Lawyer-photographer Leslie Billman went from snapping still lifes to capturing the world’s most dynamic athletes
Published in 2019 Maryland Super Lawyers magazine on December 11, 2018
Leslie Billman was a bit of a hustler in high school. The family lawyer, who moonlights as a sports photographer, was inspired by her grandfather.
“He was a real old-fashioned photographer,” Billman says. “He taught me how to use a darkroom.”
And that’s when the hustling began.
“I made so much money during high school. I set up a camera in front of the TV on a tripod, and I took pictures of the Beatles when they were on Ed Sullivan,” she says. “Then I would take the film out to the darkroom, and I would enlarge the TV out of the picture so that it was just the headshots of the Beatles.” She laughs. “They sold at extortionist prices.”
The Trainor, Billman, Bennett & Milko family lawyer is still shooting.
“I did what everybody does when they first start in photography—flowers,” she says. “My poor mother had more framed flower pictures in her little-old- lady condominium than anybody on the planet.”
A photographer for her high school newspaper, she shot for pleasure in college. Then came law school.
“When you go to law school, you don’t do anything except go to law school,” she says. “And so I hadn’t done any photography in a long time. But then this digital thing happened—I’m a real tech geek. That was pivotal.”
Another love of Billman’s was tennis. “And then, serendipitously, my niece married Pete Sampras’ brother, Gus,” she says.
In 2005, Gus Sampras’ tournament management group directed the Bank of the West Classic. One problem: Their tournament photographer couldn’t make it. Enter Billman.
“This was the first ‘real’ thing I did,” says Billman. “When I arrived, Gus took me to the media center: ‘This is this, this is this.’ He’s talking to me and Venus Williams walks in and just casually sits not far from where we’re talking. I froze. I was stunned. Serena was there, too—they both still had braces and beads in their hair.”
That tournament helped launch her career. Since then, she’s shot Tiger Woods, the Baltimore Orioles and nearly every U.S. pro tennis tournament. Her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and ESPN The Magazine, and in 2007, she was the personal photographer for Pete Sampras’ induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She’s one of five photographers who make up TennisClix, a boutique wire service.
“Let’s be real—this is not a money-making enterprise,” Billman says. “We all have real jobs because it’s the only way we’d be able to afford going to these events. We do it because we have a good time.”
Thanks to her side gig, Billman has an oft-used out-of-office response—but only on paper.
“Everybody thinks it would be a great vacation, but I end up being both [lawyer and photographer],” Billman says. “Most of the tournaments don’t start until 11:00 a.m., so if I need to make law practice-related phone calls, I do it before 11:00. When I’ve got documents to review, I do it late at night.”
Of the photos she’s shot, her clear favorites are of Serena Williams.
“Particularly two of her when she won the U.S. Open, in two different years, and she is effectively wearing the same color and has her knees up to her chin in both pictures,” Billman says. “I just happened to be in the right place in the right time.”