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The Tactician

Family lawyer Michèle Bissada quietly handles the biggest cases

Photo by Carolyn Fong

Published in 2023 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Amy White on June 26, 2023


One day last year, after nearly three decades as a high-stakes family attorney in the Bay Area, Michèle Bissada fielded a quizzical call from her father who had just heard from his cousin, an entrepreneur in Paris.

“Why have you never told me how famous of a lawyer Michèle is?” her father’s cousin had said.

Her father, confused, replied: “I don’t know what you’re
talking about.”

“What do you mean you don’t know what I’m talking about?” his cousin said. “Have you never Googled her before?’

“No,” her father admitted. “How do I do that?”

So he called Michèle. “Michèle!” he said. “Why did you never tell me how famous of a lawyer you are?”

Recounting the conversation makes Bissada, a partner at Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada in Menlo Park, laugh deep and long.

“It’s not as if my father doesn’t check in often: ‘How’s business? How’s the firm? How many partners are there now?’ That kind of thing,” she says. “He’s very proud of me. But he had no real idea of the career I’ve made for myself.”

That career includes serving as president of the San Mateo County Bar Association, as well as the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers – Northern California Chapter; and being awarded the Dorothy M. Wolfe Award in recognition of her devotion to pro bono.

Unmentioned are all of those case results you won’t find on Google—which is how Bissada likes it.

“A lot of my practice deals with complex financial and custody matters. For example, high-asset cases in which, let’s say, each party receives $50 to $100 million of asset value over time,” she says. “I also have a few confidential clients that are in the billions that we can’t talk about because then you’d know exactly who they are. The funny thing is, nobody knows I handle those cases.

That’s a good thing; it means every referral that comes my way is authentic.”

Bissada had a very precise plan for her life, but family law was never part of it.

“I was really interested in the world of foreign policy, international law and politics,” she says. “I had this tunnel vision to get to D.C.”

Her appetite was whetted by a 1989 undergrad internship with Congressman Robert Takeo Matsui in Sacramento. Upon graduation from UC Davis—where she picked up B.A.s in French and international relations—she took a full-time job with the congressman. “I soon realized I had a missing ingredient on this path to D.C.,” Bissada says. “A law degree.”

She packed up and moved down to San Diego to attend California Western School of Law, graduating in 1994. As a first-generation American, navigating the system wasn’t the easiest. “I had a very sheltered life as a child because my parents are not from this country,” she says. “Going to law school, I had to walk in the door and be like, ‘OK, I’m gonna be confident, and believe I belong here.’ While so many of my peers had this network to fall back on, like, ‘My so-and-so was a lawyer,’ I was taking full loans with no way to know how I was going to pay them back. Nobody in my family could help me cover schooling, get a job, or navigate law school. It was very eye-opening.”

So, too, was seeing her plan go up in smoke.

“They don’t really tell you that, unless you go to one of the big schools—and land at one of the big firms—you won’t find yourself at a firm that has a robust international practice, which is what I thought I needed to get to D.C.,” says Bissada, who slowly replaced her original strategy with a new one: law over politics.

Except the mid-’90s job market wasn’t great; and, also, there was the expectation from her mother that Bissada would move back nine hours up the coast to live with her parents. “Culturally, she didn’t want me to go to school in the first place, and was patiently waiting for me to come home,” Bissada says of her Egyptian-born mother.

Bissada’s parents were the main reason she felt such a pull to work in foreign policy; she saw the storm they had weathered, largely alone, to come to this country.

Born and raised in Cairo, her parents were Copts, members of a Christian ethnoreligious group that evolved in modern Egypt and Sudan. “[Former Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel Nasser was not nice to Christians,” Bissada says. “In 1961, my parents fled to Beirut and got on a list for the U.S.”

Two years later, in December 1963, Catholic Relief Services flew them to New York City. “They just drop them off in the dead of winter,” says Bissada. “‘Dumped’ feels like the correct word. My mother is nine months pregnant with my sister. My dad had the equivalent of $50 and spoke almost no English. They ended up with a tiny room in Brooklyn that, to this day, I still don’t know how they paid for.”

A friend of Bissada’s grandmother in Beirut knew an immigrant who had landed in Santa Rosa, California. A woman Bissada’s parents had met in Brooklyn took one look at the struggling parents and their newborn, and bought the couple one-way tickets to California. The kindness still chokes Bissada up.

A few years later, Bissada was born in Santa Rosa. Her brother came not long after.

“My parents were lucky. This community was accepting of these people from the Middle East,” she says. “Of course, it helped that my parents are Christian. Growing up, I never once suffered being called an Arab or a Muslim. I inherited my grandmother’s really light skin. Ironically, that’s what I get made fun of for by my siblings—my lightness and inability to tan.”

