Seven pandemic Pivots
These alumni used the lockdown as a time for career reflection, relocation, and renewal.
For Nichelle Johnson Billips JD/LLM ’03, the pandemic brought the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development into stark relief. As an attorney-advisor for the agency, she helped keep critical health and nutrition programs running in developing countries when clinics were closed and logistics snarled, worked on messaging campaigns to encourage hand-washing, and supported the distribution of millions of vaccine doses.
It was a singular professional experience, and Johnson Billips believed deeply in USAID’s mission. But COVID-19 had taught her the importance of being open to new possibilities. In October, after nearly a decade of government service, she joined FHI 360, a large nonprofit supporting human development around the world, as deputy general counsel.
“With the pandemic, we had a lot of things taken away, and it forced us to think about what we want to put back,” Johnson Billips says. “I had been at USAID for a number of years at that point, and I was thinking, ‘Okay, I’m doing this. I’m doing a good job. Is this what I want to keep doing? Exactly this?’”
Johnson Billips had aspired to international work during her time in Duke’s JD/LLM in International and Comparative Law dual-degree program. After graduation, she joined Hogan & Hartson in Washington, where she remained for eight years, then entered public service in 2012 at the U.S. Department of Transportation before moving to USAID. A few years later, she began supporting the agency’s global health work, including programs focused on HIV and AIDS prevention, maternal and child health, nutrition programs, and eventually, COVID-19. The work was grueling but rewarding.
“In the international development space, often you’re working on issues that you aren’t living through, like water and sanitation or girls’ education,” she says. “But the pandemic is something that we were living through and working on.”
As she was reassessing her career, Johnson Billips applied for and was accepted into the White House Leadership Development Program, where she spent the next year as a fellow, learning about herself and the inner workings of the center of the federal government. Towards the end of the program, FHI 360 contacted her. She was hesitant to leave the government, but followed a mentor’s advice to go on the interview before ruling it out. When she found that the people there shared her passion for helping people around the world improve their lives, she was convinced it was the right move.
“In your career, there’s not necessarily one destination,” she says. “Your career is this journey. Thinking about this as the next step in my career journey, it seems like a good one.”
Athul Acharya ’14 relocated to Portland, Ore., from the Bay Area in May 2020, retaining his position as an impact litigation associate with a boutique firm. But just before his move, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, sparking protests against police brutality across the United States, including months of protests in Portland, and accelerating Acharya’s own move into civil rights law.
Acharya recalls that “basically all hell broke loose” as police began tear-gassing demonstrators in the city’s downtown. On behalf of his firm, he subsequently identified a class of journalists and legal observers who had been targeted by local law enforcement for reporting on aggressive treatment of protesters. His team won a preliminary injunction against local authorities and federal agents, then successfully defended an appeal, allowing reporters to remain at the scene of a protest following an order to disperse.
“I think that really made concrete for me that fighting these law enforcement abuses was what I wanted to do with my career,” says Acharya, a former software engineer who initially practiced patent litigation.
In May 2021, he left private practice to found Public Accountability in Portland, a civil rights nonprofit dedicated to reforming rules like qualified immunity, sovereign immunity, and the Monell doctrine that help to shield police officers and other public officials and entities from civil litigation. Noting that his interest in anti-accountability doctrines started a decade earlier in his Federal Courts course taught by Alston & Bird Professor Ernest Young, he sees Public Accountability as filling a neglected niche.
“Most civil rights nonprofits, like the ACLU, take a generalist approach,” Acharya says. “No one was laser-focused on these specific threshold doctrines that keep cases from being heard on their merits.”
In the past year Acharya has won an appeal involving excessive use of force by a deputy against a protester in Portland and secured a $750,000 excessive force settlement for a man beaten by prison guards in El Paso County, Colo. He also successfully opposed a motion for summary judgment based on sovereign immunity in a Colorado inmate’s discrimination claim; a $3.5 million verdict was awarded in January.
As Public Accountability’s executive director, Acharya’s current caseload includes representing a prisoner in a Bivens claim seeking damages for excessive use of force by federal marshals and others involving journalists’ right to cover protests without retaliation, parents’ right to criticize school board members, the right to sue federal agents in the Ninth Circuit, and compensation for inmates infected with COVID-19.
“I started having conversations with people about doing this back in 2018,” Acharya says. “Would those conversations have reached fruition without the events of 2020? That’s unclear.” d
Ryan Sheen JD/LLMLE ’18 always had an entrepreneurial bent. He worked for Duke Capital Partners (formerly the Duke Angel Network) while in law school and began his legal career as a startup and venture capital attorney at a lean, tech-forward law firm.
But when that firm began to expand practice areas and shift its focus away from startup work, Sheen and colleagues from his practice group decided to launch their own law firm. In October Sheen became a founding senior attorney at Optimal Counsel, a boutique focused on emerging companies and venture capital that is fully remote.
