Did Claudia Ribet’s bicycle accident turn her into a better lawyer or just a better Californian?
Published in 2016 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine
on January 20, 2016
Updated on October 2, 2019
Family law lawyer Claudia Ribet of Ribet & Silver is barely 5 feet tall, but she makes up for it with the volume of her voice. Family legend has it that Ribet first diagnosed her father’s loss of hearing when he attended an oral argument and told her afterward that he didn’t think the justices could hear her. “I simply boom in the courtroom, so I knew something was wrong,” she says.
Ribet calls herself a tough New Yorker; so last fall it came as a surprise when she paused in the middle of a closing argument to address the judge in decidedly West Coast fashion. “I need a mindfulness minute here,” she told them. “I just need a breathing moment.”
She laughs, recounting the story. Normally, she says, “There is no way I’d ever say such a touchy-feely California thing—not for all the tea in China. But my accident profoundly changed how I practice law.”
In July 2009, Ribet, a road cyclist for seven years, was two weeks away from racing the Senior Olympic Games in Palo Alto. But while on a training ride, a friendly competitor sailed by her and said, “Sorry, Claudia,” so Ribet hit the gas.
“And then that’s all she wrote,” Ribet says.
“Next thing I know, I’m on the ground. My first thought was, ‘Oh shit, I won’t be able to go see Coldplay tonight.’ My next thought was, ‘Oh shit, I won’t be able to race in the games.’ My last thought was, ‘Oh shit, I don’t have any feeling from the nipples down—who’s going to give me the drugs to kill myself?’”
Airlifted to the hospital, Ribet was in intensive care for 10 days with a broken neck.
“I was a quadriplegic for a few weeks,” she says. “It was a terrifying time. I was devastated for my firm, I was devastated for my clients, and I was clearly devastated for myself that I had ‘done this’ to everyone,” she says.
Her doctors hoped she might regain use of her limbs, so she was enrolled in a rehabilitation unit. “I worked myself to the bone,” Ribet says. “Hours upon hours each day, to the point that once they put me back in bed I could not move.”
Seven weeks later, she walked back through the doors of her law firm.
She lives with chronic neuropathic pain, so a friend suggested meditation-based stress relief. “I said to myself, ‘This is so dumb.’ But it started a paradigm shift in my life. I am a full believer now in how breathing and meditation can really alter your central nervous system. I mean, it doesn’t always work. I got really hot under the collar just last week. But for the most part, it does.”
Ribet brings to her family practice a deep appellate background. She is particularly proud of a case in which a woman won a nearly $1.5 million lottery jackpot, to be paid in 20 installments from 1996 to 2015. The woman filed for divorce after the win and concealed the money from her ex-husband, whom Ribet represented during the appeal.
“The question was: Will it be a published decision,“ she says, “and would it make widely meaningful law? It took me a week just to write the first sentence of the brief. I said to the court of appeal when I argued, basically, you need to send a message to the state of California that lying and cheating in a divorce is not OK. And the subtext of that was: Publish, publish, publish!”
In the end, the ex-husband won 100 percent of the jackpot winnings. And yes, the decision was published.
Ribet doesn’t race anymore but she refused to give up the bike. She’s on the roads every weekend. “So that’s all there is to it,” she says.