In this episode of the ABA Law Student Podcast, host Kareem Aref speaks with Stark & D’Ambrosio, LLP partner Anna Romanskaya about her journey through law school and her struggles finding work as a legal practitioner. Anna shares that she never aspired to become a lawyer, had no family members that were attorneys, and that she perceived the profession as stuffy and intimidating. Her passion for crisis intervention and victim advocacy led her away from the undergraduate psychology focus she was pursuing at the University of California, Santa Barbara and towards a double major in law and society and political science. Anna recalls the lack of direction she felt in school and recounts how those feelings informed her decision to attend law school in order to gain the practical skills she would need to work in advocacy. She discusses the difficulties of being a 1L, finding herself on academic probation, and the internships and student organization participation that ultimately gave her the sense of connection and occupational purpose that helped her graduate from law school. Anna reflects on the sadness she felt upon losing her job during the recent economic downturn, the triumph of passing the bar exam, and the hard work required to secure her practice in family law. Before closing the interview she also provides tips on how to push through these challenges for law students experiencing similar hardships.
Anna Romanskaya is a partner with Stark & D’Ambrosio, LLP and manages the firm’s family law division. She represents clients in all aspects of family law, including pre and post marital agreements, dissolution, child custody, child and spousal support, property division and post judgment issues. Anna has been recognized as a Rising Star by Super Lawyers in 2015 and 2016, as well as a Best of the Bar in 2015 and 2016 by the San Diego Business Journal. She is the Chair of the Young Lawyers Division of the American Bar Association (ABA) and is a graduate from the University of California, Santa Barbara where she double-majored in political science and law and society. She received her Juris Doctorate from Thomas Jefferson School of Law and is admitted to the State Bar of California and the U.S. District Court, Southern District of California.
ABA Law Student Podcast
The Challenges of Law School and Finding Your First Job
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Kareem Aref: Hello and welcome to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast on Legal Talk Network. I am Kareem Aref. I am the Chair of the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association and I am a rising third year law student at the University of California, Davis. Our show today is sponsored by the American Bar Association Law Student Division.
In this monthly podcast we cover topics that are of interest to you, law students and recent graduates. We will be talking about a variety of issues from finals to Bar exam and everything in between. We hope this show is a trusted resource for all of our listeners.
For this show, we have my friend and our special guest Anna Romanskaya, who is a partner at Stark & D’Ambrosio in San Diego and she practices family law. Welcome on the show Anna. Thanks for coming on.
Anna Romanskaya: Thanks for having me. Hello!
Kareem Aref: How are you doing?
Anna Romanskaya: I am a little bit tired, but I am doing well altogether.
Kareem Aref: It’s been quite the annual meeting.
Anna Romanskaya: It has.
Kareem Aref: So Anna, you are the Chair now of the Young Lawyers Division and you officially started your term at this point?
Anna Romanskaya: I have. I am officially 24 hours in.
Kareem Aref: How does it feel?
Anna Romanskaya: It feels great. It’s humbling and it’s exciting and I am looking forward to getting started and keep the traction moving.
Kareem Aref: Fantastic. So you are a partner at the law firm, you are Chair of the Young Lawyers Division. I mean, it seems like you have it all figured out, has that always been the case?
Anna Romanskaya: Not at all. It’s actually quite surreal and that’s why I say it’s humbling, I am very proud to be in this position and I hope to make a difference and leave an impact on the profession.
Kareem Aref: Well, tell us about that. How did you come to the decision that you wanted to go to law school?
Anna Romanskaya: Well, you know, I am actually not someone who aspired to be an attorney since I was 5. It was not influenced by any legal shows. I did not have anybody in my family who was an attorney. The only lawyers that I had any access to were those that were either portrayed on TV or it always seemed to me to be kind of a stuffy, intimidating profession.
So I was in undergrad, I did my undergrad in UC Santa Barbara and I originally came in as a psychology major. I thought I wanted to go into the social work field. I really gravitated toward the helping profession; my background is in crisis intervention and victim advocacy.
But as I was moving through my tenure in undergrad I realized that that’s not — it wasn’t what I thought it was actually in practice, the social work aspect, and I realized that I wanted to focus more so on advocacy, and I ultimately ended up double majoring in law and society, which is like the sociology of law essentially and political science from UC Santa Barbara.
