing, and exploring more creating pricing methods could result in higher client satisfaction.

Finally, although women litigators have made good progress, there’s still more to be done. So often, women in the courtroom are so-called second-chair lawyers, doing little more than preparing the briefs and carrying the briefcases. We should be encouraging women lawyers to take on the role of the primary advocate, and clients and law firm partners alike should make way for this. It is heartening in New York that there is an initiative underway in our State and federal courts to encourage less experienced litigators — oftentimes women — to take the lead role in oral argument before the court.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I have been privileged to have had opportunities in education as well as friends and family who have supported me throughout the years. Since I have been so fortunate, I feel I have a moral obligation to give back. In terms of volunteerism, I serve on the boards of organizations that do important work, and I donate funds to those that I think are deserving. I am also compelled to be a mentor and connect people whose meeting would be mutually beneficial to them. Sometimes that is a new lawyer, business women or men, and sometimes even my friends and neighbors. If someone is looking for information and I know a person well-versed in the topic, I will introduce them to each other.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially compelling, I think, as we evaluate the way we do business and even the ways that we live. Especially while we’re in the midst of this pandemic, I want to give as much information as I can and hold nothing back. Whether I’m training people or producing content, I want to share valuable information and give back.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

On the most basic level, I want to support my family and provide a foundation for my daughters. As a single mom by choice, that’s not only my responsibility but they are my inspiration. As well, I want to advocate for women’s empowerment. Along with my colleagues, we created an initiative called Legal Weapons, and we use this platform to educate and inform, particularly women in business. While I recognize that, perhaps, gender is not the most flagrant social injustice taking place today, it has definitely struck me as a problem in law.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Don’t be afraid to set an intention (or a few!)

When I was younger, rather than thinking I made my career happen, I thought my career happened to me. Now, looking back, I see that I made it happen to a certain extent but likely could have been even more deliberate and mindful about directing my career.

I like to tell people that there’s a corporate way of setting your intention and a woo-woo way. The corporate method is to make a business plan for yourself with one-, three-, and five-year goals, checking in to observe your progress on a regular basis. Even if you are young and don’t have much power yet, you can still set goals, for example, “I want to argue five cases in the courtroom as the first chair by twelve months from now.”

The woo-woo way of setting intentions happens to be my favorite. I like to cut out pictures and quotes from magazines and paste them in a vision book. I fully believe that I create my reality by what I vision and that the adage — what you focus on expands — is undoubtedly true. For instance, if you want a sporty red car, just keep saying, “thank you for that sporty red car,” and act as if it exists in your world already. Funny story, I used visioning to create my second business, a garden design firm called The English Gardener.

2. Learn how to write and practice it all the time.

Writing is the single most important skill and is hugely underrated among entering lawyers. Legal writing is very different from other sorts of writing, like a college paper. It takes time and practice to wrap your brain around the process in order to be direct, succinct, cogent, and compelling.

3. To whom much is given, much is expected.

This is the moral code by which I live. Becoming successful in law is not a one-way street. The best lawyers are those who perform their work with honesty and integrity and give back to their communities. Whether it is a little thing like connecting two people or donating to worthy organizations, giving back is an obligation I welcome.

Owning my own law firm and a second business gives me the authority to discern from people whether or not they share this gratitude-based approach to life. Good people make good workplaces. If it came down to it, I would rather make less money and be surrounded by good people than make a ton of money working with greedy, corrupt people.

4. You cannot turn “it” off.

In my opinion, to be successful in private practice, you need to make peace with your career playing a major role in your life. I commit an enormous amount of time and emotional energy to my work, and I believe my career has benefitted as a result. This is a significant challenge with the law, but I believe there is no alternative.

5. Build in travel.

And not only for work! I use travel to broaden my views and perspectives, to learn new things, and to experience new sights and smells. It is important that I put myself into unusual and, sometimes, uncomfortable situations as often as I can, whether it is flying to China, hiking in Iceland, or learning a new language in Europe.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

I would pick Glennon Doyle (and her wife, Abby Wambach) because of their inspiring work with Together Rising. They do a lot of work around disenfranchised populations domestically and internationally, garnering support from people like Elizabeth Gilbert and others. Moreover, no one on staff at Together Rising gets paid so all of the money goes to things like the refugee crisis in Greece, Black Lives Matter, and other worthy causes. And it’s remarkable because regular people largely fund Together Rising, and for many years they wouldn’t accept a donation over 15 dollars!

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