Ilona Antonyan keeps defying expectations
Published in 2020 San Diego Super Lawyers magazine on March 30, 2020
Don’t tell Ilona Antonyan she can’t do something; she’ll try as hard as possible to prove you wrong.
“You know that gene in us that kind of holds us back? That fear element?” asks Anna M. Romanskaya of Stark & D’Ambrosio, who has worked with Antonyan as co-counsel. “I think she missed that in her development. I think it’s the key to her success that she just doesn’t have that filter of ‘What if this doesn’t go my way?’ She’s like ‘This is my vision and I’m going to figure out a way to achieve it. I’m just gonna keep moving forward, and you’re welcome to stay on the train but the train’s going to keep moving.’”
She’s been moving all her life. Born in Baku, Azerbaijan, Antonyan was 8 years old when her family was forced to flee ethnic violence during the Armenian-Azerbaijani war.
“[People in our building] started getting threatening letters by the elevator saying ‘Armenians, get out of our city or we’re going to kill you,’” Antonyan remembers. “My mom would rip them off and hide them.”
After a man went into Antonyan’s school and killed Armenian children with a hatchet, her mother packed the family off to Uzbekistan, where they had relatives. They hoped to return but received word that their home had been broken into and all their things stolen. Her grandparents were beaten. Neighbors were murdered: “rolled in their carpets and thrown out of the buildings from balconies,” Antonyan says.
Six months later, the family relocated to Armenia. They didn’t feel welcome. “The country was flooded with refugees from Azerbaijan and it had to deal with a major earthquake that destroyed a lot of the city,” she says. “People were stressed. … They didn’t like refugees flooding their towns and not speaking their language.”
Finally, in 1992, through a U.S. program for political refugees, they settled in Cleveland, where her mother’s aunt lived. Antonyan was 12 but was placed in fifth grade. “They put me two years behind because I didn’t speak English,” she says. “That motivated me to learn English fast.” After a year, she talked her teacher into letting her jump from sixth to eighth grade. It was her first successful advocacy.
Several years later, she was underestimated again. Although accepted at Case Western Reserve University, a letter recommended she consider other options. They’d projected she’d most likely be a C student. Instead, in 2 ½ years, she graduated cum laude with a double major and a double minor.
While attending California Western School of Law, she found a $15-an-hour legal clerk job at a criminal defense firm. But when she passed the Bar and talked to her boss about a raise, he ducked the conversation. So she hung her own shingle. She was 25.
“I borrowed $15,000 from my mother,” she says. “I also charged about $30,000 on my credit cards. I bought every book possible to be ready for anything in life that might come through my door.” She placed ads in Spanish and Russian newspapers. “I marketed for everything because I didn’t know any one area of law better than another, so [any area] was equally challenging and equally interesting to me.”
The doors opened on June 28, 2005. “From day one, I had clients calling from immigration. I had criminal clients.” Her first trial was just three months later. It was a commercial unlawful detainer case in which Antonyan represented a restaurateur. “Opposing counsel, seeing that my Bar number is really high, that I was just sworn in, he was estimating the trial date and he said ‘one hour.’ I had no idea how to estimate a trial date, but I said ‘two days’ because I had seven witnesses.” It was a five-day trial. She won.
In 2011, she became the youngest certified family law specialist in the state. She also has a real estate license as well as Series 7 and Series 66 licenses in securities. “I studied after work,” she says. “I drank a lot of Red Bull because I had a busy trial schedule during that time.”
In 2015, she and Timothy Miranda merged firms. Antonyan Miranda now has 24 attorneys. “My business partner and I make it a priority to give every young lawyer who wants to become a specialist an opportunity to do so,” says Antonyan.
She says the secret to success is having a strong work ethic and being prepared. This includes motherhood. “To avoid the pressures of the bio clock, I froze my genetic material through the IVF process to have children when I want,” she says. When we spoke with her in November, she was eight months pregnant and anticipating maternity leave.
“I’m going to take six weeks off,” she says. “It’s going to be the first time since age 14 that I’m going to have that much time off. I’m looking forward to it.”