I was thinking about what I wanted to do. I was in my junior year of college and realized I should probably figure it out, I am graduating next year, and thinking which industry would help me advocate. And my colleagues were either looking at grad school or law school in my political science and law and society majors. So I thought about it and figured, you can do anything with a law degree at the time and I just thought law school was more practical than grad school.
I still had no intention of being an attorney, or practicing; I just figured if I wanted to do advocacy and I wanted to get some practical skills and training that law school was the way to go.
Kareem Aref: Fantastic. Actually, I don’t know if we have ever discussed this, but I was a psychology law and society major at UC Riverside as well, so as soon as you said that I remember exactly those classes. I think at this point definitely not stuffy, but you are definitely intimidating. So what changed, when did you decide that it was the time to be a lawyer, you are at law school with no interest in being a lawyer, when did that change?
Anna Romanskaya: Yeah. So this is — so I went into law school in 2004, just to put some perspective. The economy was at a much stronger place and we could sort of afford to be apirational and think, I can do anything with a law degree and not really have a direction.
So I came in 2004, 2005, my first year in law school was really challenging. It just was very sort of intimidating in the sense that because I didn’t have a direction, because I was straight from college, I was 22 coming into law school and didn’t really feel like I had a direction, and so as a result I really struggled.
My first year of law school was — my grades were just really not optimal. I ended up being on academic probation at the end of my first year, which was really a scary place to be, because I had the prospect of being dismissed from school, which was a real wake up call, and it was something I have never experienced before; I did well in undergrad, so I kind of had to figure it out.
When looking at internships and what sort of interested me, I gravitated toward public interest and kind of crisis intervention. So my first internship that first summer for my first year was in domestic violence and in restraining orders, and I worked at a nonprofit. And as a result of getting that internship I was looking for funding opportunities, because it was an unpaid internship, and I discovered the Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF), which was a student organization. I went to — kind of backtracking, I ended up going to Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, California.
Kareem Aref: Let me slow you down for one second Anna, you said you really weren’t exposed to lawyers beforehand. So first in the family to go to law school and you mentioned you had to figure it out. How did you do that, what advice do you give to people who are like in that situation where they are trying to figure it out, how did you do it?
Anna Romanskaya: You know, at the time it was — I felt really lost and really disjointed, because I didn’t have a sense of direction. I didn’t really know what I was doing there. I kind of — like I said, I decided to go to law school having these grandiose ideas of wanting to do advocacy. It’s like looking up at the sky and calling it blue. So as a result I didn’t do as optimally as I could have in my classes because I didn’t have that sort of basis.
So what ultimately “saved me” was really looking into what my passion was, what my interests were, and realizing I enjoy public interest, I wanted to do the advocacy. My background is in crisis intervention. And so looking at opportunities for internships in that field is kind of what grounded me finally. So I found that internship doing domestic violence work and I worked in —
Kareem Aref: That was with the Public Interest —
Anna Romanskaya: It was with an organization in Los Angeles called Neighborhood Legal Services; I am from LA so my law school was in San Diego, so as a result of finding that internship I was trying to figure out a way to get paid, and the Public Interest Law Foundation, the Student Organization from school had a scholarship. So you can apply for a scholarship if you worked at a nonprofit or public interest entity, and so that got me introduced to a Student Organization.
And ultimately, sort of long story short, I really liked the mission of PILF, which was to assist students going into the public interest with scholarships and opportunities and ultimately it gave me a purpose.
So after my first year of being in academic probation and kind of floundering, I got involved in the Student Organization, again, primarily to get the scholarship, but then ultimately I got really engaged. I participated in a fundraiser to help fundraise for the scholarship.
And then the students that were leading that organization were graduating, so they came to me and said, Anna, would you like to be President of the Student Organization? And I am sitting there and going like, oh my goodness, I may not graduate, I don’t even know if I academically could even hope to qualify to be in leadership, let alone President of a Student Organization, but ultimately it just kind of worked out.
They worked with me, the administration worked with me, and at the end of the day it’s what gave me purpose, and I barely squeezed by my first year with my grades. Like, literally just, just on the cusp, but that’s what gave me purpose.