Now Sheen is part of a startup himself.
“After advising clients over all these years on their new ventures, it’s been fun to put on the founder hat and see things from their perspective,” he says.
Optimal Counsel’s distributed model allows its 15 attorneys, which include other Duke Law alumni, to work from wherever they choose to live. For Sheen, that meant moving from Boston to Washington, D.C.
Sheen says Optimal’s remote-first model materially decreases overhead, allowing the firm to offer partner-level legal services at billing rates similar to the rates of less experienced associates at large law firms — a significant advantage, he says, especially with the recent downturn in VC financing and M&A transactions. Optimal Counsel was profitable in its first quarter and services more than 125 clients, most of which transferred with Optimal’s launch. Because Optimal’s founders had largely worked as a remote practice group at their previous firm, the transition has been seamless, Sheen says.
“Most of our clients are startups and tech-based, so they just get it. A lot of them are working from co-working spaces themselves, and they are familiar with and confident in using software for videoconferencing, for example, in lieu of meeting in person. So we’re on the same page.”
The decentralized structure also eliminates a concern that Sheen and many of his colleagues found at their previous firm: an uneven playing field between remote and in-person attorneys.
“When you have only one practice group that’s remote, office politics do come into play and remote workers are at a disadvantage because they’re not in the office building relationships in person every day,” Sheen says.
“If everyone’s remote-first, that eliminates a lot of anxiety and attorneys can focus their energy on producing quality work and being an advocate for their clients as opposed to worrying about things like their commute and finding childcare.”
“I think COVID has shown us that remote work is realistic and attainable and it’s a practical way to work. It’s my hope that the legal industry in general will move in that direction.” d
Shanna Rifkin ’17 says her heart always called her to a public interest career, yet she never gave herself permission to listen. Instead, she followed advice she had once been given to pursue jobs “that will open doors,” advice that led her to district court and First Circuit Court of Appeals clerkships and then practicing general litigation at Jenner & Block in Chicago.
That is, until the pandemic. Isolated from coworkers and friends by the lockdown and struggling to achieve any work-life balance, Rifkin began to feel “untethered” from the firm and the path she had worked so hard to forge. She kept gravitating towards the part of her caseload she cared about the most, her pro bono cases, which were primarily criminal defense, and marveled at a fellow associate’s decision to leave practice, without another job lined up but with the confidence she’d secure one.
“Once she left, I started to seriously question what I was doing, and that the only cases I truly wanted to work on were my pro bono cases,” Rifkin says. “Watching her leave gave me the confidence that I could leave too.”
In April 2021, after a year-and-a-half in private practice, Rifkin quit, deciding that success on her terms lay elsewhere. She spent the summer working on clemency matters on behalf of incarcerated youth with Northwestern Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center, while applying for a range of public interest jobs and secretly second-guessing her move. Then, in a single week in September, she received three offers, including one from FAMM (formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums), a nonprofit focused on sentencing reform.
Having been fascinated by the complex federal sentencing issues she encountered during her district court clerkship, Rifkin says working with FAMM was a dream, although one she assumed would be unattainable. Since accepting the position of deputy general counsel, she has helped expand the organization’s amicus practice in appellate courts and the U.S. Supreme Court, engaged in regulatory advocacy with the U.S. Sentencing Commission on such matters as amendment of compassionate release guidelines, and screened incarcerated people’s requests for compassionate release motions and connected those who present viable claims with pro bono counsel.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had,” she says, relieved to have let go of that early career advice, and followed her gut instead. “Being able to do work that reflects your heart and your passion is the most empowering thing.” d
After informally counseling countless friends and colleagues on their professional paths, in 2020 Mila Trezza LLM ’03 saw a natural next step for her legal career: a coaching practice that leveraged her people skills and deep knowledge of the corporate legal environment.
“I had all these people asking, ‘Can we have a talk? What do you think? What should I do?’” she recalls. “I find it very fulfilling, and I have been passionate about helping people ever since.”
Early in her legal career, Trezza remembers being “universally discouraged” from moving in-house, but she wanted to work closely with businesspeople and ultimately manage a team of lawyers. After earning her LLM at Duke, she spent 17 years with Italian energy company Eni, the last 10 as vice president and general counsel for Europe and Oceania. “I was the first woman in that role and a mother of three,” she says. “In many ways, I felt like I was living life at double speed. I said to myself, ‘I will do this until I’m 45 and then it’s my time to do something that is more my vision of legal talent and less with a corporate script.’”
After leaving the post at the end of 2020, Trezza earned her executive coaching certification and launched her practice. Her clients so far have included partners and associates at major law firms, general counsels, and heads of legal departments in both the public and private sectors. She is also coaching international students at Duke Law in a new program launched this fall called “Beyond the LLM.” The individual, confidential sessions are tailored to the specific needs of the student, and Trezza helps them explore their options, arm them with insight, and build a strategy for careers that often have a multi-jurisdictional dimension.
