The Fine Art of Practicing Law

How Ryan Abernethy found more creativity in the law than in animation

Published in 2019 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Hilary Abramson on April 7, 2019


Before he was old enough to start kindergarten, Ryan Abernethy looked at a map of the United States and saw a pig in the outline.

It would be 30 years before he would turn that vision into a framed work of art that now hangs in his living room, alongside two other U.S.-shaped painted sculptures. Other flights of imagination through the years include drawings of flying sheep, daughter Lexi’s face in an ice cream cone, and a global map that highlights animals of the world.

The roadmap that ultimately led Abernethy, 38, to a legal career took some twists before reaching the courthouse. Art started out guiding his life.

“I wanted to be an animator from as early as I remember,” he says.

Abernethy and his four siblings weren’t expected to become doctors or lawyers, says the employment and labor defense attorney. His father was an art director and once took his young son to meet William Hanna, creator of The Flintstones.

“What an exciting life doing cool stuff,” Abernethy recalls thinking. He went on to win top art awards (as well as become voted “class clown”) in his Mountain View High School senior class of about 1,000 in suburban Mesa, Arizona.

After graduation, he took life drawing at Mesa Community College and headed to Fox Animation Studio in Phoenix, where former chief Disney animator Don Bluth and Gary Goldman made the ground-breaking Anastasia.

“As a production assistant, I was essentially a gopher, and I wanted to be an animator,” Abernethy says. “Being around these 3D guys, I realized that I was a 2D guy. To me, the difference was like comparing art to computer programming. I have always liked the tactile that you get with drawing.”

He had witnessed his father’s occasional frustration over having to compromise with a client who knew less about art. He concluded that, unless he was good enough to become a fine artist, he would essentially be creating “a product” and would have to cater to clients.

“There was great energy there, but a lot less creativity than I imagined. The head animator draws a character that someone else created. … It seemed a bit rote, and I could see how many years I’d spend apprenticing and not drawing something original.”

Seven months into the job, Abernethy left on a two-year mission for his Mormon church in Europe. He expected to return to animation, but fell in love with the European culture and, for a time, considered working in international relations.

That’s why he earned a political science degree from Arizona State University (summa cum laude) while working as a loan processor and a file clerk. He had a short first marriage during which he had a son, and a second marriage to his wife, Liss, with a combined five children ranging in age from 1 to 14. Along the way, he moved to his wife’s home state of California and went to UC Hastings College of the Law, having come to believe that “clients trust attorneys more than clients trust artists.”

One summer, he worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in San Francisco and found he enjoyed labor and employment law. After working at one large and one small firm, he moved in 2017 to medium-size Weintraub Tobin Chediak Coleman Grodin. He says it’s a good fit that offers support while allowing flexibility.

“Being a trial attorney is a bit of a performance that requires psychology,” he says. “My skill set revolves around conceptualizing. What stops people from doing things is thinking it’s been done before. I think all law exists to be pushed. The law suits my temperament, just as drawing in two dimensions fits it.”

Which brings us—and Abernethy—back to art.

“I started drawing again four years ago,” he says. “I needed a hobby, so I’ve taken my iPad and started drawing. When my days are so dominated by logic, it only makes sense. Even if I don’t do more than draw for my kids, it’s fun.” 

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