So I came back my second year with a summer internship under my belt feeling a little bit more purposeful, thinking, okay, maybe there is a direction for me that I can pursue, and I came in and I took on the presidency of this Student Organization that didn’t really have any members, didn’t have a budget, didn’t have any structure, and ultimately I worked throughout my second year to develop a structure, to build a leadership team, to kind of create a process, and we ended up being one of the largest Student Organizations on campus.
We went from raising for the scholarship that I took, I was the only applicant for my first year of $1,200 to $14,000 in fundraising efforts throughout the year.
But for me personally, that’s what motivated me, so I ended up doing better in school and having a context in the community, because we were able to bring in speakers and put on panels.
So I guess sort of moral of the story, if you will, is what I was initially missing was that purpose and that sense of connection, and getting involved in the school, in the community, really sitting back and assessing why I am doing this and what I want to get out of it is what sort of drove me.
Kareem Aref: And I think that’s so important. You hear these days that grades are really the end-all be-all and that’s how a lot of people feel, and to come around and really come back from that and emphasize the purpose of what you are doing in law school I think would mean a lot to law students.
Anna Romanskaya: Well, I mean, here is the reality, right, so grades matter, I am not going to say they don’t, but again, it depends on what you want to get out of your experience and where you want to end up. If you are seeking that judicial clerkship, especially for a Federal Judge, if you want to work in a top 100 or 500 firm, the reality is your grades matter and you need to be at the top of the class to be considered. And again, just blatantly speaking, you need to be at a top tier law school to be considered for a lot of those positions as well.
For those of us that went to a fourth tier law school that may not — and for me personally, I didn’t aspire to that. I was just looking again to get more engaged and to do advocacy work, grades were sort of ego-wise important, but ultimately I just made peace with the fact that I just — I wanted to experience, more so than — and recognize the limitations.
So I will share, and I am open about it and I am happy to share about it that ultimately I graduated my law school at the bottom of my class; I was in the bottom 10%. And even though I was really active on campus; I was President for two years of the Public Interest Law Foundation, I was super involved, I made connections in the community, and ultimately, I know we will get into how I landed my job, but statistically I was supposed to be this like failure disaster, statistically, if we are looking at pure numbers.
And I did graduate, squeezed by, bottom 10% of my class, but I worked my butt off for the Bar exam and I passed the California Bar Exam, which is one of the toughest in the country, and I passed it on the first time.
Kareem Aref: Oh, fantastic. So you went from statistically, supposed to be a disaster, to obviously coming to the top of the Young Lawyers Division, being very successful in your field. How did you do that, what happened after you graduated and passed the Bar?
Anna Romanskaya: So kind of going back to your original question of, when did I decide to actually go into the practice; I did a lot of volunteer work and advocacy when I was in law school. I worked at nonprofits and did domestic violence, victim advocacy work, and then I realized about halfway through my second year that I should probably get some law firm experience, just to know what it was all about and to kind of explore the arena of — the family law arena, because I realized if I was going to go into the traditional practice, the only area of interest to me was family law and working with families and sort of in the child custody and domestic violence arena.
So I through my connections, because of my involvement I was able to work as a law clerk at a family law firm in San Diego and was able to get experience. So I was there for about a year-and-a-half, through half of my second year and all of my third year. And then in my third year I am like, oh my God, I am having another one of those life moments of I am graduating, now what am I going to do. I figured, okay, well, I have gone through law school, I should take the Bar exam, I should get my license.
Kareem Aref: So you hadn’t decided you were going to be an attorney when you sat for the Bar exam. You studied all of that time and you didn’t know you wanted to be an attorney.
Anna Romanskaya: Yeah.
Kareem Aref: What is wrong with you?
Anna Romanskaya: I was just moving with the process. I was taking advantage of opportunities as they came to me, as people approached me and said, you know, Anna, are you interested in this, would you want to get involved in this, and I was just going with it, going with the movement of life, and without really having this like plan, by plan by plan directive, and even though I am kind of an organized person by personality.
So I took the Bar. I was at this law firm thinking, well, I guess I could end up here, I can do this and feeling proud to have a job, so I took time off from — this is 2007 now, to build context for those that are aware of the economy. 2007, I graduate law school. I have this job where I am a law clerk at a family law firm. It’s a prestigious family law firm, and I am happy there. They treat me well.
