‘A Life of Fulfillment’

Michelle Roberts sees her hardworking dad in clients struggling for benefits they’ve been denied

Published in 2018 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By G.K. Sharman on July 10, 2018


Michelle Roberts’ father was a Navy man whose decades of service left him with a traumatic brain injury after being struck by a water pipe in the Philippines; two broken wrists after a fall from a pier ladder in San Diego; and degenerative spinal disc disease after serving in the Gulf War.

As a child, Roberts watched her dad, Terry Roberts, a marine-propulsion engineer and master training specialist, persevere to support his family. Later, she watched him struggle to get the Veterans Administration to recognize the extent of his injuries and provide the benefits he was owed.

“When I was younger, I could see my dad in pain, but he always managed to pull through. He worked while he was disabled for many years,” she says. “He never gave up. He couldn’t. We would have been homeless if he did.”

In typical military fashion, the family bounced around a lot, eventually landing in Riverside. Her Filipino mom, Asuncion Roberts, who could barely speak English when she arrived in the States, raised the kids, managed the family finances and occasionally worked as a cook or cashier.

Her dad’s struggles inspired Roberts’ work ethic and mission in life. 

“I knew I wanted to help employees,” says Roberts, an employee-benefits attorney who recently joined Kantor & Kantor’s Alameda office as a partner. “My first job out of law school was for a firm that handled ERISA claims. I gravitated to the disability claims because I could relate to my clients’ experiences. I like to think of it as a calling.”

ERISA governs most private-sector benefit plans. Roberts’ clients typically come to her after having their claims denied by the insurance companies that fund their employers’ disability plans. 

If a claim is denied, the worker must appeal to the next decision-maker up the line, usually someone with the insurance company—who may, Roberts says, have a vested interest in denying the claim.

The process is complicated and stressful, both for client and attorney. Cases can take more than two years to resolve—a long timeline that discourages many lawyers in private practice from taking on such work.

Roberts used to deal with the stress through yoga—until she injured her back in 2015. Now she does SoulCycle—which she describes as “spin class with really loud music, where everyone is all riding together.” She enjoys the meditation and motivation, along with the heart-pumping workout and sense of community.

She also unwinds by spending time with her kids, Annabelle, 14, and Max, 8. Annabelle was born while Roberts was still in law school. She took little time off—even working pro bono on a class action gender-discrimination suit over the summer—and graduated with her class in 2005.

“My daughter turned 1 on the day I graduated from law school,” she says. “I can peg my career by that.”

Now a single parent, Roberts has found ways to balance being a lawyer and a mom. These include having a “neighbor-wife,” as she puts it—another mom on the block who can pick up the kids when Roberts is stuck in traffic—and a good co-parenting plan with her ex-husband.

Her kids, she says, “see mom working on the computer a lot, but I hope, when they’re older, they realize I was working hard for them. I want my kids to be hard workers and to be grateful for the things they have.

“For other single parents, all I have to say is: You’re doing a great job; keep it up. We’re not going to be perfect, but at the end of the day, if we can say we gave it our best, we loved our hardest and never gave up, we can look back without regret.”

As for her dad, Roberts laid down the law. Even after she graduated from Berkeley, she says, he was still trying to work despite his pain:

“I told him straight out that he had to stop.” It took a while, but he listened.

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