In 1995, Bissada moved back to the Bay Area, doing contract work before taking on a job at a small firm. There, she found a case load she liked. “I did contract disputes to business litigation to tax work—which lent itself to good foundational work when I found family law, which is so many things put together,” she says.

At the firm, her seemingly burnt-out boss wanted nothing to do with family law, so he started passing those cases along, too. “I found early on I was good at it,” Bissada says. “Family law requires so many different components, and I am a person who is very good at building systems and organizing. You have to be able to take in all of these things while staying focused on the big picture. The minute you get lost in the weeds on something, your client could lose significant assets or significant time with their children.”

She recalls an early case in which a couple was arguing over a set of Le Creuset blue pots and pans. “Of course they were arguing over so much more than just the blue pots—emotions manifest in so many different ways in these cases,” she says. “But it’s your job to say, ‘You’re spending attorneys’ fees by the hour. You could have bought yourself another set.’ Clients let their emotions run away with them, but you can’t run, too.”

That even-keeled space is where Bissada excels, says colleague and friend Victoria Lewis of San Mateo’s Madigan & Lewis. 

“Our work is highly emotionally fraught. You have to be able to separate your own emotions and susceptibly to vicarious trauma and get the job done,” Lewis says. “Michèle is able to compartmentalize at levels that astonish me. That’s what families really need in a crisis: someone who can step back and get them from point A to point B with as little additional damage as possible.”

“There is an acuity to Michèle,” adds Andrea Palash of Coats Palash in San Francisco. “She is an incredibly precise and detailed thinker, very analytical and refreshingly direct. Not blunt, but an extremely clear communicator. She somehow mixes all of this with this unbelievable warmth.”

Both Lewis and Palash work with Bissada on matters pertaining to the AAML. “If there is one thing that’s hard, it’s getting a bunch of lawyers to do something willingly,” Palash says. “As president of our chapter, her leadership is mind-blowing. This woman can juggle plates, skateboard, and make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at the same time. I’m like, ‘Me Hulk. Smash.’ Michèle is a meticulous negotiator who threads the needle between hearing people out, taking their ideas into consideration, and setting unwavering standards with an eye to what needs to be done.”

Bissada has come a long way since that set of pots and pans. At an AML trial practicum in 2003, she so impressed a fellow participant that the participant went to their then-boss, Michael Flicker, and said, “You have to come see this woman. We need her.”

The firm, now Flicker, Kerin, Kruger & Bissada, recruited her, but with one catch: Bissada would exclusively practice family law. She accepted, and was made partner within a year.

Bissada’s ability to advocate for herself is something Lewis finds inspiring. “Everything Michèle did, she did by herself,” Lewis says. “She is self-made. She’s the kind of American story you’d read about in a Horatio Alger book.”

At Flicker, Bissada moved into the world of complex, high-asset divorce and custody. She’ll never forget the first case after she came on board, about a week into her new appointment.

“Michael Flicker was working on this complex case and needed an associate,” she says. “The very next day was the settlement conference. It was complicated, and it was bigger than anything I’d have ever imagined working on. But I took a seat at the table, and I surprised myself a little by sliding right in.”

In the years since, Bissada has handled some of the most complex, high-value cases in Northern California—not that she can talk about them. Because she so often stays out of the headlines, the referrals remain meaningful, even at the point in her career where it’s her name on the door.

“I once did a divorce for a venture capitalist and his wife,” Bissada says. “I represented the wife. We settled the case in front of a private judge, and the husband thought I did such a good job of being fair and advocating for his ex that he ended up referring me to a friend he knew was divorcing. That happens to me often.”

Palash also often refers Bissada. “I am extremely picky when it comes to how I evaluate other lawyers’ approach to custody litigation,” she says. “In this work, you must be a tactician, know the substantive law, and know your way around the courtroom. Michèle does all these things. But the thing that sets her head-and-shoulders above many of our colleagues is she does custody right. She has her eye on the child. She has no fear—no compunction—about saying to her client: ‘No way. That will not serve your children.’”

If there’s anything Lewis worries about when it comes to her friend, it’s Bissada’s reputation as the doer-of-all-things in California law circles. “When you become known as the person who gets things done, you are the person everyone comes to,” she says. “I think it’s hard for her to relax. This is a woman who, even on her yearly birthday getaway, brings us presents and books our massages, hotels and reservations. The level of hard work she puts into the law, she puts into all areas of her life.”

Bissada laughs at the idea; she can totally relax. She and her husband go to dinner every Saturday. She and her 18-year-old son like to do puzzles together. She travels. She once jumped out of an airplane. And, according to Palash, Bissada does cut loose at AAML events that call for dancing.

Yet perhaps her son said it best. As he’s considering his path in the world, Bissada recently asked if he wanted to be a lawyer.

“No way, Mom,” he replied. “I see how hard you work, the hours you keep. Why would I want to do that? It’d be easier to find a woman like you that’s gonna work really hard, earn a lot of money, and support me.”

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