I take time off for the Bar. I take the July 2007 Bar. I take two weeks off to go do some traveling and take the load off. On my way back from my travels I get a phone call.
Kareem Aref: Where did you go?
Anna Romanskaya: I went to Europe; it was fabulous, I highly recommend it, for two weeks. I just traveled around on my credit card.
Kareem Aref: Oh, fantastic.
Anna Romanskaya: I come back thinking I have a job. In the airport, I am sitting there in my layover, in JFK, coming back to San Diego, I am listening to my voicemails, I get a call from our office administrator, she says, Anna, give me a call when you get back. So I am sitting in the airport thinking, why is she calling me?
So I call her, long story short, economic crisis just starting to hit. She is like, we have had to do some restructuring and we have to let all of our law clerks go; there were five of us, three of us who had just taken the Bar.
So here I am in the middle of JFK just coming back from Europe on my credit card, having Bar due, having loans that are about to start kicking in because I just graduated 16:15 without a job.
So after going into a little bit of a panic mode and having a little bit of a cry fest with myself, I literally and figuratively picked myself up, regroup, and that’s literally when I decided, okay, what am I doing with my life professionally, and realized if I ultimately want to be in an advocacy role, and I want to be in some type of management role and kind of move into that direction, I should probably lay a foundation and get some experience and practical experience.
And that’s when I decided, okay, I am going to seek a law firm job to get some practical experience. Please dear Lord, let me pass this Bar exam that I just took, and I started targeting family law because it’s — again, if I am going to practice law, do the traditional practice, family law is the only area I can see myself doing it in.
And I went to town, and the — what was it, four months, awaiting Bar results; California Bar results come in, in November, the weekend before Thanksgiving. We take it the last week of July, Bar results come out the weekend before Thanksgiving.
Kareem Aref: Something to look forward too for me for next year.
Anna Romanskaya: Yeah, yeah, so have fun with that. But in those four months I literally went to town. I at that point was involved in the ABA, in the Law Student Division; I got involved in my second year of law school, and so I had some contacts in the ABA nationally. I wanted to stay in California, I preferred to stay in San Diego, but I was realistic.
And I reached out in the County Bar, in the San Diego County Bar, I had gotten involved in the Young Lawyers Division, I had gotten involved in some specialty Bars through my engagement in our student organization PILF throughout law school, so all of my community engagements I took advantage.
And it was a full-time job. I had a lot of coffees. I reached out to — I literally took the list of all the family lawyers that were members of the San Diego County Bar Association and I emailed every single one of them. I mean, when I say I went to town, I went to town. I emailed them, and I wasn’t like, hi, I am looking for a job; it was, hi, this is me, I am interested in getting involved in the family law. I would love to pick your brain, get your perspective, would you be interested in coffee or lunch or a phone call.
And I would say maybe about 65% of them took me up on it. Some of them responded and said, thanks for reaching out. I don’t have time. Some of them said, please, I have court next Tuesday; you are welcome to come and trail me and sit in on a hearing. Some took me with them to some settlement conferences. Some welcomed me to the office. A lot of them talked my ear off. Many tried to persuade me against it. Many gave me advice on how to go out on my own. But yeah, so that’s what I spent my time on.
And interestingly enough, here I am doing all of this, making all these connections, getting prospective. Bar results come out, luckily I pass. And so we are in — I get sworn in. I passed the Bar on July 19; I got sworn in on December 7; these are dates you will never forget folks. And here I am ready, I am a lawyer. I am like, December 2007, the economy is crashing, and I don’t have a job.
Kareem Aref: And as I understand, a craigslist came to play something, some role in this. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Anna Romanskaya: Yeah. So I was going through every angle; I was reaching out, I was talking, I had a couple of lawyers give me some contract work. There was one attorney who kind of took me under his wing and let me do some work for him in the office pretty consistently.
But in the meantime I was looking — I wanted to get that law firm position to get some experience. I didn’t feel ready to go out on my own. Many lawyers do, many young lawyers do, they are forced to do it and I have the deepest respect for them for doing so.
So we are the week between Christmas and New Years. I basically — I gave myself a month. I basically gave myself the month of January; I figure December as a dead month.
Kareem Aref: All right!
Anna Romanskaya: I gave myself the month of January to try to find something in San Diego and then move out, move on to other counties around California and even across.