Like many coaches, Trezza finds clients, whomever they are, need help gaining clarity and building confidence to progress to their next career move. But she says a key aspect of her practice is helping lawyers who want to advance and succeed in leadership roles: “Lawyers play a vital role for the organizations they serve. Yet no jobs, and in fairness, not even legal education fully prepare them for their self-management and leadership challenges.” She also specializes in helping law firms and in-house lawyers communicate and understand each other better.
“I try to encapsulate my experience and offer it in a manner that is hopefully meaningful for people,” she says. “When people reconnect with their strengths and see their challenges from a new perspective, it’s just wonderful to see how far they can go.” d
As the pandemic entered its second year, Abby Dennis ’08 decided it was time for a sabbatical. For four-and-a-half months, she and her partner traveled around the United States, visiting loved ones, seeing natural wonders, and testing themselves on grueling mountain hikes. A month after returning home to Washington, D.C., she set out on another adventure: leaving a successful litigation practice at Boies Schiller Flexner in Washington for a new position at the Federal Trade Commission, her first job change in 12 years.
“I always wanted to take some time to travel,” Dennis says. “You’re working very hard, you love your job, and then life’s a little bit in upheaval with the pandemic and you realize what’s important to you. COVID gave me a chance to be away from work, physically and also mentally, and helped with changing the direction I wanted to go in with my life.”
A partner at Boies Schiller, Dennis had worked on two major trials in 2019 (her ninth and 10th since joining the firm following a federal clerkship), run the New York City Marathon, and turned 40. She loved her job and her firm. But the next spring, as she and her colleagues dispersed to their homes and high-stakes litigation ground to a halt, she began to reflect on her career.
“I was very fortunate to get fantastic experience as an associate and a junior partner, but it’s very hard to crack into the next level of being the lead trial lawyer, which is something I really wanted to do,” she says. “There’s a chicken-and-egg situation in Big Law, which is to be the lead lawyer you need to bring in the clients, but to bring in the clients you need to be the lead lawyer.”
One former colleague who had navigated the same challenge encouraged her to consider moving into government to get the lead trial lawyer experience she craved. Despite spending her career in Washington, Dennis hadn’t envisioned a role for herself in public service, but she returned from her sabbatical ready to make the leap. A year later, she was preparing to go to trial leading one of the government’s highest-profile antitrust cases, the FTC’s challenge to Meta’s acquisition of VR software company Within Unlimited.
“It’s hard to make changes when you really, really love something and you’re a little bit older,” she says. “You get in a certain safe place in life and sometimes it takes something like COVID to jar you out of that. Sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself and do things that might be a little bit uncomfortable to advance yourself as a human being, advance yourself as a lawyer.” d
A technology transactions attorney at Perkins Coie, Michael Herrera ’16 was based in its San Diego office in March 2020 when news of the pandemic hit and the entire firm went remote almost overnight. He credits enlightened firm practices and policies for making the transition seamless and successful.
“We represent a lot of technology clients so we are a very tech-focused firm and our systems were advanced already,” Herrera says, adding that many of his colleagues worked in different offices or at different hours. “I don’t think anything really fell through the cracks.”
In fact, once his San Diego home office was set up Herrera found himself to be “significantly more productive.” A partner even noted how well he had adjusted, with no visible impact on his work or ability to communicate with or train colleagues.
So it was easy for the firm to say yes when Herrera asked to move to Raleigh for family reasons under its new tiered hybrid policy. Since relocating in spring 2022 he hasn’t missed a beat, conducting business much as before, with occasional trips to the West Coast for client and firm meetings.
“That’s the nature of how I developed my practice, so I was already used to being on calls a lot,” Herrera says. “In my life sciences and biotech practice, there was no in-person communication because that team is very remote or hybrid anyway, so we’ve noticed no drop-off in training or ability or production or anything. I call people all the time on video chat. I still train folks. I treat it like I’m still in the office, and people seem to appreciate that.
“I miss the casual drop-ins with folks, and there’s something to be said about getting away from home for work. But even before the pandemic our office wasn’t always at 100% capacity.”
Herrera is active in the firm’s diversity and inclusion initiatives as well as recruiting, and says his firm’s flexibility has attracted attorneys looking to make lateral moves.
“The firm has been unbelievably supportive,” Herrera says. “Perkins has always been very progressive and forward-looking. I think the pandemic highlighted how much so.”
He predicts that most law firms will eventually implement similar policies, with most workers in the office two or three days a week.
“The pandemic showed us that working remotely is not a detriment,” he says. “I think fully remote work will still be on a case-by-case basis. I just don’t think convincing a firm will be as difficult as it was pre-pandemic, if you’re capable or if you have a practice conducive to it.” d