So it’s the week between Christmas and New Year. I’m looking at craigslist. I was looking on Monster and LinkedIn and Face — I mean literally every type of medium out there I was scouring. Craigslist I see a post, craigslist post, I see a post for law firm and granted there are some shadiness out there.
Kareem Aref: Absolutely!
Anna Romanskaya: But as law firm for Family Law Associate, they were looking for someone who is three to five years out in practice, and here I am two weeks old, and I applied because what do I have to lose, and I get a call from them.
Kareem Aref: Oh wow!
Anna Romanskaya: So they brought me in and I just send them my resume. So I had about a year and a half of law clerk experience in a family law firm, and plus I put all my community involvement. I go into interview with — there are two partners. I go in, I interview with partner number one, and out of my one-hour interview, probably 45 minutes of it was spent him talking out me about how much he likes to make money.
Kareem Aref: Oh fantastic!
Anna Romanskaya: It’s a small firm. At that time there were three lawyers, they were looking for a fourth to handle their family practice. It was a general litigation firm, they were looking for someone to literally walk in and take over the family law practice, because their associate who was handling family law had left during the holidays, and there were about 30 active cases. So they were looking for somebody who would just literally step in and take over.
So 45 minutes of him telling me how much he likes to make money, how money is important, how it’s all about collection, and you got to bring in business, you got to bring in clients, you got to manage this caseload. And so, finally, when it was my turn to talk, he’s like so Anna, tell me about yourself. I looked at him and I said I’m going to make you money.
Kareem Aref: Fantastic!
Anna Romanskaya: I am going to bring you business. Here are all my connections, here’s everything I’m involved with, here is — all these things I’m doing, and yeah, I have a year and a half of family law experience. I mean I have never done a trial, I have never done a depo, I have never lawyer work because I wasn’t a lawyer, but I underplayed that. But I said, yeah, I got this. I am going to make you money.
And they hired me. So, I was two weeks old, they were looking for someone three to five years out, and I started the first week of January.
Kareem Aref: Took over the whole division basically?
Anna Romanskaya: 30 cases that we are setting, Anna, here you go.
Kareem Aref: You don’t start slow, do you Anna?
Anna Romanskaya: Oh my God! I am not going to exaggerate, it was scary, it was intimidating, but it really was the best opportunity for me because ultimately I had control of my cases. I was able to practice the way I wanted to I had flexibility of small firm and yeah, and so now nine years later I’m still with the same firm, Stark & D’Ambrosio, in San Diego. There are six of us now and I am partner.
Kareem Aref: Fantastic!
Anna Romanskaya: So I made partner two years ago and the reason folks that I made partner was because of the fact that I brought in business, because of all my connections through being engaged in the Local Bar Association. I was on the Young Lawyers Board and ultimately President of our Young Lawyers Association in San Diego. Remained active in the ABA, in the YLD, and in other community organizations and was able to build up a Book of Business.
So those original 30 cases that were given to me, they were completed and gone and you had to constantly generate business, which I was able to do, and it came to a point where the firm couldn’t afford to keep me as an associate anymore, and they had to make me partner.
Kareem Aref: Okay.
Anna Romanskaya: So that is sort of the practical perspective on how to get it done.
Kareem Aref: How great! What a fantastic story. Anna, thank you so much for joining us today. Before we wrap up, I’ve just one last question for you.
Anna Romanskaya: Sure!
Kareem Aref: If our listeners would like to get in contact with you, how can they do so?
Anna Romanskaya: You are all welcome to contact me. I would love to talk to you. You can e-mail me; it’s probably the best way to get a hold of me. So my e-mail address is HYPERLINK “mailto:[email protected]”[email protected].
Kareem Aref: Fantastic! Thank you so much again.
Anna Romanskaya: My pleasure!
Kareem Aref: Thank you Anna for joining us on this podcast. We really enjoyed having you and we hope you our listeners enjoyed another episode of the Law Student Podcast. We would like to encourage you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcasts on iTunes and take a moment to rate and review us as well.
You can also reach us on Twitter @abalsd using the #lawstudentpodcast. We want to hear what’s on your mind.
With that, I am Kareem Aref, and thank you for listening to another edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast. Stay tuned, expect more and never give up. Until next time podcasters.
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